It may be a trivial assertion that every act of communication, however brief, original, or opaque, has a back story, an underlying history that informs its immediate semantic content. For example, if I overhear you on my morning commute say “Hi, Mom; I’m on the bus,” I and all the other passengers within earshot have no trouble perceiving the immediate semantic content of your speech act, namely, that you are informally greeting someone named “Mom” and announcing that you are on the bus. (If, assuming we’re both on the bus and I hear you say, “Hi, Mom; I’m home in bed with a cold,” it will be apparent to me, if not to Mom, that the immediate semantic content of your speech act is at odds with reality at least as I perceive it, but that’s another story.)

In either case, assuming that I know you only as the guy I see on my commute who’s always talking on his cell phone, it is up to me (should I have nothing better to do to pass the time until I reach my destination) to imagine the back story of your communication, something I would probably be more apt to do if the scenario were the one in which you were clearly lying to the recipient of your phone call than in the more vanilla case in which the semantic content seemed to be congruent with the current surroundings. I could, of course, interrupt your phone call and ask you directly to elaborate on your back story, but this would be a serious breach of etiquette on my part and, besides, if you lied to your Mom, who’s to say that you wouldn’t lie to me and our fellow commuters as well?

 Another possibility, exemplified by Raymond Queneau in his classic Exercises de style—Exercises in Style in its English translation—is to forego the back story and head off in an entirely different direction. Exercises de style opens with a brief (106-word) anecdote in which the narrator observes a rude fellow passenger at rush hour on a Parisian bus who repeatedly complains of being jostled by another passenger, then flings himself into an empty seat when it becomes available. Coincidentally, the narrator sees this same fellow again two hours later in front of the St. Lazare train station in conversation with an apparent friend who points out that the man is missing a button on his overcoat. End of story. Queneau then proceeds to recount these mundane events without further elaboration in ninety-nine different formats—as a sonnet, in country dialect, as a form letter, as a telegram, and so on.

In both of these bus rides, the “subject” is (or was) present and observable first hand. Sometimes, however, all one has to go on for the creation of a back story (or reportage à la Queneau) is a written communication, which can be just as brief, original, and opaque as a spoken one. Some of the more interesting written communication appearing in a public setting is unsanctioned and, because prohibited, tends to be created surreptitiously, in haste, and with a concomitant  economy of language. The authorship of such messages tends to be at once anonymous and in your face—anonymous because if the author were easily identifiable, he or she could be punished, and in your face because the author wants the world to read what he or she has written. Actually, the question of authorship and anonymity can be a little more complicated than that, as suggested by the following example of the genre that fairly begs for a back story:

Leah's name carved in a tree trunk


Who’s Leah? Who carved her name in the trunk of the tree in bucolic Mt. Auburn Cemetery (whose entrance, incidentally, is at a stop on the local #71 and #73 bus lines)? It might have been Leah herself, of course, which would send the story off in a completely different direction from the one in which the engraver was, say, an admirer (probably not a family member, though not impossible, especially in a made-up story). What about that letter after Leah’s name? An initial—Leah B to distinguish her from her doppelgänger, Leah A—or the beginning of a longer message abandoned in haste or despair? Does the heart go with Leah or are the carvings unrelated? Has the heart been defaced, perhaps to remove a reference to a former rival for Leah’s or the engraver’s affections? Does Leah know that someone carved her name on this tree? Does her name appear on any other trees? In other media, e.g., cement? Under a different name?

names in cement

Toni + Bo 4-eva