Fiction is stories, right? The protagonist encounters a challenge, sets off in pursuit, and after many travails achieves a resolution. Much genre writing fits this mould.
There is another kind of fiction where the plot can be incidental or even non-existent. This is writing based on character rather than story. Often this type is called literary.
But that’s not all. There is a third, though rare, kind of fiction, which executes its code in your brain as you read. It rewires your consciousness.
I was very struck by this again reading Nick Harkaway’s Gnomon, a literary science fiction novel set in a near future total-surveillance Britain.
The plot revolves around a detective’s efforts to understand how a suspect could have died under a mind-mapping session. It turns out that the suspect invented a series of narratives to keep her own consciousness secret. The book loops back and forth through these stories.
There is a sequence where Harkaway’s method is evident. One of the narrative personas is brought together with a woman who he is told is his dead lover, Stella. The text oscillates between the possibility that she is an imposter and the possibility that, if she occupies Stella’s place in the world, she is Stella. Layers of philosophical hocus pocus, of metaphor, and of narrative exposition create a universe in which this transubstantiation is plausible.
Yeah, I hear you say, all fiction does that. It invites us to suspend disbelief. But what Harkaway does is more than world-building which postulates orcs and elves and offers us an escape into magic. He transforms your sense of reality such that we understand personal identity in a new way. We don’t escape into a fantasy world. Rather, reality changes.
I described this technique in an earlier post.
Words can create illusions. They can bridge impossible gaps allowing magical connections to be made between unlinked things. This is the stuff of fantasy, but also the stuff of poetry and of magic realism. Imagination can stitch together things never connected in the real world. Recurring words and images can stitch together these magic connections
Harkaway describes in a blog the process of writing the book:
This was like weaving a tapestry thread by thread while holding the entire design in your head, and my head just wasn’t big enough. Meanings intersected with other meanings, with consequences. I had to go back, again and again, re-work, re-conceive, re-imagine. Sure, yeah, I know: writing is re-writing. I’m familiar with the re-write. This was more like starting a new book every four months or so. The number of plotlines and their interactions meant a kind of exponential multiplication of possibility. I’d made a maze in my own mind and I kept getting lost in it. The book was smarter than I was.
Reading Gnomon was more like taking a mind-altering drug than like narration. A few other books have done this. One was Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Paramo.
Another was A U Latif’s Songs from the Laughing Tree (currently out of print). In a review of Latif’s book I wrote
Our brains are evolved to seek pattern and meaning, and Latif plays with this. The figures of the stories loop and dive, and create impossible or magical meanings that are whimsically held together by no more than a concatenation of words, an ellipsis of adjectives.