Saturday, June 10, 2006

Apparently, There is Only One Way to Tell a Story

Here are the first two paragraphs of Lianne George’s feature on club builder Peter Gatien in the May 29 issue of New York magazine:

Peter Gatien has installed himself at the head of an enormous table in a private dining room at a “restrolounge” called 8, and he’s surveying the room like the don of some clandestine party mafia.

Compact and gaunt, he’s dressed neatly in a slim-fitting navy-blue suit, a dotted red tie, and a pair of vaguely ominous blue-tinted glasses, which, like his now-discarded signature eye patch, serve to conceal the left eye he lost in a childhood hockey accident. When a vigilant waitress appears over his shoulder, he instructs her not to bother offering the duck hors d’oeuvre to his wife and consigliere, Alessandra (he calls her Alex), who’s seated at his right. “She won’t like it,” he mumbles, almost inaudibly. Alessandra, Gatien’s third wife, is his dispositional antithesis—an elegant, gregarious film producer fifteen years his junior, outfitted tonight in Paltrow-casual style, with jeans and a black blazer, her dark hair tied loosely back. After seven-plus years of legal skirmishes, financial drain, and public scrutiny, she is clearly impatient for her family to reclaim its prior life. “It was hard,” she says with a bright, incongruous smile. “I’m so glad it’s over.”

Now, here are the first two paragraphs of Olivia Stren’s profile of club builder Peter Gatien in the July issue of Toronto Life that just hit stands this week:

Peter Gatien and his wife, Alessandra, take the corner table. They’re having dinner at Eight, the Brant Street restaurant and nightclub—a plush, moody lounge that Gatien opened early this year. Their table allows for a panoramic view of couples trading soulful glances over balloon glasses or red, and a gregarious table of Bay Streeters chewing on sugar cane shrimp and chortling over office gossip. Through the blue-tinted sunglasses he’s never seen without, Gatien takes in the scene like a monarch surveying his newly conquered kingdom.

He wears a grey cotton sweater the shade of a midday shadow and has the kind of strong, rugged features you could imagine carved on a cliffside. Sitting disarmingly still, he emanates a movie star’s inscrutability. It is not a peaceful stillness, but one that suggests the focused and contained intensity of Brando playing a mob boss. Alessandra, at 37, is 17 years his junior. A former model turned film producer, she’s wearing jeans, a fresh white button-down, no make-up and a ponytail. She nurses a pomegranate margarita and talks with gushing enthusiasm about Toronto, her new home. “New York strives to be what Toronto is,” she says. “You don’t have to look over your shoulder here. It doesn’t have the same edge. Coming here was like finding the oil well or the hot spring. It’s untouched.”

There is no possibility of plagiarism here, because clearly both stories, coming out a week apart from one another, were in production at approximately the same time. (As a side note, Lianne George works for Maclean’s, meaning both stories were written by South Torontonians).

No, my point is that when you read a strong magazine feature, you think to yourself "There is no other way that story could have been told." Which is a lie. There are hundreds of ways to tell a story – some better than others, of course. But it’s the writer’s job to trick you into thinking their way of telling the story of Gatien was the best way. And I mean trick in a positive sense here.

Clearly both features are well-written (although I could not care less about Gatien as a human being). If I had to dig around for a complaint, it’s that both writers gave Gatien a big fat chunk of free advertising for Eight in their respective first paragraphs.

And it should be said that the features go in different directions after their respective intros.

I’m struggling to articulate my overarching unease here. I think my problem is that journalism -- either consciously or unconsciously -- instills certain frameworks of narrative, and that these frameworks become invisibly etched within the brain's circuitboard. The best example I can give is that I wrote a rough draft of a review of the Pixies show in Winnipeg (second night of their tour, April 2004) that I never completed nor published. I read the Saturday Globe’s review of the Pixies that week. The published review and my draft were uncanny -– we had hit upon at least a half-dozen convergences in either opinion or background information on the band.

The point is, it’s strange to think there are circuits in my brain that I’m only dimly aware of. And it’s even more strange to have these circuits made visible through something like the Gatien features here. It’s less a comment about coincidence, and more about the hidden structural limitations of magazine feature storytelling.