Our example is representative
“Two Men Arrive in a Village”
David Foster Wallace
Recently, a friend asked me if any short story could genuinely represent “the moment” in which we find ourselves, where our cultural understanding of sexual harassment and abuse is being broken open and reconfigured. I’m not sure any story can shoulder this burden, but the challenge of representing universal, shared experiences put me in mind of Zadie Smith’s remarkable (and indeed, prescient and relevant) story, “Two Men Arrive in a Village,” from 2016. It opens:
Sometimes on horseback, sometimes by foot, in a car or astride motorbikes, occasionally in a tank—having strayed far from the main phalanx—and every now and then from above, in helicopters. But if we look at the largest possible picture, the longest view, we must admit that it is by foot that they have mostly come, and so in this sense, at least, our example is representative; in fact, it has the perfection of parable.
This paragraph establishes the story’s structure; namely, the use of several alternative examples that converge on a shared thread. Two men arrive in a village—they can arrive by various means, but in the end, the nature of their arrival is less important than the simple fact of it. They arrive.
This effort to approximate a certain type of experience persists throughout the piece:
Sunset has, historically, been a good time for the two men, wherever they have arrived, for at sunset we are all still together: the women are only just back from the desert, or the farms, or the city offices, or the icy mountains, the children are playing in dust near the chickens or in the communal garden outside the towering apartment block, the boys are lying in the shade of cashew trees, seeking relief from the terrible heat—if they are not in a far colder country, tagging the underside of a railway bridge—and, most important, perhaps, the teen-age girls are out in front of their huts or houses, wearing their jeans or their saris or their veils or their Lycra miniskirts, cleaning or preparing food or grinding meat or texting on their phones. Depending.
As Smith sets out in her opening paragraph, she does ultimately zoom in on a specific event. In the essentials, she says, “our example is representative.” She goes on to describe a village (“our village,” as the story refers to it), and an evening on which two men arrive, and what happens when they do.
But she continues to weave alternatives into nearly every image, refusing to pin the story down to any specific geographical, cultural, or temporal coordinates. In an interview with The New Yorker, where the story was published, Smith explains the origins of this choice:
I started thinking of all the ways the local and specific enable one kind of engagement and potentially block another, particularly when you’re talking about violence. “Oh, that’s just what happens in Africa,” or “Well, Eastern Europe has always been like that.” Sometimes the specific details allow us to hold certain situations at a distance. The conversation with my friend made me wonder: Is it possible to write a story that happens in many places at many times simultaneously? That implicates everybody?
“A story that happens in many places at many times” seems like a useful frame for our current national dialogue, and the manner in which Smith captures the general without abandoning the specific may be instructive for how that dialogue continues. It’s worth noting that the story ends not on a universal note, but a concrete image: “But our chief’s wife stood up suddenly, left the room, and walked out into the yard.” We are reminded that the terror, which happens everywhere and all the time, always also happens in a specific “where,” and at a specific time, to very real people.
In rereading Smith’s story, I was struck by how closely her structure mirrors that of one of my favorite stories by David Foster Wallace, “Another Pioneer.” Notice how Smith’s introductory paragraph shares much of its language with Wallace’s (rather more verbose) opening:
Nevertheless gentlemen I fear the lone instance I can recall having heard aloud derived from an acquaintance of a close friend who said that he himself overheard this exemplum aboard a high-altitude commercial flight while on some type of business trip, the fellow evidently holding a commercial position that called for frequent air travel. Certain key contextual details remained obscure. Nor, one hastens to admit, did the variant or exemplum contain any formal Annunciation as such, nor any comme on dit Period of Trial or Supernatural Aid, Trickster Figures, archetypal Resurrection, nor any of certain other recognized elements of the cycle; nevertheless gentlemen I leave it to you to judge for yourselves as of course you each in turn have left it to us as well.
Wallace and Smith are concerned with different subject matter—Wallace examines the evolution of societies and the development of religion, myth, and morality, while Smith explores sexual power and violence. But Smith’s narrator’s assertion that “our example is representative; in fact, it has the perfection of parable” and Wallace’s narrator’s deployment of an “exemplum” and recognition of “the cycle” echo each other.
I’ve seen this structure elsewhere (Julie Otsuka’s excellent The Buddha in the Attic leaps to mind), and at its best, the mingling of, as Smith puts it, “local and specific” creates an effect both disorienting and grounding. Observe the range of influences Wallace uses when he describes a tribal leader traveling from one village to another, accompanied by “a phalanx of attendants and palanquin carriers and syces and white-painted security personnel and specialized antijaguar squads…” With these geographically and temporally mixed images—Greece and India, East and West, historical and contemporary—Wallace reminds us that leaders have always been accompanied by subordinates tasked with their protection.
There’s an element of flippancy in Wallace’s story that wouldn’t work in Smith’s—I laugh every time I read the sentence “a quorum of the exarchs officially decides that the child needs to be assassinated A.S.A.P.” But his ambitions are equally serious. Both writers are acutely aware that stories featuring people who live in "villages"—i.e. poor, rural, often non-Western characters—risk being othered, ignored, and dismissed. Early in “Another Pioneer,” Wallace observes that one of his narrators “seemed to articulate his sentences very slowly and with unusual clarity and distinctness,” which is “the way people who are not particularly bright or sensitive speak to foreigners.” There’s an awareness that emphasizing the universal qualities of his “exemplum” is necessary to prevent the story from being situated as “foreign” and therefore irrelevant.
There’s something sad about this. One might wish that Smith and Wallace had felt empowered to simply tell concrete stories and leave the work of interpretation and relation to their readers. Certainly, many writers (Smith and Wallace among them) have done this with great success. But their use of a decentering structure in their respective stories does, I think, grant their work a unique resonance. In her New Yorker interview, Smith mentions a friend who told her: “Well, your fiction is so obsessively local, but there’s another, more universal way of writing that has a different kind of power.” In response, she wrote “Two Men Arrive in a Village.” I think it is her best short story.
At a time when people, particularly women, are coming forward with stories of their personal experiences, it can be difficult to view them both on their own and as parts of a larger narrative. One way of dismissing these kinds of stories is to focus on their specifics: ”what was she wearing,” et cetera, or “that’s just Hollywood,” and so on. As Smith points out, "Sometimes the specific details allow us to hold certain situations at a distance."
Perhaps the sheer number of stories that have emerged has made them more difficult to brush aside in this manner. Like the device used by Smith and Wallace, the accumulation of details eventually approximates what we might consider a “universal” story. We shouldn’t have needed this. But as Smith notes, sometimes we need stories “that implicate everybody,” not just one set of perpetrators. Her work accomplishes this. The composite story that has emerged from our “moment” may do the same.