A novelist tries her hand at literary theory.
Venturing into the world of narrative theory, Alison (Creative Writing/Univ. of Virginia; Nine Island, 2016, etc.) takes a personal and idiosyncratic approach. As with many books on the subject, she begins with Aristotle and his famous beginning/middle/end arc of causality. But Alison grew “restless with the arc and plot,” and W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants “was the first book to show me a way beyond the causal arc to create powerful forward motion in narrative” with patterns. Since then, she has sought “narratives that hint at structures inside them other than an arc, structures that create an inner sensation of traveling toward something and leave a sense of shape behind.” These structures in texts “coincide with fundamental patterns in nature.” Alison calls them waves, wavelets, spirals, networks, cells, and fractals. After her lengthy theoretical introduction, she explores the ways that writers have used these structural patterns in more than 20 diverse short stories, novellas, and novels: her “museum of specimens.” Readers should perk up as Alison “dissect[s]” these texts, demonstrating how “we travel not just through places conjured in the story, but through the narrative itself.” Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine “meanders in the shape of an elevator.” Its “digressions “mean to get us to pause and look around.” Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Jealousy is like a “Doppler radar screen, the bar scanning around and around.” Alison devotes an entire chapter to David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, which is “deeply designed and patterned, with repeating shapes, webs of connection, visual images and phrases that repeat like dots of color on a canvas.” Others coming under Alison’s scrutiny include Philip Roth, Marguerite Duras, Raymond Carver, Stuart Dybek, Clarice Lispector, Anne Carson, Vikram Chandra, Joyce Carol Oates, and Tobias Wolff.
For readers interested in literary theory, Alison does a great job making it palatable; for casual readers, it may be too much.