Approaching Non-Linearity in Literature
The proper study of mankind is man – Alexander Pope “An Essay On Man” 1870
Samuel Richardson’s Pamela published in 1740, is usually taken as the first English novel. There are various elemental strands as to what exactly constitutes a novel, but the central precept is that the novel involves a study of human character through fictional representation.
Even though I myself write novels, I have to say our 270 year old art form is more than creaking at the hinges in this early part of the twenty-first century.
First, there is the technological assault—from new ways of imbibing literature through e-readers, vooks and podcasts. Monolithic blocks of print are being broken up for other methods of delivering content to the eye and brain.
Second, the basic concept of human character still persists, but the advances in deconstructing ourselves, through genetics, neuroscience, biochemistry and the like, have left literature’s quaint treatment of mankind trailing in the dust.
Third, the relativism of epistemology, morality, and social behaviour in modern societies weakens the notion that a fictional protagonist can stand as illustrative for all.
The literary trope of the hero is fatally compromised, and the very concept devalued, in our celebrity culture. The mass media ensures that we all know our communal heroes are deeply flawed, so the literary presentation of hubris is no longer as revelatory as it once was. The accompanying concept of tragedy is also one that has been completely degraded through blanket modern usage.
Equally the notion of the central character undergoing a journey of development and change, even growth or redemption, is now far less capable of being held up against our own experiences.
Dad always maintained that people don’t go on journeys at all, but spend a lifetime searching for and gathering evidence to rationalise the beliefs they’ve held in their hearts since day one. They have new revelations, certainly, but these rarely shatter their core belief structure – they just build on it. —Steve Toltz, from A Fraction Of The Whole
Freedom of movement, almost constant external stimuli and data torrents mean people have access to so much information that they no longer necessarily require their imaginations to be limned for them by others. Unless, that is, writers can somehow take them in genuinely new directions and offer them novel insights.
But currently, fiction is failing to do so. In the same way that philosophy seems to have given up the ghost on trying to offer any new insights, now literature is threatening to abdicate its role as an inquirer into the human condition.
It strikes me as ironic that scientists are the ones who are picking up the slack. Neuroscientists and geneticists offer us visions of who we are and where we came from. Molecular biologists collapse grandiose notions of our scale and centrality, as they go ever deeper into the tiny building blocks from which we are formed. Quantum physicists undermine our fixity about “reality,” and show us that we can’t definitively measure a humble metre because of the quixotic behaviour of matter.
What is interesting about all these disciplines, is that they resort to wonderful metaphors to explain their models and theories. Einstein’s “God doesn’t play dice with the Universe” is one such, although Origin Of Species posits probability and reveals that accidental mutations are at the heart of all evolutionary development. String theory is an elaborate version of cat’s cradle, used to try and unravel multidimensionality. As scientists are backed into ever more counter-intuitive corners, of particles that ought to exist, of quantum behaviour that is more both than either-or, they reach out for language to conceptualise what math equations tell them ought to be true.
While I applaud the fecundity of thought of the scientists, why should they be the only ones reveling in these new metaphors? Writers ought to share in the boon. And it’s not just in the language, but also the findings of neuroscience and genetics which can offer us new ways of exploring perceptions about ourselves. Pope’s “study of mankind” extended to embrace the new technologies and new epistemologies.
I am not suggesting we write dry fictional versions of such fields, trying to wedge the theories into the mouths of cardboard characters. But at the very least we can conceive of the multiplicity of scale and the non-linearity of the human mind.
This last point especially is what I now want to focus on in the rest of this essay. It may also help writers to create characters that reflect the modern (sophisticated?) mind, a version of human they can identify with, in what is a very confusing and complex world.
As a teenager, I experienced myself mopping up the blood of one of my parents after a serious suicide attempt. The other parent had asked me to execute this task; we didn’t want the domestic cleaner to see it or know of what had just transpired. And so began a great fiction as the pair of us tried to maintain an illusion to the outside world, that the dread act had never taken place.
Armed with bucket and old piece of rag clothing of the near-deceased, the following flurry of emotions/thoughts were whirling around my head. In no particular order:
3) Disgust (physical)
4) Disgust (moral)
7) Anger (personal)
8 Rage (universal/political)
10) Relief (At the time we thought the parent had been successful in their attempt)
14) Things were never going to be the same
15) Memory playback loop (previous 48 hours)
18) Fury (existential/cosmic)
20) A whole gamut of others I’ve since been unable to reconstruct, or were only
ever too fleeting to grasp hold of.
For this is how the human mind works. It is not unidirectional. It is not unilateral. Instead it scrolls through all possible angles before settling on a singularity of outlook or response. Some of the above constantly swirled around me, dive bombing and veering away prior to launching a renewed salvo. Contradictory thoughts persisted side by side simultaneously. Certain notions settled like sediment in the ornamental pond of my brain. Others fell away beyond consciousness and were only recovered long after the event by a seemingly random trigger. The only time a film has destroyed me emotionally, was in The Big Sleep when two plain clothes detectives ring Bogart’s door. Not a sinister scene in itself, yet replicating exactly what happened when two detectives rang our bell—which we assumed had to be the ambulance, but the cops responded first—because our emergency call had mentioned a knife wound . . .
And as a final example of the cluster bomb of the human mind, who knew back then that the play of the orange-brown hexagonal pattern of the kitchen linoleum, against the hexagonal splotches of the deep red blood impacted on the floor, would be preserved deep in my subconscious until I exhumed the memory and made a metaphor out of such a comparison?
When writers talk about character, they do not talk about this maelstrom of simultaneous thought. You have a spectrum of writing techniques, from stolid portraiture that may even involve a physical description of the character, to more impressionistic brushstrokes, a gesture here, the use of a metaphor there. Don Delillo is a particular master of this latter style. Personally I’m after a sort of Cubist approach. I want to nail down all perspectives from all angles. I yearn to recreate that simultaneity of multiple thoughts that assails us daily. Even if we are not faced by such an emotionally overloaded event as cleaning up a parent’s cruor, there is still plenty of cogitation, sensation, and memory churning away inside of us.
So Cubism for character.
But I’m also after pursuing a sort of abstract expressionism in my writing. To deal with abstract ideas about ourselves and to represent them in literature. Oftentimes, I want to remove the figurative from my literary canvas, in order to consider the nature of representation, relationship, and geometry. Instead of paint and canvas, my tools are words and language. The form and spatial structure of the text can impart a whole range of meanings over and above what the sentences are relaying.
Traditionally writing novels has been seen as an isolated activity. The author toiling away in the garret and other such fanciful notions. If the author doesn’t possess twin artistic palettes, such as Nick Cave’s musical as well as literary (“Bunny Monroe”) or Alasdair Gray’s artistic skills to illustrate his own fiction (“1982, Janine”), then maybe the time has come for collaborations in literature. Not between writer, editor and cover designer, but between writer and artist or typographer. This is, I believe, a fruitful way to drag the novel form kicking and screaming into the modern era. No longer do we have to limit ourselves to that unbroken block of type. We can offer a rich visual feast, yet one that wholly derives from the text. Whereby it isn’t just adornment, but emerges to set off (or subvert) the meaning of the words themselves.
If you deform the basic linear progression of a written sentence, of subject, verb, object, you’re likely to sunder meaning and lose the reader. Thus we have block print of sentence after sentence and that’s how we read books. But imagine if you sundered it in other ways, through the typography. Through the alphabet characters which form the building blocks of those words.
I’ve written (but sadly not illustrated) a scene of letters curling, congealing, melding, disappearing and re-emerging from the cobalt sea of a computer screen as a war of viral attacks and anti-viral programmes do battle with one another online. It’s maybe 1000 words long, but oh what could be done by displaying it visually, the effect of each different type of attack, the echoes of former word trails, and the vibrant reassertion like the flipping over of train indicator boards and superimpositions. The possibilities are endless and we could reinvigorate tired literary metaphors at a stroke. Would a whole novel be written in such a visual fashion? Probably not. It would likely be a discriminate use of the techniques. Though if it were, it would present the intriguing notion of a graphic novel about language itself. A comprehensive use of the visual, in order to investigate the visual properties of the words themselves.
Our visual apparatus works by the eye taking in raw sensory data from the environment and recognisable patterns being superimposed on it by the processing brain. At some point, these patterns are given further meaning by labelling them through language. Even allowing for current developments in virtual reality, it doesn’t seem like we’ll be evolving new ways of seeing any time soon. But we can begin to restructure this nominalism that underpins and rounds off the perception process.
The great Modernist writers, such as Proust, Joyce, Pound, Woolf and Faulkner did experiment with non-linearity. But they tended to apply it to narrative and time. How in Proust a smell could instantly return the protagonist to a childhood memory. Or the multiplicity of perspectives (and voices) such as in Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying or The Sound And The Fury, giving differing views on the same events.
The Modernists did play with language, forging new contexts for words and applying them to unleash unseen meanings. But they were really only concerned with redefining and creating new meanings. A dictionary perusal of a word’s etymology reveals the roots behind its origins; the class differences between those words derived from Norman French (in realms such as law, cuisine, architecture, religion, politics) and those more earthy words derived from Anglo-Saxon, being an obvious example. A visual/spatial approach can allow the author to do this. We can unlock the relationship between words, even as we trace their relationship in space through our creative decisions as to how we choose to set them down on the page.
So non-linearity doesn’t just model the workings of the human mind in order for writers to represent character. A non-linearity of space and print also opens up the possibilities for abstract considerations of ideas and allows us to contextualise language itself. It allows us to push and probe at language’s inherent slipperiness and elusiveness toward clear and precise communication; and recognize how language constructs “reality” by providing labels for the patterns of matter we organise into objects and the relations of those objects. We can only point out the nature of the illusions we subsist by. By redefining lexigraphic units, through alphabets and typographical re-presentation, we can get to the heart of the tools which we writers blithely use; words.
Londoner. 20 years working within the music counter-culture, currently working within the freedom of expression NGO world. Autodidact writer, interrogator of language. Live performer. Debut novelist. Three others completed, further one in progress. Ex-playwright. Kids soccer team manager.
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Whoa, there is so much to unpack here. What a great essay!
I am fascinated by the first section, and your example about memory and the experience you had do endure was something I can relate to, and something I have thought a lot about. Your list of emotions is brilliant, and something every writer should read if they want to think more deeply about writing complex character. I'm not sure if I agree literature is being left in the dust, though. Even the classic writers like Steinbeck or Melville created characters which somehow give me this kind of layering, this kind of 'scrolling and swirling mind' and they did it the old-fashioned way. Having said that, “So Cubism for character,” is so insightful. And again I have to say your thoughts on this are brilliant. I will be reading this essay several more times.
As far as this:
“If you deform the basic linear progression of a written sentence, of subject, verb, object, you’re likely to sunder meaning and lose the reader. Thus we have block print of sentence after sentence and that’s how we read books. But imagine if you sundered it in other ways, through the typography. Through the alphabet characters which form the building blocks of those words.”
I think when the modernists like Faulkner busted up the linearity of time and narrative, they were taking the thing apart — which then allows those of us to follow with the opportunity of a blank slate. You're talking about using that slate in order to build a new way of seeing, and although I am totally rooting for it, I have to say I remain somewhat skeptical that it can be done with typography in the ways you've described. I think our brains are hard-wired in every aspect of language, and reading text is no different. Our eyes and brains are wired for that block text and any deviation pulls us out of the story — which is not necessarily a bad thing and can indeed be a new and rewarding experience — but I just don't see it becoming the same experience. I recently read Moby Dick and I found the most wonderful copy of the novel at my library. It was an edition that contained beautiful illustrations through-out, and it made the experience of reading the novel so much richer. But it meant integrating two separate processes together, as opposed to one organic thing.
“By redefining lexigraphic units, through alphabets and typographical re-presentation, we can get to the heart of the tools which we writers blithely use; words.”
Again, I'm totally rooting for you, and for this concept. I guess I just think the work will be long and hard. But then again, it isn't just inspiration that moves art; it is also long and hard work.
I'm currently reading your novel, A,B&E and your 'cubism…' line in this thought provoking essay has left me thunderstruck. Something is afoot in your fiction, and your exegesis above – something bubbling between the cracks in literary flagstones, seeping into consciousness, something that re-routes synapses. You take words and mould-meld them into neologist containers that subvert or solidify meaning. It's frightening, fertile artistry. I too will be back to reflect on this wonderful essay.
What you say about us being hard wired into certain ways of reading text is very interesting. Do you not think perhaps that as people move to reading more and more online, this may change our reading capabilities? I think there are a range of possibilities that could be broken open as people's capacities change.
There is a wonderful book by MaryAnne Wolf called “Proust And The Squid” which explains the origins of reading as an entirely acquired skill, rather than hard wired; unlike speaking and language for which we seem to have hard wiring that enables innate syntactical arrangement of the sounds modelled for us as babies. If it is acquired, then we stand a slightly better chance of altering the way we read, or maybe just adding and extra way.
Thanks for your comments.
Thanks for your follow-up, Marc. That book gets the award for one of the best titles ever. I am certainly open to the idea that the way we read can change (is changing) and as I said I am cheering you on. I guess I'm mainly saying it would be a different experience than the one we have now, and one that could then be judged by the individual reader. For me, I'm really just starting to dig into character and craft, and finding ways to connect and deal with existential isolation etc… I've got enough on my hands. 😉
I personally do not enjoy reading Stein, but I am in awe of her contributions and what she did for all of us who follow her. In these post-post-post-post-modern times, we all have a blank canvass and I give major props to anyone who picks up a brush and stays true their artistic vision.
Intriguing paen to 'non linearity' in a linear form, look forward to seeing his 'redefined typographical re-presentations'.