“The wave is one. There’s a reason we’re drawn to it, whether viewing or watching entranced as one wave after another breaks on shore: a wave is a clear instance of energy charging static matter until that energy is spent and equilibrium returns, elegant and satisfying. Arcs or waves exist all around as waves of light and sound. They can create powerful narratives, but it might be more freeing, as writers, if we think not of a story always following an arc, but of a reader’s experience absorbing the story as doing so.”
Jane Alison, Meander, Spiral, Explode
In her beautifully exposited exploration of narrative architecture, Jane Alison prepares the reading mind to absorb structures of stories. Meander, Spiral, Explode: Design and Pattern in Narrative offers alternative metaphors for readers hoping to experience stories in new ways. Instead of imposing an arc, she looks to structures offered by nature like waves, spirals, or cells to organize the inner sensation of reading.
From a writer’s perspective, this posture shows great respect for the living, breathing, organic mind of a reader. For Alison, a careful reading of W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants revealed what was there all along: language is a force within us. She recognizes the forward moving motion of a narrative, the energy of language, is “less inside the story than inside your mind as you construct sense.”
Since Aristotle first taught us to use the arc to construct sense, readers have organized the time and space of a narrative with this in mind. Following the publication of the three volume series, Narrative and Time, Paul Ricoeur (1913-2005) attempts to flesh out the connection between spatial and temporal storytelling in an article titled, Narrative Architecture:
To begin with, I would like to put an analogy in place, or rather something that appears at first sight to be only an analogy: a narrow parallelism between architecture and narrativity, in that architecture would be to space what narrative is to time, namely a ‘configurative’ process; a parallelism between on the one hand constructing, that is, building in space, and on the other hand recounting, emplotment in time. In the course of this analysis, I will ask myself if one ought not to push this analogy much further, to the point of a genuine intertwining, an entanglement between the architectural configuring of space and the narrative configuring of time. In other words, it is really a matter of crossing space and time through building and recounting. Such is the horizon of this investigation: to entangle the spatiality of the narrative and temporality of the architectural act by the exchange, as it were, of space-time in both directions. We will also be able to find, in time, as we are led by the architectural act’s temporality, the dialectic of memory and project at the very heart of this activity. And I will show above all, in the last section of my presentation, how much putting into narrative form projects the remembered past onto the future.
What is so interesting about Paul Ricoeur’s exploration of time and space in the context of narrative is the way these concepts are configured in the experience of memory. Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time is a profound illustration of this. That famous Madeleine cookie taps into something hidden deep inside the recesses of the narrator’s mind. It only takes the narrator 4,215 pages of to flesh it out. What is clear is that Proust’s narrator experiences what Walter Benjamin calls aura, and it requires the convergence of time and space to evoke it.
From a writer’s perspective, Jane Alison hopes to open up possibilities for writers who might feel oppressed by the arc. With a willingness to play as they write, they will be more likely to discover ways to design visual and temporal aspects of a narrative. By writing with color, texture, symmetry, or repetition, writers can amplify the reader’s experience of motion and sense. This is something Emily Dickinson does with exquisite precision in personifying the month of March – and even April.
Alison’s title comes from metaphors that describe patterns that she resonates with. It is Peter Steven’s 1974 book, Patterns in Nature, that opens her eyes to the infinite possibilities:
- SPIRAL: think of a fiddlehead fern, whirlpool, hurricane, horns twisting from a ram’s head, or a chambered nautilus
- MEANDER: picture a river curving and kinking, a snake in motion, a snail’s silver trail, or the path left by a goat grazing the tenderest greens
- RADIAL or EXPLOSION: a splash of dripping water, petals growing from a daisy’s heart, light radiating from the sun, the ring left around a tick bite
- BRANCHING and other FRACTAL patterns: self-replication at lesser scale, made by trees, coastlines, clouds
- CELLULAR patterns: repeating shapes you see in a honeycomb, form of bubbles, cracked lakebed, or light rippling in a pool; these can look like cells or, inversely, like a net
Appreciating narrative architecture is not only about finding the right metaphor for the structure left in the reader’s mind at the end of the book. It requires a constant sensational awareness to every aspect of the story. Jane Alison recognizes the need to surpass the typical elements of fiction like character, plot, and place to unearth the tiniest particles that make up a story, like letters and phonemes. She spends a brief and beautiful moment describing the delicacy of a good sentence:
“Something fascinating about sentences is that when I’m in the thrall of one, I’m held in its temporal and spatial orbit; it begins and ends when it must, holding and directing me until ready to let me go. I move slowly through tricky syntax: luxurious language makes me linger; or I warily await a final word that will snap the whole into sense.”
With an affinity for writers like Italo Calvino pondering Invisible Cities, Virginia Woolf descending into the depths of consciousness illustrated The Waves, Mark Z. Danielewski exploring the paradox of what is simultaneously familiar and uncanny in House of Leaves, and Jorge Luis Borges complicating reality with each turn in Labyrinths, it is no surprise that this kind of writing strategy and reading posture resonates with me. These writers respect the reading mind by structuring narrative architecture that reflects the natural movement in the mind that language makes possible.
In a recent collection of essays, Cognitive Literary Science, a professor of Neurocognitive Psychology, Arthur M. Jacobs, describes the sensation of reading as “a felt motionless movement through space.”
The residue left by this experience is what Jane Alison finds so utterly worthy of contemplation on the part of the reader and directly challenging to the writer:
“Once you’ve finished reading, that motionless movement leaves in your mind a numinous shape of the path you traveled. A river, roller coaster, wave.”
Conceiving of a numinous experience that might have a kind of shape, let alone complex narrative architecture, is difficult. Jane Alison’s work challenges readers and writers to apprehend language in a fresh way and I suspect courses on literary theory and narrative theory will benefit a great deal from this book.
Once writers understand the difference between narrative, story, and plot, they can start to play with the structure. Once readers open their minds to experiencing story in multi-diminensional and omni-sensational ways that transcend sight and sound, the dizzying affects of reading will leave them wanting more.