by Eva von Contzen
Bank statements are hardly something we approach with excitement: they are the epitome of lists as a means to an end, and that end is to record and track an account’s moving money. While their practical functions are undeniably important, bank statements seem to be as far removed from literary texts as it gets. However, a recent short story by the Zambian writer and academic Namwali Serpell turns these expectations upside down and uses the form of a bank statement – that is, nothing but a bank statement – to tell a story. It was published in 2016 in the Enkare Review; you can read it here: http://enkare.org/account-namwali-serpell/ (And I recommend you read it before reading on!)
The title of the story is simply “Account”, and an account is exactly what we get: the layout of the story is that of a bank statement, issued by a bank called SCAPE (a telling name, as it sounds like ‘escape’, and our protagonist will eventually do exactly this). The holder of the account is specified as Artemisia Gentileschi, who lives in Rome, NY. As any bank account, this one are gives us a chronological list in three columns: date of transaction, transaction description, and finally the amount (in dollars). There are sixty-six entries in total, and a cursory glance won’t reveal the sad story that unfolds. Instead, we must take the time to read the account, as we would read a story. Behind each transaction, there is a dense web of implications, which, based on knowledge of consumer culture, helps us get an idea of who Artemisia is and what has happened to her. She likes to date and go out, to invest in her appearance and fitness, and to frequent nightclubs and cocktail bars. The account then offers a glimpse of a date’s tragic conclusion – the transaction for 04/14 reads bureaucratically and with unfathomable coldness “Unplanned Parenthood PrEP Co-Pay”. In reaction to what must have been a traumatic experience, Artemisia evidently acts out a revenge plan that has her buy a car, take fighting lessons, and withdraws a large sum of money.
When interviewed about her account story, Serpell compares the reading strategy she envisions for her readers to that of a detective, and indeed the gaps between the individual transactions propel the reader to invest quite a lot of attention and energy – certainly much more compared to reading a conventional story – in order to connect the dots and reconstruct the plot. At the same time, the reading experience is intensified. While all reading involves filling gaps (authors, after all, never spell out every single detail or every single move), we are used to having a story more or less coherently and fully presented as it unfolds before our eyes. The story is told to us. In this particular case, however, it is we who tell the story – we become like co-authors in the process of decoding the narrative. Without our deliberate attempt to figure out the details, there wouldn’t be a story. Serpell here takes the potential of lists to provide a narrative outline to its most sparse extremes: the seemingly mundane form of the bank statement becomes the kernel of narrative, the grid of a plot, and unleashes, if we pay attention, more than we could have hoped for, reminding us that the traces we leave on and through lists may be telling, story-telling indeed. Next time you have a look at your bank account, take a moment to read it carefully, really read it and see if it perhaps tells a story too.