My cousin had a set of nesting dolls that fascinated me when I was a kid. I loved lining up the dolls, which were identical except for their sizes, and I loved fitting them neatly inside each other.
It’s no surprise then that I love short stories that utilize a similar nesting in the storytelling. One of the immediate benefits of nesting a story is that it creates mystery for the reader and invites him deeper into the story. The article “Nested Stories” from the website Changingminds.org, says that “[w]hen a story stops and a new story is taken up, a tension is set up as the listener wonders how the first story will be completed. There is also a tension in their need to remember what happened while the second story distracts them. These tensions, of wondering and rehearsal, add cognitive load that draws the person in, forcing them to ignore other distracting thoughts and events around them and focusing more on the story.” In other words, nesting forces the reader to pay extra careful attention to the stories, to see how they fit together and why they are included at all. A writer always has a story to tell his reader. But by framing his story this way, the writer is actually telling the reader, I have a story for you. So listen up.
One of the first Raymond Carver stories I read was “Fat” which is a great example of nesting. The story starts with the narrator, who is a waitress, telling her friend Rita about an enormously fat man who was seated in her section one night. The two women have coffee and cigarettes, which is the “A” story. The “B” story is the narrator describing her interactions with the fat customer. The narrator periodically checks in with Rita as she tells the story, bringing the reader back to the “A” story with lines like, “Rita, he was big, I mean big” and “God, Rita, but those were fingers.” On the surface nothing much happens between the waitress and the fat customer: he’s courteous and slightly apologetic to her about the amount of food he’s ordering, and the narrator feels protective of him when the other waiters make disparaging comments about his weight.
What else? Rita says, lighting one of my cigarets and pulling her chair closer to the table. This story’s getting interesting now, Rita says.
That’s it. Nothing else. He eats his desserts, and then he leaves and we go home, Rudy and me.
Once at home, the narrator’s boyfriend forces himself on her and she tells Rita this:
When he [Rudy] gets on me, I suddenly feel I am fat. I feel I am terrifically fat, so fat that Rudy is a tiny thing and hardly there at all.
That’s a funny story, Rita says, but I can see she doesn’t know what to make of it.
So what was the point of the “B” story? Why did Carver choose to frame “Fat” with a seemingly random story about a thin woman serving a very fat man? Something about this experience marked the narrator and forced her to examine her life with Rudy because this is how the story ends:
It is August.
My life is going to change. I feel it.
Why would a brief interaction with a customer cause the narrator, who is in an abusive and unhappy relationship, to suddenly decide her life is going to change? Was it because this fat man, while physically unappealing, was incredibly nice and respectful to her, in contrast to her boyfriend who the reader is able to gather is good-looking and yet emotionally abusive? Was it because the narrator felt a protectiveness for this man and his flaws, and it made her notice the flaws in those around her, specifically Rudy?
Of course since this is a Carver story, there is plenty of room left for the reader to make his own interpretations. One thing that makes this story feel complete in spite of the ambiguity is that both stories reach completion—the narrator finishes telling her story to Rita (the “A” story) and we see the completion of the “B” story with the lines “That’s it. Nothing else. He eats his desserts, and then he leaves and we go home, Rudy and me.”
Would this story have been as powerful without the framing? Think of what might have been lost if the story had taken place in present time, with the narrator waiting on the fat customer in real time. The last two lines “My life is going to change. I feel it” would not have had the same punch without the nesting. Rita may not “get” the story her friend is telling her. But the reader does.
For more information on nesting, check out http://changingminds.org/disciplines/storytelling/devices/nested_stories.htm