In the evenings lately I’ve been working my way through the new translation of The Arabian Nights by Malcolm Lyons, published by Penguin. I’m pretty sure that I’ve encountered at least some of the stories in this sequence before (though apparently my memory of the tale of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves being in the sequence is a false one—that story is included in the volume I’m reading, but it’s made clear that it’s an “orphan story,” outside the cycle of tales traditionally told by Shahrazad). But I’ve never read them presented in sequence, and it turns out that the sequencing is crucially important to their pleasure. One way to express this idea that’s not quite correct is to say that the the sequence of stories in the Arabian Nights is so engaging because Shahrazad is such a willfully bad storyteller; another equally incorrect way is to say that to tell a story as badly as Shahrazad does involves a supreme degree of craft on her part. Both of these are wrong because, of course, Shahrazad is such a spectacular storyteller that her talents almost defy credibility.
The basic setup of the Thousand and One Nights is familiar to everyone in some sense, even if it’s been diluted by memory and transmission—Shahrazad tells King Shahriyar a segment of a story each evening, but stops at dawn at a cliffhanging moment, taking up the tale again the next night from where she started before. Thus, even though the story begins with Shahriyar expecting to hear a story that lasts for only one evening, she strings Shahriyar along, night after night, for nearly three years. The features of this frame narrative that are not regularly mentioned (and that vanish into the background after the first few nights) are the life-or-death situation that starts it, and Shahriyar’s villainous, misogynistic nature—essentially, as an extended, misguided act of revenge against his adulterous wife (whose head he chops off), Shahriyar deflowers a virgin each evening and has her killed the next morning. When Shahrazad begins telling her story, she is due to be murdered at dawn.
So The Arabian Nights offer two levels of suspense—the first is almost entirely non-metafictional (we want to know what will happen next to the characters within Shahrazad’s stories: how the fisherman will outsmart the ‘ifrit; how the calligrapher who has been magically transformed into an ape will regain his human form; and so on). But the suspense of the frame narrative is almost entirely metafictional: since if Shahrazad delivers a story with a conventional narrative structure, then she’s effectively signing her own death warrant, the reader is placed in the position of rooting for her to keep herself alive by constantly frustrating Shahriyar’s (and, by extension, our own) narrative expectations. Stories in which characters tell stories in which more characters tell still more stories are one of her tools (there’s a similarity here to the plot of Inception), but she also likes digressions in which, for example, a group of seven brothers will each tell a tale about themselves, as well as characters who recite poems and songs, or perform monologues on theology or political theory. (Many of her stories involve women who are both stunningly beautiful and highly educated; based on the content of her tales, Shahrazad herself appears to possess both the scope of knowledge of an intellectual omnivore as well as the depth of a specialist. A fair number of stories also depict kings who are about to have a subject executed, but who change their mind after the subject tells an extraordinarily entertaining story. One wonders if Shahriyar takes the hint when he hears these.)
The placement of Shahriyar, then, as a mediating presence between Shahrazad and the reader is a clever rhetorical move that controls the reader’s reception of the work. It allows the reader to feel better and wiser than the evil Shahriyar (if only because unlike Shahriyar, who had no idea what Shahrazad was up to, those of us in the real world who see a set of three 900-page paperbacks on a shelf have an idea of what we’re in for). But we can only feel this sense of superiority if we also approve in turn of Shahrazad’s egregiously, comically elliptical storytelling style. If you think of complaining when Shahrazad changes the subject entirely, just as an executioner is raising his axe above a hero’s head: goodness, you don’t want the beautiful, brainy young woman to die, do you? You don’t want to identify yourself with a heinous serial murderer, do you? But if you applaud her digressions, her encyclopedism, her detours and delays: then you are on the side of the angels.