Three Storytellers, Two Listeners, One Story

In his essay ‘The Counterfactual Dialectic’ in Pulp on Pulp, Misha Burnett discusses the use of dialectic to determine what is said to the reader, how it is said, and what the reader will take away from it. I loved the concept so much, I used it for my own work Diary of A Bomoh—with a twist.

Central to the dialectic is the Room, the Storyteller and the Listener. The Room is the place where the story is told; it is not the story itself. The Storyteller is the person who tells the story; he is not the author. The Listener is the person who is listening to the Storyteller; he is not the reader. The relationship between the Storyteller and the Listener determines how the story is told—in other words, the writing style.

The Storyteller is telling the story for a purpose: to persuade the Listener, to pass on a story, to work out an ‘official’ version of the tale. The Listener has its own motivations: to do something contrary to the Storyteller’s wishes, to learn something from him, to please a superior. The relationship between them, and their motivations, affects how the story will be told.

The story is told from the perspective that everything described in the story is true. The author and the reader know that the story is fiction, but where these characters are concerned, the story really did happen (more or less) the way the Storyteller tells it.

The author and the reader are in the privileged position of being able to listen in to the conversation between the Storyteller and the Listener. The author faithfully transcribes the story as recounted by the Storyteller to the Listener, for the benefit of the Listener. Other than that, they aren’t part of the story. They might not even be in the same Room as the Storyteller and the Listener.

Misha notes that the Storyteller/Listener dialectic was used frequently in late 19th century and early 20th century fiction, especially adventure fiction. It’s little-used today—which isn’t to say it’s a forgotten device.

Sailor Steve Costigan is the protagonist of R. E. Howard’s line of boxing stories. While the dynamic isn’t overtly described, as you read the stories, you can imagine Costigan having a beer with his buddies while on shore leave, regaling them with stories of his latest boxing exploits. While the stories focus on the fights, the mood is light and breezy, and Costigan boasts often of his boxing skills and his ability to soak up punishment. It’s the kind of tone you’d expect from a sailor shooting the breeze in a rundown tavern.

In contrast, the dialectic is one of H. P. Lovecraft’s favourite literary devices. In The Mountains of Madness, the Storyteller is the survivor of an ill-fated expedition to Antarctica, trying to dissuade a committee from organising a second expedition. You never hear the Listeners’ side of the story, but as the Storyteller becomes increasingly desperate and verbose, you can see the Listeners treating him with increasing skepticism and disbelief. You might even hear them say, “Monsters? Alien cities? Nonsense! The poor man has gone completely mad!” This Storyteller picks up on this and becomes even more desperate and verbose, spiraling down a vicious cycle that all-too-plausibly ends with him being escorted out of the Room.

A contemporary example of the Storyteller/Listener dynamic is in Christopher Ruocchio’s The Sun Eater. The mainline series is framed as the memoirs of Hadrian Marlowe, written long after the events of the series. Being the son of an aristocrat of the far future, writing for someone who is presumably a scholar of the even farther future, his use of flowery language feels completely natural, even elegant. With that in mind, one of the key conceits of the series is that there isn’t an official canon. In Book One, Empire of Silence, Marlowe says that the official version of his story ends with his execution. Yet in later books, he hints at himself being very much alive. Further, short stories set in the Sun Eater verse contain events that contradict Marlowe’s recount. For instance, in Empire of Silence, Marlowe recounts a character as dying of a disease. However, in The Pits of Emesh, that character is described as very much alive.

We should consider that in The Pits of Emesh, the unnamed narrator claims that he seeks the Truth—yet wrote a story that presents Marlowe as a blackguard. That colours the story, requiring the reader to think about what the duelling narrators want and whose story they should trust, adding a layer of complexity to the story universe.

With every story and every series, I strive to push the limits of my ability. Diary of A Bomoh is no exception. I took Misha’s counterfactual dialectic as the basis for framing the story. Then I went one step further and introduced three Storytellers and two Listeners… and have two Storytellers comment on the third.

The Meta Storytellers

The story is framed as an investigation into the mysterious death of an unidentified individual. With no other clues to work with. Inspector Ibrahim decides to translate the diaries the subject left behind. Later, his colleague Station Inspector Jafri is roped into the fray. These are the first two Storytellers.

Who are these men? Ibrahim is a dedicated cop who will pursue his cases all the way to the end, no matter how strange they may turn out to be. He has a huge amount of field experience—he’s obviously not a desk jockey or an ivory tower intellectual—but he has excellent English language skills, sufficient for the task at hand. Though reasonably intelligent, he favours action over navel gazing, as seen in his many comments on his own investigation. As for Jafri, his English isn’t quite as sophisticated as Ibrahim’s, but having studied at a madrasah, he is fluent in Arabic. He is also a faith healer, and comes from a family of religious scholars, making him the right person to handle the weirder side of the story.

Ibrahim and Jafri’s goal is to identify the body, and to uncover the circumstances leading to his death. When they encounter evidence of criminal and occult activities, what began as a passion project becomes a full-blown investigation. At the same time, they have other duties to handle… and Jafri quickly realises that there is more to the diary than meets the eye. They decide to skip the parts of the diary they consider irrelevant to the investigation—including certain content hazardous to the soul.

Who is the Listener? He doesn’t show up in the story, but he’s obviously the policemen’s superior. Being neither Malay nor Muslim, it gives Ibrahim and Jafri a reason to explain the Malay, Muslim and… other terms that crop up in the diary. The superior is also much younger than the men, so much so that Ibrahim feels compelled to explain historical events that the superior might be too young to remember. How is this possible? The superior is probably a scholar. He excelled in school, and was awarded a Home Team Scholarship. Being a scholar and an excellent cop, he quickly climbed the ranks of the Singapore Police Force. Despite that, he understands the importance of listening to the advice of his subordinates, especially those older and with far more field experience than him.

Whether he continues to listen to them when the spooky stuff occurs is left up to the reader.

Where is the Room? The Listener is a busy man with many responsibilities. Sure, he meets Ibrahim every so often, but he insists on a paper trail, and outside the office their paths don’t intersects. Thus, Ibrahim and Jafri communicate with the Listener over email using the SPF’s internal email system. The translated diaries themselves are email attachments for the Listener. The Listener reads the diaries in his office or at home; if he needs to talk to the Storytellers, he can meet them in person. At least until Covid arrived.

Thus we have the basis for an epistolary novel. A novel in which the full story won’t be told, because the Storytellers chose not to translate everything. They say it’s not relevant to the investigation, but… is that all?

The Third Storyteller

The third Storyteller is also the main storyteller: the author of the titular diary, the bomoh himself. His Listener is also himself. And the Room where the story takes place is his bedroom, where he scribbles down his thoughts at the end of the day. It is an insular, isolated environment—and also the only environment where the bomoh feels safe.

The bomoh writes for himself. He records his thoughts and experiences, and the lessons he learned, for future reference. His diary is the one place where he feels he can be honest with himself, to lay his own thoughts bare. For all his flaws, he believes in self-improvement, and he knows that if he is to achieve his goals, he cannot lie to himself.

Free from social expectations and police investigations, the bomoh expresses the essence of his being in his diary. He is not interested in remembering humdrum affairs, only in significant events and striking thoughts that touch his soul directly. He records only what he wishes to remember, alternating between formal Malay and stylised English. Through language he signals his departure from conventional society.

This is the only glimpse the reader has into his true personality—as mediated by the translators, and the evil that lurks within the diary, all of whom have their own ideas on what should be translated and what should not. As he grows older, the bomoh’s voice changes and his writing becomes even more stylised, signaling his growth, decreased inhibitions, and departure from society.

The Interplay of Narrators

With three Storytellers and two Listeners, everyone is fighting over to determine the full Story. This is the fundamental tension that drives the meta-story, and the how the story is told.

The bomoh knows the full story. He only writes what he thinks is significant, which isn’t necessarily everything important that actually happened to him. By writing in a mix of languages, he inadvertently creates the need for his works to be translated.

The translators have to read the full story to pursue their investigation. But the deeper they go into the story, the more they are exposed to the evil described the pages, and the more attention they attract from it. They feel themselves duty-bound to protect their reader from the worst of the corrosion, and choose to excise certain portions of the manuscript. Through censorship and the justifications for censorship, they reveal a little more about themselves.

And the evil itself? It, too, has its own agenda.

Through the use of the Storyteller-Listener-Room device, Diary of the Bomoh became my most complex novel yet. The primary story is the story of the bomoh’s descent into madness and damnation. The meta-story is the investigation that follows, the struggle to define the official story, and the effort to expose or to conceal secrets best left untold.

Despite its experimental nature, Diary of A Bomoh achieved its goals. Thanks to its success, there will be more stories set in the universe, with a very different main character: a man who is the mirror image of the bomoh, and yet… perhaps, not so different.

Read Diary of A Bomoh here… if you dare.





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