Early summer 2007, I spent all my non-working hours sitting next to the warm, greasy swimming pool of my apartment complex listening to Hanson’s “MMMBop” on repeat through a crummy pair of earbuds. I was, admittedly, feeling a bit lost at this point in my life, so there was something comforting in recognizing and fulfilling my part in such a straightforward symbiotic relationship: my job was to listen to “MMMBop,” and the job of “MMMBop” was to make me want to keep listening. As long as I kept hitting repeat, something in the world was working exactly how it was supposed to.
Around this same time, I was getting serious about writing fiction, and one day a question occurred to me: Is there a literary equivalent of pop music? Is it even possible to reproduce that catchiness, that playfulness, that danceability with the written word?
I certainly want it to be possible, so I’ve been kicking the question around ever since. It’s a tough one to answer, though. One big challenge lies in defining pop music, a genre that encompasses everything from “We Belong Together” to “The Twist” to “Shake It Off.”
Most broadly, pop music is music that’s popular. Based on that definition, the answer to my question is obvious: The literary equivalent of pop music is literature that’s popular. Pull up The New York Times bestseller list, see what’s at the top, and there you go — nice and easy. But to paraphrase the great Tina Turner, we’re not going to do this nice and easy. We’re going to do this nice and rough — to understand how pop music works, we’re going to look at an explanation of how popular movies work according to Roberto Bolaño’s “The Return,” a short story which itself might be the literary equivalent of a pop song.
At the beginning of Bolaño’s story, the unnamed narrator dies — “death caught up with me in a Paris disco at four in the morning” — and then, as a ghost, follows his corpse around to observe its postmortem fate. In describing the experience of dying, the narrator invokes the 1990 Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze movie Ghost. When he saw the movie in theatres, the narrator dismissed it as kitsch, especially the scene where Patrick Swayze’s character dies and “his soul comes out of his body and stares at it in astonishment. Well, apart from the special effects, I thought it was idiotic. A typical Hollywood cop-out, inane and unbelievable.” However, much to the narrator’s chagrin, on dying he finds himself, a disembodied soul, staring down at his own corpse: “I was stunned. First, because I had died, which always comes as a surprise, except, I guess, in some cases of suicide, and then because I was unwillingly acting out one of the worst scenes of Ghost.” The movie’s depiction of dying may be completely inane, but it also turns out to be true.
Though initially dismayed that such a meaningful moment in his own life so closely resembles the death scene from Ghost, the narrator’s opinion of the movie improves after some consideration. Though he prided himself in life on being a man of refined taste, he concedes after his death that “there is sometimes more to American naiveté than meets the eye; it can hide something that we Europeans can’t or don’t want to understand.” The narrator discovers that in Ghost, the truth about death is hiding in plain sight, obscured not by layers of symbolism or ambiguity, but by its own kitschiness. Because it resembles so many other lazy Hollywood depictions of death, it might seem meaningless, but banality and truth are not mutually exclusive, an idea that’s key to understanding pop songs.
Take the lyrics of “MMMBop,” which manage to be completely bland, and at the same time, deeply preoccupied with some heavy existential ideas. About a third of the way through the song, the brothers put forth the following proposition: “Plant a seed, plant a flower, plant a rose / You can plant any one of those / Keep planting to find out which one grows / It’s a secret no one knows.” That last line signals a preoccupation with the unknowability of the future that only increases as the song continues, reaching an apex with the final insistent refrain: “Can u tell me? oh / No you can’t ‘cause you don’t know / Can you tell me? / You say you can but you don’t know / Say you can but you don’t know.” Amid all the ba duba dops, then, Hanson is wrestling with a relentlessly ambiguous universe and a completely unknowable future. These are big ideas — truly — and I’m not cherry-picking lines, either. Take a look at the full lyrics of the song, and the existential preoccupations become even more apparent. Ghost-like, Hanson’s song obscures its insights by stating them so unremarkably. The larger insights are also obscured by the fact that the lyrics are nearly unintelligible as sung, and while that may be completely appropriate to their larger thematic interest in the incoherent, it does mean that they lose their frightened edge for listeners and fail to create contrast with the song’s sunny melodies.
A better and more recent example of a pop song grappling with big ideas that we “can’t or don’t want to understand” is Carly Rae Jepson’s “Call Me Maybe.” Where “MMMBop” focuses on unknowability, “Call Me Maybe” explores the frighteningly compulsive nature of infatuation. Again, there’s an occasional triteness to the lyrics, especially in the verses, that belies its weighty preoccupations. A line like “I trade my soul for a kiss” may be hackneyed enough to blow by unnoticed, but it’s still describing a willingness to make a Faustian bargain. Adding to the singer’s angst is her self-awareness that the infatuation in question is just that — an unexpected (“I wasn’t looking for this”), unshakeable (“but now you’re in my way”) obsession with a near stranger (“Hey I just met you”). The singer finds herself in thrall to forces beyond her control, but what delights and disturbs me most about “Call Me Maybe” is the way it replicates that same compulsion in its listeners, just as Ghost’s depiction of dying is mirrored in the narrator’s own death.
In a 2013 interview with Mashable, Taylor Hanson (of Hanson) lays out his criteria for a great pop song: “Does it get in your head? Do you sing it over and over? Do you wanna sing it?” That last question gets at one of the more unsettling qualities of a catchy pop song, that sometimes, even if we don’t want to, we might find ourselves not only replaying a song again and again in our minds, but actually singing it out loud and maybe even dancing. It’s such a commonplace occurrence that it’s easy to think nothing of it, but really there’s a kind of possession taking place, a mysterious outside force commandeering our minds and compelling us to use our bodies (to sing or to dance) in ways that are not always voluntary. A catchy song is not unlike that creepy fungus that hijacks the brains of ants and compels them to climb higher and higher and higher so the fungus can sprout from the ant’s head and spread its spores.
And that compulsion brings us back to “The Return,” where the narrator’s dismay arises in large part from the fact that he’s “unwillingly acting out one of the worst scenes of Ghost” (my italics). He’s become an active participant in a piece of art which he disapproves of, and it’s happening against his will. At this point, though, the effects of pop music diverge from the dynamic in Bolaño’s story. In “The Return,” there’s no indication that the narrator’s death resembles that scene in Ghost because he saw the movie; there’s no causality there. Instead, the movie is accurately (and probably accidentally) describing a phenomenon that the movie itself has no direct effect on.
In contrast, a song like “Call Me Maybe” not only describes the frighteningly compulsive experience of infatuation (just as Ghost depicts the experience of death), it also generates a new compulsion in its listeners, a compulsion to sing along and dance along and, at the height of the song’s popularity a few years ago, to produce lip-sync tribute videos. This last phenomenon is pop music possession at its most explicit. If you haven’t seen any of these videos, here’s how they work: A group of people, sometimes famous, sometimes not, films themselves lip-syncing to Jepson’s song, and then they post their video on YouTube. These videos are then viewed (tens of millions of times, in some cases) by people who, in turn, create lip-sync videos of their own, and so it goes, on and on and on.
Unlike the narrator of “The Return,” these lip-syncers go out of their way to channel a piece of popular art through their own bodies; there’s a palpable eagerness there to be a conduit for the song. This is where Taylor Hanson’s third criteria is illuminating — plenty of pop songs might get stuck in your head, but a great pop song is one you want to get stuck in your head. It’s a form of voluntary possession in which the makers of these tribute videos capture — and create — a very public form of ecstatic experience, of being swept by something big and incomprehensible.
Because there is something big and incomprehensible about songs like “MMMBop” and “Call Me Maybe.” I just checked and, three years after its release, the official music video for “Call Me Maybe” has over half a billion views on YouTube. Granted, it’s a plenty catchy song that holds up on repeat listens, but who can fully account for that degree of widespread enthusiasm? There’s something majestic and frightening in the scope of its popularity which for me pushes “Call Me Maybe” into the territory of the sublime. To borrow 18th-century essayist Joseph Addison’s description of the Alps, Jepson’s song, and others like it, “fill the mind with an agreeable kind of horror.” That seemingly irreconcilable tension — agreeability and horror — is essential to great pop music.
This is why, for instance, Michael Jackson’s Thriller is the greatest pop album of all time. Jackson and producer Quincy Jones astutely foreground that tension between agreeability and horror throughout, creating music and lyrics (and music videos) that are catchy and danceable, and at the same time, preoccupied with discomfort. In “Billie Jean,” the tension arises from a baby’s disputed paternity. In “Beat It,” it’s knife fights. In “Thriller,” it’s werewolves. And start to finish, the album is compulsively listenable. Even the train wreck of “The Girl is Mine” (the doggone girl is mine — what?) is hard to turn away from.
So, to return to our initial question — if these are great pop songs, then what are their literary equivalents? (I’m going to exclude poetry at the outset as being too close to music to be an equivalent.) We’ve already looked at some key concerns and characteristics of pop music — compulsion and tension, agreeability and horror, banality and truth. I’d also add that pop songs are short, usually under five minutes, so their literary equivalent needs to be short as well. For that reason I’m excluding novels. Short stories, though, can be read in one sitting.
And of course, great pop songs have great hooks, so their literary equivalent needs to be both attention-grabbing and memorable. For a perfect case in point, here are the first lines of “The Return:” “I have good news and bad news. The good news is that there is life (of a kind) after this life. The bad news is that Jean-Claude Villeneuve is a necrophiliac.” It’s a memorable opening — and premise — that in lesser hands might produce a story that coasts on shock value. Instead, Bolaño develops a complex and surprising relationship between the narrator’s ghost and (fictional) French fashion designer Jean-Claude Villeneuve.
Like “MMMBop” and “Call Me Maybe,” “The Return” capitalizes on a tension between the agreeable and the horrible. While certain elements of the story — death, necrophilia — might inspire unease or distaste in readers, other elements — the story’s humor, its compassion — make the story not just palatable, but pleasant. It’s a fun read that also grapples with overwhelming concepts like death, compulsion, sex, and loneliness.
For all its pop-musicality, though, “The Return” is not an especially well-known story, at least not yet. And while we have rejected popularity as the sole defining characteristic of pop music, it is an important element. For that reason, Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” serves as a useful case study. Like “The Return,” it’s a story with a horrifying core — the random and ritualistic selection of a small-town resident for stoning — made agreeable by its engaging narrative elements — a stunning concision, a compelling sense of mystery. The story has also achieved the ubiquity of a “Hey Ya!” or an “Imagine.” Everyone reads this story in junior high, and with the possible exception of “The Most Dangerous Game,” no other 20th-century short story has insinuated itself so completely into the pop culture lexicon.
“The Lottery” also shares with “The Return” a counterfactual, high-concept premise that resists easy allegorizing. This play with realism correlates to another widespread characteristic of pop songs, the nonsense lyric. The chorus of “MMMBop” is fun to sing along with and it also means nothing, at least in a conventional sense. What’s more, you’re not going to find a lot of people puzzling over what mmmbop ba duba dop actually signifies, because signification isn’t the point.
No story exemplifies this dynamic better than Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings,” in which a winged old man shows up outside the house of a poor couple where he’s caged and examined until, at the end of the story, he flies away. The story’s characters, as well as its readers, find themselves asking questions that listeners of “MMMBop” don’t bother with — what does this nonsensical figure mean? But the story’s refusal to yield any clues as to the old man’s provenance or nature makes a strong case that we should read the story the same way we listen to the chorus of “MMMBop.” It matters less what the old man means, and more how his enigmatic presence fits within and affects the rest of the narrative.
Of course, some readers will persist in being frustrated by “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings,” just as many listeners are enraged by pop songs like “MMMBop” or “Call Me Maybe.” I think that’s true, actually, of all three stories I’ve mentioned, that they’re just as likely to inspire consternation as admiration.
Part of the reason for that is their ability to get under a reader’s skin. You may hate “The Lottery,” but if you’ve read it, you’re likely to remember it for a very long time. Similarly, people who hate “MMMBop” don’t hate it because it’s forgettable, they hate it because they can’t get it out of their head. Even that hatred, though, is a remarkable artistic feat. Love and hate are, after all, both forms of devotion, and the ability to inspire that devotion is, the more I think about it, the most essential characteristic of a truly great pop song.
When, in 2007, I fell in love with “MMMBop,” I felt an irresistible urge to share the song with others, to ask them to listen and to consider if maybe, like me, they’d dismissed it too readily when it first came out 10 years earlier. We’ve already discussed how that compulsion to share is a strange, overwhelming force, and it’s a compulsion I feel again now. As I’ve thought through the possible criteria for determining the literary equivalent of a pop song, I’ve thought of so many stories that fit the bill, stories that have gotten under my skin, stories that I have to share. Unable to resist that urge, I’ve put together a Thriller-sized playlist of nine pop-musical short stories:
1. “The Lottery,” by Shirley Jackson (from The Lottery and Other Stories)
2. “The Return,” by Roberto Bolaño (from The Return)
3. “Good Country People,” by Flannery O’Connor (from A Good Man is Hard to Find)
The names alone of the two main characters (Manley Pointer and Hulga) are worth the price of admission, and the story just gets better from there. Its jokey setup — a woman with a PhD in philosophy sets out to corrupt a naïve-seeming bible salesman — serves as a funny vehicle for a troubling exploration of condescension and pain.
4. “UFO in Kushiro,” by Haruki Murakami (from After the Quake)
After the Kobe earthquake of 1995, Komura’s wife leaves him, explaining in a note, “you are good and kind and handsome, but living with you is like living with a chunk of air.” What follows has the feel of a verse/chorus/bridge song structure as seemingly disparate narrative elements — the accusing note, a package whose contents are unknown to Komura, an extended conversation with the sister of a colleague — trade back and forth until they all come together, more-or-less, at the end of the story.
5. “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings,” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (from Collected Stories)
6. “The Cats in the Prison Recreation Hall,” by Lydia Davis (from The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis)
A prison recreation hall is infested with cats and then the warden gets rid of them — that’s basically the whole story. But the simple premise yields an engaging pop-song-short two-page narrative about power, cruelty, and the passing of time.
7. “End of the Line,” by Aimee Bender (from Willful Creatures)
“The man went to a pet store to buy a little man to keep him company.”
Another killer hook, this time for a story that takes a whimsical premise and follows it to dark places. By the end, the reader is left with the troubling question of whether the big man subjects the little man to a series of cruel humiliations because he can’t see his pet’s humanity or because he can.
8. “Eisenheim the Illusionist,” by Steven Millhauser (from We Others: New and Selected Stories)
Nineteenth-century Austrian magician Eisenheim stages increasingly audacious illusions that captivate the public and trouble government officials. It’s not just the descriptions of the magic tricks that captivate, though. The narrative itself contains flourishes and reveals that, rather than feel cheap or contrived, organically grow out of the story’s interests in spectacle.
9. Dormitory, by Yoko Ogawa (from The Diving Pool)
Tiny mysteries accumulate in this story, creating a tone both haunting and precise. The narrative’s indelible physical details — a stained ceiling, omnipresent bees, rigorous five-item to-do lists — ground the reader in a distinctly tangible world, which makes the dread-filled, disorienting effect of the story’s conclusion all the more affecting.
Image Credit: Flickr/modomatic.
I awoke in the middle of the night with an intense craving. I had been warned about the pickles and ice cream, about the strange, non-food items like chalk and laundry detergent that some pregnant women are moved to consume. This particular craving wasn’t for anything found in the freezer or pantry, however. It wasn’t for the kind of thing I could sink my teeth into at all. I had awoken with a deep and urgent hunger for a story.
Out in the living room, under the light of a moon whose three o’clock glow I would come to know well after my baby’s arrival, I searched the bookshelf for my copy of Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s Collected Stories. I turned to the story the words of which I could already taste: the tale of three men who fumble around, hand-in-hand, after their eyes have been pecked out by long-billed birds during a night of drinking. I read the story’s six surreal pages, and then I read them again. I felt the hunger subsiding, the belly of my spirit filling up.
That was weird, I thought. And with my first literary craving satisfied, I returned to bed and slept well.
For years I had curated my nightstand book stack according to what I thought I was supposed to be reading. Nobody (except for certain professors during grad school) had been explicitly telling me what to read, it’s just that I was letting recommendations and book reviews do the selecting for me. It wasn’t a bad way of doing things, since I encountered any number of books I was glad to have read. It just wasn’t intuitive, until now.
Now I had a voracious appetite to consume certain books I’d read long ago, revisiting passages that had always been especially moving. Or — and this was fun and also eerie in its accuracy — I found myself submitting to cravings for books I had never before read but the combined language, plot, and characters of which turned out to produce the perfect meal of prose for this pregnant bibliophile.
For instance, somewhere around the time that an email alerted me to the fact that my unborn son or daughter was now the size of a sweet potato (that’s around 18 weeks of gestation for the uninitiated), I found myself at the library, practically drooling as I checked out Jami Attenberg’s novel The Middlesteins. I devoured this book.
In the same way that we’re cautioned against grocery shopping on an empty stomach, The Middlesteins — a novel as much about food as anything else — is best consumed alongside a meal, ideally something hot and greasy that’s served to you in the dark corner booth of a strip mall dining establishment. That is to say, the book paired well with my second trimester penchant for shame-snacking.
But the story of the over-eating Edie Middlestein and her mess of a family fulfilled me in another way as well. They say that when you crave a particular food, you are responding to your body’s need for certain nutrients. This, I discovered, holds true for literary cravings as well. With a child on the way, I had become preoccupied by thoughts of family life, and although The Middlesteins was in many ways a perfect lesson on how not to do things, it was also the kind of story about a mother’s imperfect love that I hungered for: funny, messy, often heartbreaking, and ultimately redeeming. Just as my body had for weeks been craving endless clementine oranges, my mind had craved the very vitamins and nutrients — the sentences and language — that this book was made of. It was delicious.
I had always imagined that, as a pregnant woman, I would adopt a sort of Earth Mother persona: confident, innately nurturing, glowing from the inside out. It turned out that, in reality, I handled pregnancy with all the grace of George Costanza at a cocktail party. I was clumsy in my changing body and nervous about the safety of the baby who was changing it. And although I was already tremendously in love with the person forming inside of me, when faced with the impending responsibility of bringing up this new life in the world, it seemed very obvious how easy it would be to screw things up. From feeding to diapering to the general task of keeping a small human alive, parenthood is no small venture. And on top of that you have to make sure you’re not raising an asshole.
These anxieties accompanied me day and night, and even followed me to the middle of the Pacific Ocean. When I was six months pregnant (that’s a cantaloupe on the produce-to-baby conversion chart), my husband and I took a trip to French Polynesia. While I had always considered myself a fearless traveler, this trip was fraught with anxiety from the start. There was the tiny island’s fresh Dengue Fever outbreak to consider, the constant worry over the availability of pasteurized dairy, and the inevitable neurosis of negotiating a bikini with said cantaloupe rearranging the shape of my entire body.
I tried to relax with the books I had brought to read, the Serious Literature that had been in my queue for a while. Stoner was too slow for my racing mind, however, and for similar reasons I had no patience for The Sense of an Ending. Lying on the deck of our overwater bungalow, I remembered that I had brought along a copy of Nora Ephron’s I Feel Bad About My Neck. I had grabbed it from the library at the same time as the other books. Something about it had called to me, and I figured that something had been its title: while I didn’t feel particularly bad about my own neck at the time (that would come in the third trimester), I did feel bad about my butt. So I’d checked it out, thinking that a Nora Ephron book was the sort of light reading I might like to flip through in the last lazy days of vacation.
Now I could feel myself craving Ephron’s essays the way I had come to crave so many other stories over the past several months. I could already taste her wit, her vulnerability, her heart. I set the other books aside for the time and opened the Ephron essay collection. It only took a few pages to discover how wrong I had been to believe that her writing, while deliciously accessible, was anything less than commanding. In the essay titled “Blind as a Bat,” she writes, “Reading is escape, and the opposite of escape; it’s a way to make contact with reality after a day of making things up, and it’s a way of making contact with someone else’s imagination after a day that’s all too real.”
On the island of Moorea, slathered in worry and useless mosquito-repelling essential oils, it was by making contact with Nora Ephron’s imagination that I was finally able to relax and appreciate the paradise surrounding me. Once again, through the peculiarity of my literary cravings, I had found the right book to feed me, to settle my stomach and my anxiety.
Reading had always been emotional for me, viscerally felt, but while I continued to indulge these literary cravings over the following months, the act of reading began to more closely resemble the satisfaction of slurping up spaghetti noodles than anything involving intellect. The cravings came most often in the middle of the night, often for stories that featured people doing what they do best: messing up. Late one night I read a story from Megan Mayhew Bergman’s collection Birds of a Lesser Paradise three times in a row. The narrator of “Yesterday’s Whales” faces an unplanned pregnancy and asks her “vegetarian epicure” boyfriend to go buy saltines and Gatorade for her nausea. “Don’t come back with any organic stuff,” she tells him, “I need the real thing.” This I understood. Don’t come back with what I should be reading, I told myself over and over again, come back with what will nourish me: the real thing.
On Bastille Day 2013, our baby was born: a big beautiful boy, who we named Jude. The joy of Jude’s arrival was soon smudged with fear, however, when he was taken to the NICU due to complications.
During the eight days that my son was in the NICU — connected to a fistful of colorful wires, his fidgeting limbs setting off a constant commotion of alarms, his nearly nine-pound body awkwardly large compared with those of his two-pound neighbors — I stayed just down the hall in a room with a single, unreliable mechanical bed and a bathroom the dimensions of which recalled the European budget hostels of my early travel days.
In a gesture of solidarity with Jude, who had yet to take in his first breath of fresh California air, I chose to remain indoors as well, going days without wandering further than the jaundiced tile corridor between my room and the NICU. My vision blurred under legion fluorescent light boxes, my uniform was a rotation of unflattering sweatpants. During one of my many walks down this hall, a passage came to mind from “The Night of the Curlews,” the Gabriel Garcia Márquez story I had inexplicably craved early on in my pregnancy. “We felt the prolonged emptiness of the hallway before us,” says the narrator, one of three men trying to navigate his way home after having abruptly lost his sight in a wild bird attack. “Around us, surrounding us, there was always a wall,” he says.
All that worry about what could go wrong while I was pregnant, about the many potential ways I might mess up as a new mother, and it turned out that when my child was in danger there was nothing I could do about it but wait. He would be healthy soon — the doctors were clear about that — and I understood even then how fortunate we were compared with many other NICU parents. Still, it was the most painful and disorienting time of my life. It felt like drowning, but worse: it felt like Jude and I were both drowning and I could do nothing to save either of us. My family — the three of us — were supposed to be alone at home, skin-to-skin, blissed-out, and sleep-deprived together in bed, with a dog sighing in the sun-drenched corner. Not here in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, where in order to hold my baby I had to watch a clock while scrubbing my skin raw, unfold a privacy screen beside the plastic cot marked “Gibson — Baby Boy,” and negotiate the wires, monitors, and IV that weighed him down. We were trying to get home, but around us, surrounding us, there was always a wall.
I had always thought of “The Night of the Curlews” as a hopeless story. I fixated on the random violence of it, on the savage way the men had been blinded. They were lost and hopeless and the sadness of their story would linger with me after every reading. In fact, I was sort of disgusted with myself when I’d felt such a strong urge to read it while pregnant; it was the one literary craving I couldn’t rationalize. Now that I had been blindsided by my own version of a curlew attack, it made sense that such a bleak story would come to mind. But I didn’t want to be hopeless. I couldn’t drown, I was a mother now.
After five days and repeated suggestions that it would be restorative for both my sanity and my physical recovery to at least get some fresh air in the hospital’s outdoor courtyard, I finally relented and stepped outside. I did not change out of my sweatpants. As I ate an In ‘N Out grilled cheese sandwich beside my husband at a picnic table, the setting summer sun warmed my face and I remembered the ending of the Garcia Márquez story.
The three men also find themselves in what seems to be a courtyard. They’ve lost all sense of time and direction. They are waiting for something or someone familiar to lead them back home. One of them suggests going back toward the wall — the wall that is a constant wherever they go — but the other two know that another wall, or another maze of halls, however familiar, is not what they need. They sit still, their heads lifted, and say, “Let’s just wait till the sun begins to burn us on the face.” I finished my dinner outside and thought of those three blind men in mid-century South America, their arms linked, their faces turned to the sun’s heat and invisible light.
It is a hopeful story: theirs, mine. In the confusion that follows random tragedy, while we hope and pray and wait to be led back home, sometimes we just need to sit still for a moment and turn our faces to the sun. If it burns us, fine, that’s how we know we’re alive. If we’re alive, our story isn’t over.
While I was pregnant, I learned to follow my instincts — my hunger — to lead me to stories that would nourish me. And, as I learned from that first 3 a.m. craving for “The Night of the Curlews,” certain stories are meant to be savored so that the words continue to nourish long after the last sentence has been swallowed. The best stories leave an aftertaste.