When asked to describe a favourite novel or simply the last one read, most people reply by talking about the people in it, and what happens to them. In other words, character and plot. Those are clearly important, but there’s another element that’s as critical for writers: structure.
It’s the way a work is patterned that shapes our responses to it. Often, the specific material of a work of fiction lends itself to a specific structure. Form follows function, as some architects have asserted. More poetically, Ronald Sukenick says: “Form is your footprints in the sand when you look back.”
Nowadays, the form we’re most familiar with is the arc described by Aristotle: A narrative with a well-defined beginning, middle and end. This, with adaptations and deviations, is what most works of fiction (and many movies) have been shoehorned into for years. Some start
in medias res, others rely on Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey, but all rely on a complication followed by a change, which ends in a dénouement. The power of an unconventional form
Jane Alison, novelist and writing professor, has a problem with this. She sees narrative shapes as expressions of desire that are idiosyncratic and multi-layered. Theories that compare structure with the act of lovemaking leave her cold: “Something that swells and tautens until climax, then collapses? Bit masculo-sexual, no?”
In her recent book,
Meander, Spiral, Explode, she focuses our attention instead on six distinctive structures. Arcs or waves, meanders, spirals, radials or explosions, cells and networks, and fractals.
It was WG Sebald’s
The Emigrants, Alison writes, that first made her realise the power and appropriateness of an unconventional form. Sebald’s is a work that is not about what happens next, but weaves a design that only becomes clear when one looks back upon it. The forward motion here, she says, is “less inside the story than inside your mind as you construct sense.”
The act of seeing is important to Alison, and she asserts that visual elements such as texture, colour, or symmetry can open windows when it comes to moulding a piece of writing. “We writers go about our observing, imagining lives, moving onward day by day but always alert to patterns — ways in which experience shapes itself, ways we can replicate its shape with words.”
Natural forms are where her inspiration lies, be they the spirals of whirlpools, the curves of a river, a splash of water, the branching out of trees, or the honeycombs of bees. Such natural patterns “have inspired visual artists and architects for centuries. Why wouldn’t they form our narratives, too?”
Learning from these, a digressive narrative can flow quickly or slowly, and at times not at all. A spiral story can progress with rhythmic, looping repetitions, while a radial account can originate and circle around a central incident. A fractal tale can branch from a seed, repeating at different levels the shape of its core, and cellular chronicles can be static parts that create networks of meaning.
Alison goes on to provide several examples in what she calls her “museum of specimens”. In her analyses and extracts, Philip Roth’s
Goodbye Columbus has the tension and shape of a wave; Raymond Carver’s Where I’m Calling From contains “narrative rippling”; Marguerite Duras’s The Lover has both the structure of a wave and, within it, purposeful meandering; Sandra Cisnero’s The House on Mango Street and Jamaica Kincaid’s Mr Potter both spiral outwards, containing repeating patterns and shapes; and Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine has digression upon digression, adding up to an epic of the everyday. Going beyond familiar patterns
In passing, Alison also mentions Ross Chambers’ concept of “loiterature”: narratives that stray, that are wayward, and where delays and triviality are celebrated. That in itself opens up delightful possibilities of exploration, from Baudelaire’s
flaneur to Teju Cole’s Open City.
Apart from a remark on Chinese fiction being different from a time-based, direction-oriented style, Alison doesn’t dwell on the differences between Western and Eastern structures of storytelling. This is a pity, as the Japanese
jo-ha-kyū, Chinese kishōtenketsu and the Panchatantra’s inter-related framing, for example, could have provided her with a much-needed counterpoint. Further, though her emphasis is on fiction, the modern essay as a form could well have been included, with its ruminative zigzags before reaching an ending.
For a book that’s clearly driven by a passionate engagement with reading and writing, Alison’s analysis can also sometimes border on the coldly statistical: the number of words, the types of repetitions, the counting of specifics. Its virtues, however, are that it opens our eyes to the way writers explore their subjects, and the manner in which it urges writers themselves to go beyond familiar patterns. Such new modes, she writes, make narratives “vital and true, keep making our novels
novel.” Or, as Samuel Beckett once put it, “To find a form that accommodates the mess, that is the task of the artist now.”
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Sanjay Sipahimalani is a Mumbai-based writer and reviewer. here.