It is not everyday that you open a book and are surprised to find an essay about yourself. Even more seldom: that you've been asked to review it. But some books gently scoff at such misgivings, secretly revel in them perhaps, and will simply not go away until you've given them their due. Such is the case with JM Stim's "Stories: 1995 – 2015" (redelsteiner dahimène edition, 239 pages, in German). Here Stim has collected portraits and interviews covering a twenty-year span of his journalistic career. The reader, perhaps somewhat shocked to realize that indeed 20 years have passed since 1995, is tempted to seek comfort in finding a common thread, a narrative strand that neatly stitches the volume's many stories together into a more singular story, preferably one we might like to tell ourselves.
However, not unlike the many contrarian figures who inhabit its pages, these stories resist reduction as much as consolation. What emerges is a defiantly broad-ranging collection as varied as Stim's interests, and as unpredictable as his career path. The datelines do seem to plot the points of a larger tale: Vienna, Belgrade, Jerusalem, Kandahar, New York, Los Angeles, et cetera. But Stim is far less interested in places than in people. A small sampling of his subjects suggests an odd cast of characters with, at most, one thing in common: an insistence on creating a life, however fragile or provisional, worthy or accomplished, delusional or misguided, that they can somehow call their own. We meet, for instance, two young Israelis injured in terrorist bombings; cultural iconoclasts such as Gary Indiana and John Lurie; a young Muslim cleric who later joins the Islamic State, and the manager of a Vienna peep show.
Narratives of life
If there is any larger story holding these stories together, it is Stim's own story-telling. This is not, however, to be confused with Stim's own story. Conspicuously absent, even in the book's introduction (by Michael Frank), is the author's own perspective on 20 years of writing and reporting. The "Stories" in Stim's title are more properly those fashioned by his subjects, which he relates with great care and generosity, while also testing them, subtly noting how narratives of one's own life tend to be torn, patched, and re-patched, always fraying around the edges. This applies as much to his celebrity interviewees as to his lesser-known subjects, such as the middle-aged professor turned "failed intellectual" and "Internet aphorist" otherwise known as me.
It is, of course, difficult to read one's own story. Especially revisiting Stim's piece on me now, two years after the original interview, I'm struck by my hubris, my naive plans that never quite materialized, and my willingness to be far too open with a reporter I'd just met. With the interview conducted on a rooftop on a beautiful fall day in Spanish Harlem, at times it was clearly the beer we picked up at the bodega across the street that did much of the talking. But it was also something else, clear in all of Stim's work: a dogged insistence on moving beyond his subjects' well-rehearsed story of themselves.
Throughout the collection we see him, either implicitly or explicitly, challenging those he meets to tell a story that they might not have told before, not even to themselves: the story of who they are, or might long or fear to be, in that moment. Indeed, these are portraits and interviews written very much for the immediate present, with most of them having originally appeared in daily newspapers. As such, they do not take the long view, which represents much of the value of this collection. The focus on the present prevents grander narratives from obstructing Stim's gift for precise observation and the patience necessary to let details do the telling. Ultimately, Stim is after a type of narrative authenticity, often touching yet unsentimental, that resonates with his own insistence on the less than tidy truth of the moment. If anyone is ever going to capture something so elusive, this volume makes a compelling case for its author. Stim knows the power of a story. And, more importantly, he knows that carefully listening to a story also means something else: learning how to make it speak. (Eric Jarosinski, 23.12.2015)