I bought a lot of books in 2020. So many books. Some people caved to instagram ads for that hit of serotonin; I went shopping on Bookshop.org and Thriftbooks and various indie bookstores appealing for help in staying afloat (Literari, the Mitten Word, and Vroman’s all got some of my cash, for sure). I have yet to get around to reading so many of these impulse buys (mostly of books I’m quite happy to now own). Jane Alison’s Meander, Spiral, Explode (from indie press Catapult) was one of these. On an impulse, while finalizing the prep for my first ever fiction-only upper-level seminar (on postcolonial fiction), I started reading it, and boy, am I glad I did.
Alison explains, in the opening pages, that she has found the wave structure of much literature, as laid out by Aristotle as the ideal shape for tragic dramas, insufficient for some kinds of stories, and incongruous with some of the works she has read. You know this shape: it’s the classic pyramid or triangle shape, showing the climax at the peak/middle, with the beginning (opening and rising action) and end (falling action and closing). It’s also called the wave form, and Alison lightly, playfully critiques the way in which it parallels male sexual experience, building to a peak and then collapsing quickly. But, she notes, that’s not how she experiences sex; is it perhaps also not how everyone constructs plot?
From there, she examines a number of other alternative patterns: wavelets, meander, spiral, radial, network/cell, tsunami. I found this tremendously helpful for thinking about how to walk my students through the various narrative patterns that emerge in the authors we’ll be reading: while plenty of 19th century authors experimented and tested the limits of prose form, they are mostly staunchly linear, with a clear climactic moment. But some of our texts resist that easy, familiar shape, and I want my students not to be frustrated, but to understand what they are encountering in novels that test out different ways of presenting a story. Alison’s various patterns are tremendously helpful in that regard, and any reader of fiction from the last fifty or so years (and even the last century, given some of the experiments of Modernist writers) will find this valuable and compelling. (Also, it might just give you some other books you want to pick up! or order from Bookshop or your favorite indie…)
If I have one gripe, it’s that the book is almost too brisk, breezy, and brief in exploring some of these patterns; while I didn’t need Alison to go all high theory on me, I wouldn’t have minded a few more pages in each chapter considering what kinds of stories these shapes are often linked to, or why they are particularly effective for certain kinds of subject matter. She touches on this here and there, but lightly and fleetingly, and since the book feels like an engaging conversation with a lover of literature, I wanted the chat to stretch out for just a bit longer.