I was reminded today, as I read for my MA in creative writing, that I used to distrust that sentence, ‘A story must have a beginning, a middle and an end’ repeated to me by my English teacher.
To Aristotle plot was everything. However Aristotle made the point in Poetics, thus, ‘good poets…draw out the plot beyond it’s potential, and are often forced to distort the sequence’ (Aristotle, Poetics p 17).
I got to thinking, isn’t imposing a structure on something taking away the creative aspect of it, to a certain extent?
In his work Intertextuality, Graham Allen sites Mallarmé’s In Coup De Des, in which ‘narrative’ is avoided’ (Mallarmé, 1994:122, cited in Allen). Drawing on Barthes, Allen differentiates between ‘readerly’ and ‘writerly’ texts; ‘writerly’ texts are non-linear. ‘Life…, in the classic text, becomes a nauseating mixture of common opinions, a smothering of received ideas’ (Barthes, 1974: 206, in Allen, Intertextuality, p. 89).
Allen observes Barthes suggestion that ‘The radically plural text does not allow one code to dominate over any other […] liberates the disruptive force of the intertextual’ (Allen, Intertextuality, p. 90).
Because life is often inexplicable, writing which distorts and disrupts offers a perhaps truer insight into the, often disjointed and story-like aspect of the lived life.
As a child, I was drawn to books such as The Twelve Dancing Princesses, where we are led to believe that a sponge could be tied to the chin of a character and go undetected by several princesses to the extent that the character avoids drinking the sleeping draught, since it is absorbed into the sponge, and manages to follow the princesses and discover where they go to dance, thus escaping death and winning the hand of one of them, and The Discontented Pony a story in which nothing much happens, except that a pony is discontented. But in this story, which is a very untypical Ladybird book from the 1970s, everything is not neatly tied up at the end. It offered an alternative to the linear narrative since the the status quo, that being that the pony is discontent, does not alter.
A typical Ladybird book from the 1970s would be Peter and Jane; this books offers an ideal representation of the ‘nauseating mixture of common opinions’ and ‘smothering of received ideas’ which Barthes so succinctly described and which I referenced earlier on, since we have the depiction in the story of the ideal family, with a mother and father and a girl and boy and how they live from day to day in a perfectly ordinary and perhaps nauseatingly perfect way.
Works such as The Life of Pi (Yann Martell, 2001), a story which might be described as a direct descendent of The Discontented Pony in respect of its genre lineage being philosophical and psychological fiction, offer alternative narratives. To attempt not to spoil the denouement for anyone who has not read the story, when we come to the end we are offered an alternative description of the events seen through the eyes of alternative characters, which then disrupts everything we thought we knew when we read the story at face value, trusting the characters we were presented with as we were reading. We are forced to reimagine the characters with this alternative ending. And this is a story about storytelling, so it pays a debt to its status as a metafiction, by showing the reader how story is constructed; that being through the belief in a specific character and through a trust in the way the character is depicted. But what if the character was something other than the way he or she is presented, and what if we were being misled in some way? Would we interpret the story differently? We would certainly be forced to revisit the story and reimagine it through the eyes of the alternative characters we were being presented with right at the end of the story. This is unsettling and challenges us as readers to examine the motives for any conclusions that drew as we progressed, unwittingly, through the story from beginning to end, because when we arrive at the end all is thrown into confusion.
Allen, Graham, Intertextuality (London and New York: Routledge, 2006)
Aristotle, Poetics ed., Malcolm Heath (London, New York: Penguin Classics, 1996)
Martell, Yann, The Life of Pi (Canada: Random House, 2001)
Barthes, Roland, Image-Music-Text, Stephen Heath (trans.) (Hill and Wang, New York, 1977)
Barthes, Roland, The Pleasure of the Text, Richard Miller (trans.) (Hill and Wan:, New York, 1975)
Grimm’s, The Twelve Dancing Princesses, (various sources)
Unknown author, The Discontented Pony, ( Ladybird, unknown date)