Go to content Go to navigation Go to search

The ten thousand things and the one true only.

by Kip Manley

Table of Contents

Things to keep in mind:
The secret of streams.

The academics write in their paper that: “Studying characteristics of the sentence-length variability in a large corpus of world famous literary texts shows that an appealing and æsthetic optimum… involves self-similar, cascade-like alternations of various lengths of sentences.”

“An overwhelming majority of the studied texts simply obey such fractal attributes but especially spectacular in this respect are hypertext-like, ‘stream-of-consciousness’ novels. In addition, they appear to develop structures characteristic of irreducibly interwoven sets of fractals called multifractals.”

The other works most comparable to multifractals, the academics found, were A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers, Hopscotch by Julio Cortazar, The USA trilogy by John Dos Passos, The Waves by Virginia Woolf, 2666 by Roberto Bolaño and Joyce’s Ulysses. Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu showed “little correlation” to multifractality, however; nor did Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.

The academics note that “fractality of a literary text will in practice never be as perfect as in the world of mathematics”, because a mathematical fractal can be magnified to infinite, while the number of sentences in a book are finite.

“It is not entirely clear whether stream-of-consciousness writing actually reveals the deeper qualities of our consciousness, or rather the imagination of the writers. It is hardly surprising that ascribing a work to a particular genre is, for whatever reason, sometimes subjective,” said Drożdż, suggesting that the scientists’ work “may someday help in a more objective assignment of books to one genre or another.”

Alison Flood

—posted 7 days ago

Table of Contents

Things to keep in mind:
The secret of bingeing.

In my view, Aristotle misconstrues what epic is trying to do. The episodes aren’t a distraction, they’re the whole point. The overarching story provides a narrative and thematic frame for the episodes, allowing multiple stories to come together into a larger, cohesive whole. The frame narrative is necessarily sparse and even boring, as Aristotle’s famous reductive summary of the Odyssey illustrates, but it’s necessary to keep the episodes from being purely episodic, arbitrarily juxtaposed narrative fragments.

At its best, binge-watchable serial drama is trying to be an epic. Within each season, we have an overarching plot that makes room for several narratively and thematically related episodes. The story of Don Draper’s secret identity gives us a window into the worlds of Peggy and all the other beloved supporting cast, just as Tony Soprano’s quest to become the undisputed boss opens up a narrative world full of fascinating characters.

I’ve written before about Main Character Syndrome, the phenomenon of viewers becoming bored and even resentful of the main character of the framing narrative, and I believe that the fundamentally epic structure of binge-watchable serial drama explains why that is such a constant pitfall. It’s a difficult balance to keep the framing narrative thin enough to allow for rich episodic side-trips but compelling enough that you don’t get impatient with it. Arguably even Homer fails on this point — once it comes time to settle accounts with the primary story of Odysseus coming home to claim what’s his (the beginning of book 13), it feels like all the air has been sucked out of the room.

The balance is easier to strike within a single season, as the Mad Men and Sopranos examples make clear.

Adam Kotsko

—posted 15 days ago

Table of Contents

Things to keep in mind:
The secret of language.

Interestingly, the work which MacFarlane looks at which breaks most obviously with this conception of precision is the one which is often cited as an ur-text for the lyrical prosaic form practiced by the present crop of nature writers: J.A. Baker’s The Peregrine. In the chapter dedicated to him, MacFarlane immediately offers a sign which serves to distinguish Baker, remarking that he reveals himself to be “a good writer but a rather bad birdwatcher”. Throughout this chapter, despite a couple of extremely tenuous attempts to tar him with the same brush, the word precision is curiously absent. Baker’s myopia is both literal and linguistic. He is a brilliant writer but he is anything but precise. Instead his prose seems to stem from urgency, disorientation, and desperation. His landscape is one which is drawn with compass points but no more, it remains loose and elusive. His peregrinations are cartographically inchoate. Baker continually upsets the even, leisurely syntax and spacing of his fellow nature writers, his prose is an expressionistic and feverish thirst which seemingly cannot be quenched. He often turns nouns into verbs and adjectives, wilfully ignoring the conventions of language, painting his observations in loose obsessive strokes. His prosaic obsessiveness recalls the pictorial desolation of Van Gogh: the falcon’s kill is his yellow paint and, at one stage, we worry he might decide to eat. One does not need to know that Baker was suffering from a slowly encroaching paralysis, or that he was sacrificing his own financial stability and health in his search: his hunger is evident on every page. Like Federigo degli Alberighi in the Decameron, Baker spends the whole of his substance: he has nothing but the falcon.

What sets Baker apart then is that, for him, writing has a transformative aspect. His desire is to become the peregrine. In this sense, unlike the other writers in Landmarks (and unlike its author), Baker’s writing is not a (re)-turn towards nature but a turning away from it. Baker seeks to shed the humanity which he finds so abhorrent but it is not nature which allows him to do this: it is writing. Baker wishes to negate the distance between the human and the animal, to lose his physical form and become the animal he hunts. At some point the all-seeing ‘I’, that solid conquering subject which plants nature writing so firmly within the turf of the political status quo, begins to slip. Baker recognises the exteriority of his being to that of nature and that he must turn to something else if he is to try to express this separation. In this sense his prose is an act of ritual, of magic, of re-enchantment. There is something prehistoric about it. Like those painters who daubed the walls of Lascaux in order to commune with the animalistic existence which still haunted them, Baker seeks to use his words in order to shed his human form, to gain, in Bataille’s words, ‘the silence of the beast’, and take flight. But, most importantly, he recognises that this ritual, this turn towards language, too can only be a failure. The ‘We’ of communion with the hawk is illusory and Baker knows he will always remain part of the ‘we’ who ‘stink of death’. Writing and the material cannot be connected, there is space between them. By not recognising this disjunct, the preservation of these words, these memories of landscape, may too easily function as their memorial.

What, then, is it which ultimately makes the language of Landmarks an act of preservation in its most pejorative sense: pickled, sweetened, displayed? Is it its refulgence, its fertility, its abundance? Certainly, that constitutes part of the problem, but what seems to underlie this fecundity is the assumption of a direct correlation between landscape and language. Despite the weak protestations MacFarlane offers, he never questions the assumption that reality, a reality full of objects to be conquered and collected, is merely there. It lacks the interrogative lacuna, the space between, which literature requires. The problem with MacFarlane’s language, and the language of nature writing, is that it posits a direct relationship between the sounds and syntaxes of our words and the natural world of our experience.

Daniel Fraser

—posted 51 days ago

Table of Contents

Things to keep in mind:
The secret of æsthetics.

Having pored over a stack of past issues, I would argue that F--rie endeavors to cultivate in readers a quality of attention that registers the most diminutive details, that perceives the world as though under a spell. In an article about throwing “a magical midsummer night’s dream party,” the writer suggests inscribing guests’ names on “small leaves, bark, or beautiful pieces of fruit like green apples or small Japanese eggplants.” And in a homage to green tea, editor at large Laren Stover writes, “If you have a glass teapot, you can watch the pearls release and open like magical tendrils, mermaid’s hair or seaweed unfurling, deepening the water to emerald green.” This state of amplified, granular awareness, in which time slows as you watch the “undulating ballet in your teapot,” is one I have otherwise only achieved with psychedelic drugs.

F--rie’s overarching æsthetic, which I’ve spent more time parsing than I care to admit, is rather hallucinogenic itself: a mash-up of Medieval, Renaissance and Victorian influences, with hints of Celtic and classical Greco-Roman mythology and a little neo-paganism tossed in for good measure. F--ry tales, with their familiar signifiers and peculiar, unsettling dream logic, are useful shorthand for understanding the magazine’s visuals. The models sport scarlet Little Red Riding Hood cloaks or spectral white Miss Havisham frocks; they lie supine on leafy forest floors or gaze into the middle distance from snowy, windswept landscapes. In one 18-page spread shot by the Russian photographer Katerina Plotnikova, adolescent women in poufy-sleeved taffeta dresses embrace foxes and elk. (The editors have a fondness for interspecies images.) What’s startling about the photos is the élan with which they yoke together an innocent childhood id with ambitious, adult-word production: Thus a model in a lace-bodice gown wraps an actual fox around her neck like a fur stole; and 17th-century women with powdered bouffant wigs picnic at the bottom of the ocean while a pair of puffy white poodles look on.

Amanda Fortini

—posted 59 days ago

Table of Contents

Four on the floor.

203 days ago.

But why dwell on what’s been and done and gone, baby, gone. —The first draft of no. 26, “ – only borders lie – ”, is 16,375 words long. Short, for a first draft, but that’s good, that’s good: there are a number of scenes here that need not to be what they are, and I need room to swing a machete. (There’s a whole character running around in there that paradoxically enough there isn’t enough room for; patrons will know more what I mean.)

But so much for having five in the pocket by the time we launch, ha ha.

But we weren’t gonna dwell! —Well maybe a little. —Of all the chapters of vol. 3 to be written thus far, this one, the fourth one, the one that was just going to be a simple monster-of-the-week bughunt, and maybe a memory palace up on Mount Tabor, maybe, this one has ended up being by far the most different, as perhaps you’ll see when it’s released. —But for all that, I’m still where I was going to, in the strictest terms of characters A and points B and facts C in time for the various events D; and yet, having gotten where I was going by zigging this way, instead of that, well. —I’m not sure, I guess, what happens next?

Which is pretty much mostly where I was the last time I wrote one of these, back in April—a mere 203 days ago. (Don’t do the math. It’s gruesome.) —I think the next scene, the first of no. 27, “ – tends to crumble – ”, I think it’s going to start in that blue attic, which is mostly just a painted-over memory of that white attic, the one I glimpsed that time I went to a Hallowe’en party dressed as the Fool, and the woman dressed as Death slipped me some acid; later, we hung out in a cemetery. —It was the nineties. You know how it was.

—posted 100 days ago

Table of Contents

Things to keep in mind:
The secret of existence.

If I tell a “rationalist” or people in the current scientific culture a good way to do vegetable gardening is to speak to the f--ries and ask them where you should put the plants—get advice, in other words, what Findhorn did, where they spoke to the devas—the response tends to be, “But there’s no such thing as f--ries, they don’t exist. You can’t do that. They don’t exist, show me them, where do they live?”

Now when I was studying maths, our maths teacher came in one day and wrote on the board, “Let I be such that I squared= -1.” And for the whole rest of the first lesson we were all saying, “But you can’t have a square root of a minus number, it doesn’t exist!” He said, “Well think of it as another dimension.” —“Okay, another dimension, which direction is it, where is it, you know, tell me this dimension”—all the sort of things people would say if you said f--ries might exist in another dimension. So basically, we refused to co-operate because the square root of -1 doesn’t exist. But the mathematics thing is, well who cares whether it is exists or not? The thing is, does it work? So you start working as if it exists, and I emphasize as if, because that’s the magical formula: you act as if something is true, you act as if the tarot pack really was the wisdom of the ancients.

And the mathematician finds that not only does it work—you can create a mathematics on what they call imaginary numbers—but, the amazing thing is, it turns out to be utterly fundamental to the way the universe works. You know, electricity and all that sort of thing depends on these “imaginary” numbers. And you realize that that has gone on throughout history, because actually numbers don’t exist any more than f--ries and yet our whole economy is built on them. So as a mathematician I wasn’t hung up on whether these things exist or not, but the question for me is, “Do they work? Do they get you somewhere?” And our mathematics master, because we did maths and higher maths, we also had to do physics in those days, and when we went off to do them he said, “Oh, you’re off to the folklore department now.” He was very scornful about these scientists with their insistence that they would only work with things that existed! He said, “That gets in the way of sheer logic.” So I see it as really quite fundamental to my magical thinking, the fact that I learned that what matters is whether something works, not whether it exists or not.

Ramsey Dukes

—posted 109 days ago

Table of Contents

Things to keep in mind:
The secret of kings.

In her doctoral thesis, “Kings. What a Good Idea”, Pamela Freeman writes that in stories in which a king is the protagonist, we’re likely to see the oft-used “Rightful Heir” or “Missing Heir” trope. See: King Arthur, Aragorn, Harry Potter, Rand from The Wheel of Time, Eragon, and most novels that involve a young boy that leaves his home to embark on an adventure. On one hand lie patriarchal inheritance laws that govern the transmission of inheritance between male blood lines, an issue of justice and fairness that is familiar to most people, despite or because of its problematic gendered connotations. On a more emotional level, there’s hunger to belong and to complete a family, that the truth about one’s blood line and birth status is worth knowing and that without the truth the person will live a suspended life fraught with emotional anxieties. Conservative or not, this plot-line directly confronts our emotional anxieties.

The question then becomes why people living in democratic countries would be interested in reading books about social stratification and monarchy. Pro-monarchists (the real-world kind) usually defend royalty on the basis that monarchs represent all of their citizens and thus provide continuity and identity to a nation, whereas elected officials can only represent their constituents. (For those who say, “but… presidents?” most pro-monarchists live in constitutional monarchies that use a parliamentary system. Prime Ministers aren’t directly elected by the people.)

Freeman states that “tyranny has been replaced with an image of pastoral care, ensuring that today will be like tomorrow, protecting us from political machinations and…extremes of any kind.” She links a distrust of elected officials and desire for continuity with epic fantasy’s focus on “rightful kings.” Writers use kings precisely because they’re traditional, and therefore meaningful. Of course, the common image of a rightful king preserving the collective peace amongst his people is a historical judo-flip unsupported by an even cursory empirical observation but, nevertheless, rightful kings prance around and disseminate compassionate justice in epic fantasies with more regularity than they ever did in history and this has led critics to deride the genre as escapist because it’s not “real.”

Sarah Shoker

—posted 119 days ago

Table of Contents

Things to keep in mind:
The secret of romance.

When, in the twelfth century, this kind of social isolation is overcome and the feudal nobility becomes aware of itself as a universal class, with a newly elaborated and codified ideology, there arises what can only be called a contradiction between the older positional notion of evil and this emergent class solidarity. Romance may then be understood as an imaginary “solution” to this contradiction, a symbolic answer to the question of how my enemy can be thought of as being evil, that is, as other than myself and marked by some absolute difference, when what is responsible for his being so characterized is simply the identity of his own conduct with mine, which—challenges, points of honor, tests of strength—he reflects as in a mirror image. In the romance, this conceptual dilemma is overcome by a dramatic passage from appearance to reality: the hostile knight, in armor, his identity unknown, exudes that insolence which marks a fundamental refusal of recognition and stamps him as the bearer of the category of evil, up to the moment in which, defeated and unmasked, he asks for mercy and tells his name: “Sire, Yidiers, li filz Nut, ai non” (Erec et Enide, 1042), at which point he becomes simply one knight among others and loses all his sinister unfamiliarity. This moment, in which the antagonist ceases to be a villain, is thus what distinguishes the use of the category of evil in romance from that to be found in the chanson de geste or the classical western: but it has other, more positive consequences for the development of the new form as well. For now that the experience of evil can no longer be invested in any definitive or permanent way in this or that human agent, it must be expelled from the world of purely human affairs in a kind of foreclosure and projectively reconstituted into something like a free-floating and disembodied realm in its own right, that baleful optical illusion which we henceforth know as the realm of sorcery or of magic, and which thus completes the requirements for the emergence of romance as a distinctive new genre. Yet as a literary device, this vision of a realm of magic superimposed on the earthly, purely social world, clearly outlives the particular historical and ideological contradiction which it was invented to resolve, thereby furnishing material for other quite different symbolic uses as the form itself is adapted to the varying historical situations described above.

Fredric Jameson

—posted 128 days ago

Table of Contents

Things to keep in mind:
The secret of the grotesque.

While modernists generally held dankness in suspect, a few held a certain type of affection for this atmosphere, if only because it was an object of intense scrutiny. The earliest modernist rapprochements with dankness saw it as the cradle of a mythical atmosphere, an atmosphere that preceded modernity. Within the 20th century, particularly in the writings of Bachelard, the dank underground is embraced precisely because it is such an anti-modern quality. Bachelard wished to bring the cosmopolitan, urban and modernized subject back in touch with the atmospheric depths of the cellar. Finally, we see fleeting senses of dankness in the writings and ideas of Anthony Vidler or Peter Eisenman; their collective focus on excavation and subterranean uncanny space served as a type of corrective to a project of rationalization, but it also returned us to images of grotto-like spaces for its physical articulation.

Today, in the name of environmentalism, architects are digging into the earth in an effort to release its particular climatic qualities. Passive ventilation schemes often involve underground constructions such as “labyrinths” or “thermosiphons” that release the earth’s cool and wet air. The earth that architects reach into is one that has been so technified and rationalized, so measured and considered, that it barely contains mythical or uncanny aspects. However, this return to the earth’s substrate enables other possibilities. Rather than turn to the earth to find a mytho-poetic or uncanny quality, we might develop a new sensibility. Perhaps we can understand the earth of architecture and its dankness through the lens presented within this brief essay. In other words, it is time that we understood dankness to hold history itself.

David Gissen

—posted 136 days ago

Table of Contents

Things to keep in mind:
The secret of conceit.

The literary America in which I found myself after I published The Twenty-Seventh City bore a strange resemblance to the St. Louis I’d grown up in: a once-great city that had been gutted and drained by white flight and superhighways. Ringing the depressed urban core of serious fiction were prosperous new suburbs of mass entertainments. Much of the inner city’s remaining vitality was concentrated in the black, Hispanic, Asian, gay, and women’s communities that had taken over the structures vacated by fleeing white straight males. MFA programs offered housing and workfare to the underemployed; a few crackpot city-loving artists continued to hole up in old warehouses; and visting readers could still pay weekend visits to certain well-policed cultural monuments—the temple of Toni Morrison, the orchestra of John Updike, the Faulkner House, the Wharton Museum, and Mark Twain Park.

By the early nineties, I was as depressed as the inner city of fiction. My second novel, Strong Motion, was a long, complicated story about a Midwestern family in a world of moral upheaval, and this time, instead of sending my bombs in a Jiffy-Pak mailer of irony and understatement, as I had with The Twenty-Seventh City, I’d come out throwing rhetorical Molotov cocktails. But the result was the same: another report card with A’s and B’s from the reviewers who had replaced the teachers whose approval, when I was younger, I had both craved and taken no satisfaction from; decent money; and the silence of irrelevance. Meanwhile, my wife and I had reunited in Philadelphia. For two years we’d bounced around in three time zones, trying to find a pleasant, inexpensive place in which we didn’t feel like strangers. Finally, after exhaustive deliberation, we’d rented a too-expensive house in yet another depressed city. That we then proceeded to be miserable seemed to confirm beyond all doubt that there was no place in the world for fiction writers.

Jonathan Franzen

—posted 162 days ago

Table of Contents