Tag Archives: form

discontinuity against ubiquity: narrative form and climate crisis

Lots of food for thought (and suggestions of novels to read) in this LARB dialogue on the topic of “fiction in the age of climate catastrophe” between authors Anne Charnock and James Bradley. It’s all of interest, but the following clips are relevant enough to merit excerpting here for reference purposes:

James Bradley:

The problem, I quickly realized, is that climate change is incredibly difficult to write about. Not just for all the obvious reasons to do with its gradual nature and inhuman scale, but because of its unboundedness, or what Amitav Ghosh has called “the inescapable continuities” of the Anthropocene. And that sense that climate change touches everything, and exceeds the kinds of temporalities humans normally inhabit meant that I quickly realized the subject was impossibly huge, and in some real sense writing a novel about climate change was like trying to write a novel about everywhere and everything.

The solution I came up with […] was to switch that problem around, and instead of trying to write a book about everything, writing quite a small story about a family across time. I think at the outset I thought that would let me come at the problem from different directions, and to capture a longer view by showing change over time. But once I was working on the novel, I realized it was useful in other ways as well: on the one hand shifting viewpoints and characters let me focus in on the affective dimension I wanted to capture, but it was also very effective at showing the incremental nature of change without me needing to foreground it.

[…]

I think there are probably a couple of things going on in this retreat from unitary narrative. One is writers developing a set of narrative conventions capable of engaging with the peculiar challenges of writing about climate change and environmental crisis. But I suspect it’s also another example of the way climate crisis resists and disrupts narrative more generally. Because even these kinds of narrative structures impose a kind of order and shape on something that exceeds human comprehension.

Anne Charnock:

I have always thought of fragmentation as a form that mirrors the complex lives we now lead. […] I agree that a discontinuous form works well for narratives on climate catastrophe, allowing the author to switch setting and switch voice, staccato in style, without warning. The reader may struggle to keep up, but isn’t that how we all feel with the onslaught of climate news from around the world? Each story declaring “the hottest,” “the wettest,” “the most destructive.” I’ve recently read a good example of this staccato approach, Stillicide (2019), a short and poetic novel by Cynan Jones about a future UK suffering from acute water shortages.

[…]

… I agree that fragmentation is an effective tactic in dealing with the “unboundedness” of climate change that you mention, and which Amitav Ghosh has interrogated.

James Bradley:

[… Amitav Ghosh’s 2019 novel] Gun Island is a really interesting reminder that the sort of fragmentation and mutation we’re talking about isn’t just about narrative fragmentation, it’s also about deeper kinds of rupture and transformation. That’s something you see very clearly in the work of people like Jeff VanderMeer and Karin Tidbeck, both of whom use the weird and the uncanny to capture the way environmental crisis dislocates and unhinges reality, and the rise of the eerie and various kinds of ghost stories and hauntings (a phenomenon VanderMeer and Robert Macfarlane have both written about very eloquently). I also think there’s a more fundamental dislocation at work, though, in the way the Anthropocene and climate crisis overwhelm narrative and rationality altogether. That collapse of meaning is difficult to think about, let alone write about, but you see it emerging in the critiques of modernity and progress embedded in the work of people such as Paul Kingsnorth and Roy Scranton, and in a fictional context in some of the weirder and more confronting fiction coming out of the UK at present.

Two levels of interest for me here. (Attention conservation note: authorial/academic navel-gazing hereafter.)

First of all, regarding my own fiction work (currently very much stalled and sidelined, but still nagging at me most days):now, I found myself drawn to fragmentary or mosaic narratives as far back as my Masters dissertation piece (so, 2011-12). In that particular case, the catastrophe I was trying to explore was not climate change, and indeed wasn’t entirely a mimetic catastrophe, either*… but the sense that any genuinely significant disruption of context, even across a relatively limited geographical space, expresses itself precisely through the different and fragmentary perceptions and experiencings of multiple viewpoints. Or, more bluntly, catastrophes at scale (or possibly of scale?) simply can’t be comprehended by any one subjectivity, let alone depicted by one. In my ongoing project (much battered and blocked by the sociopolitcal events of the last three years, as well as the climactic ones), the multi-strand approach seemed so inevitable that I never questioned it at all… I would note in passing, however, that it’s not really so novel an approach (hah!), whether you look at e.g. DeLillo on the literary shelves, or Brunner in the genre nook. (Stand on Zanzibar contributed considerably to my interest in the mosaic form during my Masters, as I recall it.) Quite what this seeming resurgence of the techniques of high modernism might bespeak, I am not enough of a literary scholar to say… but I know that a lot of authors of my acquaintance have been drawn to it over the last decade or more. An instinctive narratological response to the times, or something to do with postmodernity’s systematic recrudescence of discarded cultural forms? Maybe both? I DUNNO.

Regarding my academic work with narratives of adaptation in the context of climate change: design fiction’s focus on the particularity of the “use case”, and the foregrounding of mundane experience as a way to bring contextual change into the frame, seems to have some similarity to Bradley’s approach noted above: tell a small story, and the large leaks in, intruding upon the narrative much as climate change intrudes upon our actual lives, both as a background litany in the culture, and—increasingly—as actual concrete adversity and obduracy to activities and lifeways we heretofore never questioned. Where the line lies between “only practical mode of depiction” and “mode of depiction selected by and for cultural and environmental circumstances” would appear to be an open question, or perhaps a pointless one.

[ * — With hindsight, it’s obvious that the catastrophe in my Masters piece was in fact very personal and individual, at least in its origins: it was me working out what it meant to have left a city where I’d spent over half my life, among other things. But thoughts about the plurality of experience of urban crises had been strongly prompted by the riots of 2011, I suspect; the hypermediation of that bundle of events—and, in a very different way, the Olympics immediately afterward—marked a serious turning point for me in a lot of ways, many of which I suspect I’m still working through to this day. ]

inside among the outsiders

Sean Guynes on Le Guin’s The Dispossessed:

… whereas most utopian novels before Le Guin sent an outsider into the utopian society, tracing their voyage through the social, economic, and political structures of the “better” worlds offered by Gilman’s Herland or Bellamy’s United States, Le Guin cut the narrative in half, shuffled the deck, and used Shevek’s awkward social positioning on Anarres and Urras alike to explore the meanings of her version of utopia from the inside out.

Cf. Moylan’s canonical paper on the critical utopia, of course.

This was a timely thing to read on my train-travels yesterday, however, coming as it did fairly close upon the heels of a paper discussing (among other things) the specific urban-planning conceptualisation of utopia, which is predominantly a question of the deployment of urban form as a metaphor for a hierarchised systems understanding of the city as body/machine/computer… and hence a top-down perspective by necessity.

As Guynes points out, Le Guin’s intervention into the utopian mode was to totally invert the usual top-down approach, not just at the level of form, but also at the level of narratology… and I retain a belief that this radical breach of Le Guin’s is far from exhausted, whether by fictions qua fictions or any other off-label uses of the same toolkit.

Beyond the Narrative Arc

Patterns other than the wave, though, are everywhere. Here are the ones Stevens calls “nature’s darlings.” Spiral: think of a fiddlehead fern, whirlpool, hurricane, horns twisting from a ram’s head, or a chambered nautilus. Meander: 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. Radial or explosion: a splash of dripping water, petals growing from a daisy’s heart, light radiating from the sun, the ring left around a tick bite. Branching and other fractal patterns: self-replication at different scale made by trees, coastlines, clouds. Cellular or network patterns: repeating shapes you see in a honeycomb, foam of bubbles, cracked lakebed, or light rippling in a pool; these can look like cells or, inversely, like a net.

These fundamental patterns inform our bodies, too. We have wiggling meanders in our hair, brains, and intestines; branching patterns in capillaries, neurons, and lungs; explosive patterns in areolae and irises; spirals in ears, fingertips, DNA, fists. Our brains want patterns. We follow them instinctively: coiling a garden hose, stacking boxes, creating a wavering path when walking along the shore. And we even invoke these patterns to describe motions in our minds: someone spirals into despair or compartmentalizes emotions, thoughts meander, rage can be so great we feel we’ll explode. There are, in other words, recurring ways that we order and make things. Those natural patterns have inspired visual artists and architects for centuries. Why wouldn’t they form our narratives, too?

Jane Alison at the Paris Review

253 (Print Remix) by Geoff Ryman

253 by Geoff RymanI’ve known of 253 (a.k.a. Tube Theatre) for quite some time, but I’ve only just read it, after stumbling across the (Philip K Dick Award-winning) print remix in the dealer’s room at Eastercon. Its original incarnation was as a website – which still exists, seemingly untouched and untweaked since it was built in 1996. Wikipedia would have me believe that Robert Arellano’s Sunshine 69 was “the World Wide Web’s first interactive novel”, published in June 1996; I can’t find an accurate date for 253‘s launch, but it seems reasonable to say that even if it came out after Arellano’s work, it was still very much in the vanguard of web-native hypertext fictions. I used to read Wired in ’96 – dead-tree editions, of course, imported from the States – and remember the repeated pre-emptive obituaries for print media, and announcements of the imminence of the hypertext novel as the primary literary form of The Future. The former looks more likely now than it ever did, but still a long way off, while the latter – but for a small fringe scene – has remained resolutely below the radar, for reasons that are more obvious in hindsight. (I’m not going to waffle on about the paucity of viable business models for online fiction at this point; I’ve done enough of that at Futurismic over the years.) Continue reading 253 (Print Remix) by Geoff Ryman