Just in case you thought I was exaggerating about “I recognize that!” art, well, this popped up in the ol’ Twitter feed today, as per some psychological torture operation, I’m sure.
Anyway. Now that I’ve gotten that out of my system, we can return to the very interesting question of “what do books look like if there’s no storytelling involved?” I suggested yesterday that it might have something to do with kennings, which I’ll elaborate on here.
But before I do that, I’m not sure what I’m about to propose is a complete lack of storytelling. I’m not even sure that’s what you’d want out of a piece of art. Depending on how loose you want to get with your definition of “storytelling,” it may in fact be completely unescapable.
Almost every experimental book that I’ve read in the past few years that has attempted to free itself from the confines of traditional storytelling (with the exception of Gary Shipley’s WAREWOLF!!! and Blake Butler’s Alice Knott and Cassandra Troyan’s Throne of Blood) has been an incredibly boring, frustrating experience. Random words mushed together don’t induce a hypnotic state within me, or take me places I want to go (it’s also worth noting that’s not what any of the three books listed above are doing, either). Word salad books are just boring, and while I think boredom can be a useful tool, it’s not what you want the sum total of your work to be. There’s plenty of boredom in real life as it is, and you can be bored in more beautiful and helpful ways (like meditating or watching nature or some shit).
For the purposes of this blog post, however, let’s assume that “storytelling” in terms of a novel suggests a sequence of things happening, either in chronological order or slightly skewed (flashbacks, flashforwards), that suggest a change within a character or a plot device. How do you get away from that?
This is where the kenning comes in.
Agustín Fernández Mallo’s Nocilla Dream (and its sequel, but not its sequel’s sequel) does something like this. Composed of about 115 chapters, we are treated to images and characters doing things and also short essays or factoids. It reads like a collage, something pieced together from different novels. It’s wonderfully refreshing to read, because as you go through the book, you’re thinking about how these different sequences work pushed up against each other. No real answers are given (or maybe they are, I don’t remember), but you begin to generate story and theme around the text itself. There’s a lot of white space in the book, and that white space suggests a perimeter in which to do your own creating, to fill in the blanks.
Less than Nocilla, but along the same lines, Brian Allen Carr’s The Last Horror Novel in the History of the World is comprised of similarly small chapters, things happening. There’s kind of a plot, but there’s also that kenning effect of letting events sit next to each other within a lot of white space, and work itself out in your mind.
If On a Winter’s Night, A Traveler also comes to mind. A lot of Calvino’s books, actually.
And, finally, we come to David’s Current Pet Interest, Dark Souls. It is a game with very little plot to speak of. When you begin the game, you know you have to ring two bells. You don’t know why. Then, once you ring those bells, you have to do some shit in Anor Londo…I’m not 100% on any of this.
But you wander through environments, you read item descriptions that slowly begin to flesh out the world. It’s a virtual reality kenning experience, in which you are a participant in constructing the narrative of the world. The different stages loop back into each other, sit on top of each other, and it’s those relationships that begin to put a cohesive picture together within your brain. If a plot or a story is along the lines of a metaphor, something that is clearly supposed to mean an exact thing, then the collage or open world experience is the kenning, in which it’s supposed to mean whatever you decide it means.
There are going to be people who say, “No thanks. I like plot, I like story.” And I have good news for you: 99.9% of art is now currently tailor-made for that. So you’re free to go enjoy it and leave us weirdos in peace. For the rest of us, there’s something exciting about the prospect of making books into something closer to music. When you listen to a piece of music, there aren’t words that can describe how you feel when you listen to it (although there’s a few great music journalists out there who’d disagree). It’s a feeling, and you put your own life experience and taste into it, and then boom, the song has a meaning. There isn’t a plot to a song, just different instruments pressed up against each other, different movements pressed up against each other, presented to the audience largely (hopefully) without comment.
That’s what a kenning-novel might look like. Books that are intentionally mysterious, ephemeral, collage-like and abstract. These already exist of course, as I gave examples above. Not suggesting this is anything new. But it’s fun to think about, and fun to think that maybe one day there could be many, many more of them.
Rethink what a novel can do, and people will start to read again. It’s that simple.