In Meander, Spiral, Explode, Jane Alison tears down the traditional storytelling structure of the arc and boldly ventures out in search of other narrative forms and patterns. Among her discoveries: the "island" structure of Marguerite Duras's The Lover; the meanders of Nicholson Baker's The Mezzanine; the "wavelets" of Marie Redonnet's Hotel Splendid. In this edited excerpt from the book, Alison explores the spiraling structure of Mary Robison's Why Did I Ever and Jamaica Kincaid's Mr. Potter.
Why should anything as inventive as fiction follow a fixed form, the “narrative arc”? Like its equivalent in nature, a wave, the arc is a beautiful shape, but so many other natural patterns form our world. An explosive or radial pattern, for instance: picture petals spoking from a gerbera’s heart, rays of light flaring from the sun, or rings rippling around a splash. A spiral: think of water whirling down a drain, a fiddlehead fern, a nautilus. These patterns are inside us, too: a spiral in your ear, a radial in your iris. And have you ever felt your thoughts spiral? Your emotions nearly explode? These patterns are everywhere, so why not in our narratives? Two novels that I see following other patterns are Mary Robison’s Why Did I Ever, a helter-skelter narrative spinning around a trauma; and Jamaica Kincaid’s Mr. Potter, a slow conjuring of an absent father.
The fastest way to give a glimpse of kaleidoscopic Why Did I Ever is to hand over the opening:
I have a dream of working a combination lock that is engraved on its back with the combination. Left 85, right 12, left 66. “Well shit, man,” I say in the dream.
Hollis and I have killed this whole Saturday together. We’ve watched all fourteen hours of the PBS series The Civil War.
Now that it’s over he turns to me and says, “That was good.”
Buy Me Something
I end up at Appletree—the grocery—in the dead of the night. I’m not going to last long shopping, though, because this song was bad enough when what’s-her-name sang it. And who are all these people at four A.M.? I’m making a new rule: No one is to touch me. Unless and until I feel different about things. Then, I’ll call off the rule.
Scattershot is the state of narrator Money’s mind—and the shape of her narrative. But bit by bit we piece things together: She lives outside New Orleans with her friend Hollis; works (brilliantly, badly) as a script doctor; has a dopey boyfriend; loses her cat; spends nights driving around or painting everything gold. She also has a son, Paulie, who has been tortured and raped—and this is the flame of pain at the center of the narrative around which Money frantically circles, often falling into the fire. Adding to the pinwheeling effect: she has ADD and no meds. She can’t pay proper attention, she can’t help but keep paying attention to the agony at the core: what to do with her rage at Paulie’s rapist, her terror that he will harm Paulie again.
The novel is made up of 527 short pieces, each one a miniature of absurd tumult, and their sequencing is chaotic, too. One form of movement comes from the addictive hope they create: what fresh madness will I find here? I read not to sort out a storyline but to be stimulated drugwise . . . But always pulling from the painful center is damaged Paulie. “My thoughts about Paulie are a thing, over there, I’ll have to go through and sort sometime. Maybe keep some of it separate.” And this core problem and manic manner of jetting around it give the book its pinwheeling shape, the fragments spinning or scattering from a black hole.
Embedded in the novel are images that express the form, as when Hollis, staring at Money’s forgery of a Rothko, says: “What’s missing here is a focal point. . . . Something for our eyes to fix on.” Or when it occurs to her that a “truck might fling its cargo of glass shards and sharpened metal spears”; or thinks about sunglasses being “ground to powder.”
Confetti blown into the air by a fan, shards of glass flying from a bottle smashed on the street: Why Did I Ever is an explosion. But these aren’t random fragments: despite the willful disjunction, the dissolved or slurred words, these pieces all fly from one shocking volcano.
Then, in Mr. Potter, the narrator fantastically creates the man who co-created her, but whom she did not know. We’re in Antigua; here’s the start:
And that day, the sun was in its usual place, up above and in the middle of the sky, and it shone in its usual way so harshly bright, making even the shadows pale, making even the shadows seek shelter; that day the sun was in its usual place, up above and in the middle of the sky, but Mr. Potter did not note this, so accustomed was he to this, the sun in its usual place.
Starting with and, then going straight to the sun? Reminds me of Genesis: “And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.” And begins hundreds of sentences in Mr. Potter and all but one of its chapters. So there’s something here about creation . . .
And what about that insistent repetition? It goes on throughout the book, enough to make many readers wild. But it’s deliberate: see how she gives a phrase, advances the sentence, repeats the phrase, advances the sentence more . . . There’s something helix-like in this rhythm of advance and repetition. So far we’ve got both creation and a helix . . .
Indeed Mr. Potter is a kind of Genesis. “That day” turns out to be the day begetting events that beget the narrator herself. She’s one of many girls Potter sires yet refuses to know; she, like the rest, will have a “line drawn through” her, a blank on her birth certificate where a father’s name should be. But unlike the other girls—and Potter—this daughter will learn to read and write, and she’ll write a book conjuring this distant father to life.
She envisions Potter’s life in a way that’s near-biblical: we see his cursed fisherman father; his mother who walks into the sea; his wretched childhood until he becomes an unknowable man, begets many daughters, betrays them. We see Potter from a fierce, imagining distance, until he dies, and then we see the many angry women surrounding his grave in the rain.
But while the chapters follow Potter’s imagined life chronologically, we repeatedly jump forward in time—into the life and hands of the narrator. You don’t even know she’s a character for a while. Her first manifestation is on page eight, when suddenly she says, “I am not making an authorial decision.” She declares authority as she denies doing so! Then she disappears for forty pages until abruptly saying, “[Mr. Potter] made me and I can read and I am also writing all of this at this very moment.” Wow. This potent note she strikes again and again, pulling us back into her presence as she spins the life-thread of this man. “I make Mr. Potter and . . . he is unable to affect the portrait of him I am rendering here, the scenes on the bolt of cloth as he appears in them: the central figure.” Then the final stroke: “And I now say ‘Mr. Potter’ . . . and he is dead and beyond . . . contesting my authority to render him in my own image.”
Daughter begets father! A radical Genesis. But the tone shades sinister, too: “Temper it, temper it,” she murmurs as she conjures. The word cauldron appears eight times in the book: no witchier word than that. And I get a whiff of witchly incantation in those repetitions and in her commands at the end, when her words have made flesh: “See Mr. Potter! Hear Mr. Potter! Touch Mr. Potter!” Songs and spells: magic words make things be.
Indeed, the powerful appearances of the narrator shape the book: she appears insistently, pulling in strands of Potter’s story, weaving those strands to cloth. His story advances chronologically but revolves around her as an axis: she creates a portrait of him, scenes “on a bolt of cloth” that she seems to wind about herself until she and he are the central figures in each other’s life: they form a double helix?
People have been drawing spirals since the Neolithic period, when spirals symbolized life cycles, childbirth, female reproduction. In ancient Greek culture, the Fates spun the thread of a person’s life, wove it into a fabric, snipped it when the life was done; and someone performing a magic ritual spun a magic wheel like a top, chanting words to conjure. And as a symbol indicating the voyage into one’s inner self, the spiral is a favorite (I hear) in witchcraft . . .
Might obsessive retrospective narratives naturally follow a vortex—a haunted narrator turning around in her hands moments of her past, gazing at repeating shapes as she spins? Might traumatic narratives explode from a shock at the core? It seems that neither needs an arc.