Meander, Spiral, Explode: Design and Pattern in Narrative
by Jane Alison
Catapult, 272 pp., $12.81(paper)
Review courtesy of the New Yorker
I was in the seventh grade when Jane Alison’s début novel, The Love-Artist fell into my hands, and its effect on me was like a full-body blush. The book, which imagines an answer to the mystery of why Ovid was exiled to the edge of the Black Sea, in 8 A.D., stars a witch whom Ovid first glimpses rising from a pool in strands of water and wild grass. Everything is sensuous. Flowers are carnal. Alison has since written three more novels; she is also a translator and the author of a memoir, The Sisters Antipodes.
Meander, Spiral, Explode: Design and Pattern in Narrative is Alison’s new book about narrative structure, in which she envisions alternatives to the Aristotelian progression of beginning, middle, and end. The book’s stakes are surprisingly erotic. Considering the conventional dramatic arc, Alison asks, “Something that swells and tautens until climax, then collapses? Bit masculo-sexual, no?” She is skeptical of a theory, from the critic Robert Scholes, that “in the sophisticated forms of fiction, as in the sophisticated practice of sex, much of the art consists of delaying climax within the framework of desire in order to prolong the pleasurable act itself.” “Well,” Alison writes. “Is this how I experience sex? It is not.”
Alison is in a lightly transgressive space, in which chatting about your own sexual pleasure is as unremarkable as mapping a metaphor, and in which the two things are highly relevant to each other. Like Peter Brooks, Alison sees narrative shapes as expressions of desire. She wants to invest a scholarly project—that of expanding fiction’s formal possibilities—with erotic promise, a sense of liberation. The book focusses on six designs: arcs or waves, meanders, spirals, radials or explosions, cells and networks, and fractals. Its “museum of specimens” features work by a wide range of writers, including Joyce Carol Oates, Sherman Alexie, Stuart Dybek, and Gabriel García Márquez. One quibble is that the book’s thesis, that literature is boringly in thrall to Aristotle, is a bit of a straw man. Another quibble is that Alison is working at a level of abstraction that insures she can apply almost any shape to almost any text.
These vulnerabilities are not lethal—a house-of-cards constructedness is a feature of a lot of literary criticism. What matters is the ingenuity and beauty of the construction, and Alison’s close readings can be exhilarating. One of her more seductive ideas is the notion of possible “correlations between kinds of stories and certain patterns,” as when reflective first-person novels adopt the spiral. A radial narrative, Alison suggests, “could spring from a central hole—an incident, pain, absence, horror—around which it keeps circling or from which it keeps veering.” Some structures mirror their contents even more precisely. Diagramming The Mezzanine, by Nicholson Baker, about a man who takes a lunch break, buys new shoelaces at CVS, and rides up an escalator, Alison observes that “we experience a slight rise of forward motion, then a flattening digression, another slight rise, then a flattening digression.” The story is itself an escalator. Likewise, David Mitchell’s novel Cloud Atlas, which Alison describes as an appeal to goodness and empathy, arranges six speakers in a palindrome: 12345(6)54321. The book, Alison argues, mimics the form of two open hands, with a prayerlike central section held out between them.
When Alison was four, her parents swapped partners with another couple. Both families consisted of diplomat fathers, their wives, two elder daughters, and a younger son. One family toured the Northern Hemisphere; the other toured the Southern Hemisphere. One family then relocated west; the other remained east. Alison reveals this symmetric history in an aside. “Patterns could fascinate me because an uncanny one structured my life,” she writes. The barely acknowledged weirdness of such a configuration—the formal taking priority over the human—contributes to the book’s giddiness, its sense of being always just about to fly off the rails.
Meander, Spiral, Explode is a deeply wacky book, in ways that are both obvious and subtle. Alison cuts extraneous words for breathless effect. Before a meditation on the use of color in fiction—“not as symbol, like Fitzgerald’s green . . . but as a unifying wash,” like Sebald’s gray—she exclaims, “Coloration, coloratura. Words, sounds, a streak of color: synesthesia!” (Conjunctions, verbs!) Alison’s prose is potent and lush, her enthusiasm infectious. She favors the word “ditto” and the equal sign instead of “is.” Often she issues commands or invitations. Defining the “meander” shape, Alison exhorts the reader to “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.”
Such verbal raptures may ensorcell seventh graders and leave older readers occasionally feeling that they need to lie down. But the fecundity of Alison’s writing is of a piece with her larger mission: to turn narrative theory into a supersaturated mindfuck of hedonistic extravaganza. It is a special kind of literary criticism that can make the reader appear to herself a prune, or a prude. For Alison, reading is “motionless movement.” Her book takes the shape of a roller coaster.
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Katy Waldman is a staff writer at The New Yorker. Previously, she was a staff writer at Slate, where she wrote about language, culture, and politics, and hosted the Slate Audio Book Club podcast. She is the winner of a 2018 American Society of Magazine Editors award for journalists younger than thirty.