Chris Offutt’s The Same River Twice, like Paul Auster’s “Portrait of an Invisible Man,” is a memoir with a compelling narrative structure. In this case, unlike Auster’s fragmented approach, where paragraphs and even sentences stand alone as their separate scenes or sections—at times, almost like epiphanies or aphorisms—Offutt has two main narrative strands—a past and a present—that intertwine and then merge toward the end of the book. It seems possible you can compare this narrative approach to a movie you have seen or perhaps another book. Thomas Pynchon’s V—yes, that is the full title—famously introduces us to the same narrative strategy, and if you look at a V as an intersection between two lines, you can see Pynchon’s title alludes to the dual narration. Unlike Pynchon’s novel, in Offutt’s memoir, the author is the main character in both strands of narration. In any memoir, thus, the writer is also the “protagonist” although Offutt uses honesty, self-effacing humor, and humility to create a likeable “I” more than a self-absorbed narcissist.
Offutt’s Title: On page 54, Chris Offutt elaborates on the origins of his title. “You can’t step into the same river twice” is an aphorism you have probably heard before. It comes from Heraclitus, a pre-Socratic philosopher who lived and thought before Plato and Aristotle. The saying literally implies that because the water is always moving, whenever we step into the river, we are stepping into a distinctly different part of the water; we are never in exactly the same water. As a metaphor applied to our lives, our current experience with anything from our past—parents, cities, towns, old algebra textbooks—cannot be completely the same as our previous experience with that person, place, or object. Maybe you have had this experience of returning to a favorite place or film and being surprised or disappointed by the changes? For a film, once you have seen the entire film, your second viewing cannot be the same as your first because you will remember more and more of the film as you are viewing it a second time.
Chris Offutt’s next paragraph on the top of page 55 offers an ironic twist to Heraclitus’s “deep” idea, pointing out that for Offutt’s practical neighbor, “the river is always the same, moving past his house, providing food.” I enjoy the way Offutt mixes low- and high-brow philosophy, humor, and anecdote; it is exactly when he approaches pretentiousness that he brings us back to earth (sometimes literally). For your further contemplation, consider this saying also attributed to Heraclitus: “Water flows through a rock.” Yeah. What is the “deep” thought under the surface of that one?