Continuing the posts of the exegetical component of my PhD – no criticism intended, merely analysis. This section looks at mosaic novels and other forms of fragmented storytelling.
Part Three: Mosaic
‘My lies and the fragments of truth I remember mingle so well that I can hardly recognise which is which. I cobble them together like a beggar’s cape. I don’t tell him that I’ve jumbled the order of events, that I knew the old man. I don’t tell him about what I left behind.’
“Lost Things”, Sourdough and Other Stories, p.101
I have enjoyed considerable success as a short story writer and find the brevity and economy of the form suits my purposes.
I am, however, less secure with the lengthier form of the novel.
This is not a natural corollary. There are plenty of writers who have mastered both short and long forms. Alas, I am not one of them. The novel scares me. It is, well, long. In its usual shape, it has a single narrative thread; any and all divergences must be brought back into the fold, all mysteries and questions solved. Even novels such as Valente’s two-volume The Orphan’s Tales – which are made up of many, many detours from the original story thread of unwinding the identity of the girl in the garden – bring all the diverse tales back into the main story and ties them off, neatly clearing up any conundrums or ambiguities, giving all the tales within the tale a happily (or not so happily) ever after.
A short story, by its very nature, demands precision, an economy of words, descriptions that are succinct but potent. A short story shows a slice of life, not the whole birth-to-death cycle. Short stories are, of necessity, brief. They dive immediately into the action and they get to the point of the story and its denouement much, much faster than a novel. Interestingly enough, Walter Benjamin has linked the short story’s origins to the oral tradition (1969), and Trussler notes that ‘Story-tellers, entertaining their audiences with folklore, offered their tales as exempla, in which the recitation was dependent on the ending, since a story’s ending offered a means of interpreting the story that had been told’ (1996, p.572). Short stories deal with moments of crisis, choice and consequence. They are an art form and it takes a skilled writer to show only that which is absolutely necessary to get the story across. Where a novel gathers up the loose ends, a short story makes a point of leaving a reader wondering – leaving a reader with the uneasy knowledge that beyond the last full stop, there is a story still going on. Trussler observes that ‘… short fiction accentuates a single event, as opposed to the novel’s propensity to knit numerous events together in a serial fashion’ (1996, p.558).
I am writer enough to know that what I love about the short story, that the techniques and skills I’ve mastered to create them, are insufficient to make a novel – a short story deals with what Trussler describes as a ‘limited temporal horizon’, a ‘widened moment’ and it works towards an ending (1996, p.567). What has been interesting in the process of writing Sourdough is realising that my creative mind found a way around this problem. Instead of creating simple stand-alone stories, it inserted connections that made the tales more than short stories and more than mere fairy tales – a character seen in her youth in one story, returns later as an old woman; the tragedy of a character is played out in a one story and the consequences are shown in another much later (for example, “A Porcelain Soul” and “Sister, Sister”).
Why do I work with fairy tales? Can we ever say why something fascinates us, why something is embedded in our psyche? I think that for me, they are our earliest memories. They deal with very dark and complex issues – not simply primal fears that the thing going bump in the night is real, but the concept that our home and our family are not safe places. Fairy tales posit that our worst, our most dangerous and direst enemies are our parents and our siblings. Such tales have the potential to dig down into the very depths of our emotions – but they don’t. They are somewhat two-dimensional. As a writer, I want to address this lack, to pump life (fear?) into those tales and bring out their complexities, to dig about in the innards to see how something really works, then, Frankenstein-ish, put it back together.
Moretti observes that the novel has changed and adapted as required, that it is ‘a phoenix always ready to take flight in a new direction, and to find the right language for the next generation of readers’ (2006, p.ix). Sourdough is my phoenix – its mosaic structure gave me the opportunity to write something longer and more complex than a single tale; something both more connected and interconnected than a collection of stories standing alone. It allowed me to extend beyond the form of the short story collection and to circumvent all that scares me about the novel. If I am brutally honest, Sourdough has allowed me to cheat, but in cheating, find what really mattered.
In a visual mosaic each tile is different: irregularly shaped, varied in colour and substance. Each makes up part of a greater whole, its full effect is felt when viewing all the pieces together in their proper place. In Sourdough, each story-tile is a fragment – like an involuntary memory – and as with an involuntary memory, it is imperfect in that it does not show everything. As there are gaps in memories, so there are gaps in between story-tiles. Between each tile in the visual mosaic lie the spaces where there is only putty or clay or other adhesive to keep the pieces in place – to look at them, they appear as blank paths between each tile. In the Sourdough mosaic, these ‘blanks’ are the liminal spaces between the stories – the place where further story, the story that occurs before the opening sentence and after the last full stop, is withheld from the reader. These paths are crossing places from one story-tile to the next. The reader will know part of the tale is missing, but a skilful writer will be able to hint at what lies within the abyss by the tales s/he tells as part of the whole. Just as a chipped tile does not ruin the overall effect of a floor or wall mosaic, nor does missing narrative in a mosaic novel.
What moves Sourdough beyond a collection of short stories are the connections between each tale – these bridge the abyss and turn it into a threshold. It means the story-tiles are more than just short stories with a limited temporal horizon – they continue beyond the page; just as the short story ‘projects a hypothetical continuation of the narrative world in a postnarrational existence’ (Trussler, 1996, p.571), so too the story-tiles in Sourdough. The liminal space mirrors the blank space between memories (which are always imperfect), where things are always forgotten, the details of a face, a name, an item in a room. The spaces between are also, in some way, a space where the story-tiles ‘speak’ to each other ? a kind of a dialogic space where the multiple voices of narrators can exist together ? call across the distance to pass on the story to its next destination. What makes Sourdough a different kind of modality is that it takes the story beyond the traditional linear form where all narrative threads lead to the same place.
As I wrote Sourdough and the research question emerged, I examined other works in the genre to establish if any were similar to Sourdough in shape and engagement with ideas about the nexus between involuntary memory, fairy tales and the opportunities offered by a different narrative structure. I found several kinds of mosaic narratives in my reading: interlinked or themed collections, fix-ups, chain novels, tapestry novels and other mosaic novels. Some works fragment along similar lines, for example VanderMeer’s Veniss Underground, which fractures the narrators, one for each tale, but has only three stories, each told in a different way: the first in first person, the second in second person and the third in third person. Some embedded fairy tale elements in their narrative, such as Jeanette Winterson’s Sexing the Cherry, which uses one fairy tale (“The Twelve Dancing Princesses”) as its speculative element, but the main storyline is a form of history told in the main through the eyes of the Dog Woman. Neither of these tales had sufficient similarities with Sourdough to bear productive comparison. I did not find any that dealt as Sourdough has in its use of fairy tales and ideas about involuntary memory.
According to Joe McDermott, the creation of a mosaic is based on a technique of fracturing one or more story elements: plot, theme, characters, or setting. He maintains, however, that one element should be kept intact to bind the various story threads together and keep the reader anchored in the tale as a whole (2010, n.p.). Each mosaic text tends to fracture differently so I discuss some of these to show how they operate dissimilarly to Sourdough. In a true mosaic the plot is always going to be fractured, with no central plotline and each story-tile following its own narrative thread. Valente’s The Orphan’s Tales does not have a fragmented plot because of its tapestry nature – all threads lead back and are worked into the central plot of the mystery of the girl in the garden’s identity. City of Saints and Madmen, Voice of the Fire and Sourdough do have this fragmentation of plot, with each story-tile running its own narrative thread to an ending that does not feed in to a larger story question. Where the difference occurs is in the timeline of the stories – this will be considered in more detail later in this section when I discuss the fracturing of the element of time in these narratives.
An example of the interlinked collection of short stories is Emma Donoghue’s Kissing the Witch, which contains thirteen re-written, nested fairytales ? the linking exists in the structure of the framed tales. Each begins with the heroine and her journey through the story. By the end of the tale, another character – often the antagonist, be she wicked stepmother, rival, or fairy godmother – is invited to tell or offers her own story; this leads to the next tale. For example, the first tale is a re-working of Cinderella; at the end of the story, the fairy godmother figure is asked how she came to be who she is and she replies with ‘Will I tell you my own story? It is a tale of a bird’ (Donoghue, 1997, p. 9). That tale is a re-working of Bluebeard in which she tells of her past as an over-protected wife. Although the narrators are fragmented – that is, they are discrete, each tale having a new narrator – they act as a bridge between the tales, handing storytelling duties onwards. Settings are simultaneously fragmented by the shift from one narrator to another, from one setting to another, but because of the process of ‘handing over’ from one narrator to the next, the reader remains in the flow of the narrative.
Kissing the Witch differs from Sourdough in that it retains a linear structure, moving backward through time as it shifts from one protagonist to the next, each giving her history. As each story is told, the protagonist is left behind, never to reappear, after she passes the torch to the next narrator – each tale is linked only to the one that precedes it and follows it ? Kissing the Witch in some ways partakes of that ‘concatenation of continuous events’ so essential to most novels (Trussler, 1996, p.599). In Sourdough the recurrence of characters is not dictated in this ordered fashion, but seemingly randomly. All of Donoghue’s narrators are first person, but their narratives are all told in the past tense and so lose a sense of immediacy. Kissing the Witch always feels as if one is being told a story that has already happened ? indeed being told a tale in this manner feels like having a voluntary memory displayed for you, a remembrance that appeared by will. In Sourdough, the use of the present tense gives the impression that the tale is happening as one reads it – that, like an involuntary memory, this tale exists forever in and out of time. The immediacy of the stories and their narrators’ plights remain intact: Jessamyn’s desperate plea to her son to not look into the darkness never loses its urgency; Henri’s distress at committing her first murder is eternally fresh. An involuntary memory always exists out of its time, with all the attendant sensations of the original laying down of the memory still attached and relived when the memory is triggered. Whereas past tense is always being related, it is always being recollected, willingly remembered with the benefit of hindsight, present tense is not about reflection: the character is living in the moment and doesn’t know what is going to happen. With present tense, just as Proust’s tears at being denied his mother’s kiss echo forever, so the stories in Sourdough seem to be eternally happening.
The ‘fix-up’ novel is the rather awkward but accurate term used to describe composite works that began life as separate pieces – short stories and novellas – all published at different times in a writer’s career and not originally intended to fit together as a single novel. The description refers to the writing undertaken in order to make the disparate stories combine as sequential chapters so they may form a novel. This ‘connective writing’ serves the same function in fiction as connective tissues in the human body – it is meant to hold bits and pieces together. The success of the endeavour depends upon a writer’s skill in turning rather mismatched jigsaw pieces into a whole. Works which have been referred to by this term include: Richard Bowes’ From the Files of the Time Rangers (which began life as eight separate stories, published in a number of science fiction and magazines); Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, with all its component parts published separately in the 1940s until an editor at Doubleday suggested ‘All those Martian Tales … can’t you needle-and-thread them, stitch them up into The Martian Chronicles?’ (Bradbury, 2006, p.ix); and Jeff VanderMeer’s City of Saints and Madmen.
What these three works have in common is that all their elements ? their narrative limbs ? were written at different times and then later reworked to make them fit as a single entity. Bowes and Bradbury added connective tissue after the fact to suture the pieces together. This connective tissue serves another function in these instances – to paper over the cracks between the stories so their mosaic nature is, in essence, hidden. One of the issues attendant on this technique is that in trying to make the work look like a traditional novel, one gives a reader particular expectations about the shape of the work and how the narrative will proceed. A reader who comes to such a text with these expectations will be surprised – possibly disappointed and puzzled – to find that the looked-for shapes, patterns and cadences are not in evidence. In this respect, such a work may fail as a novel and might, perchance, have faired better with a reader if it had not tried to hide its true nature. The papering over of cracks in the ‘fix-up’ novel seems designed to try and force a ‘concatenation of continuous events’ (Trussler, 1996, p.599).
The intent behind Sourdough was that it was always to be a single book, not an entity put together out of editorial convenience or necessity. Four of the stories were published separately; this was during the writing of the book, and I used the opportunity to test the quality of what I was doing, as per Brien, by using ‘publishing as research’ (2006, pp.55-57). In Sourdough the cracks, the spaces between the stories, are almost as important as the stories themselves. The cracks help to highlight the tales by acting as frames for the ‘widened moment’ of each narrative, making them appear as discrete story-tiles. But the frames in Sourdough are porous, allowing the tales to connect to each other, their links seemingly as random as vines climbing a wall. The cracks are both frames and thresholds in Sourdough.
VanderMeer’s City of Saints and Madmen most closely resembles the structure of Sourdough in that each separate story stands alone. That is, while they are linked by the over-arching setting (the city of Ambergris in VanderMeer’s work, Lodellan in Sourdough), no over-writing has occurred to try to papier-mache over the cracks in order to make the book look like a traditional novel. City of Saints and Madmen stands as a kind of compendium history of Ambergris, sharing with Sourdough the occasional and haphazard recurrence of characters in various stories; for example, the character of Dradin appears as the protagonist in the first story (“Dradin in Love”) and resurfaces in “The Transformation of Martin Lake” as a client who is mentioned in passing. Similarly, the legendary figure of Voss Bender, composer and politician, is kind of story talisman in several of the tales.
It is important to note that not all the chapters in City of Saints and Madmen are ‘stories’ per se – one is a false bibliography, another a history of the famous Hoegbottom & Sons trading house intertwined with an early history of the city, yet another is a series of ‘case notes’ tracking an illness, while others are extracts from competing academic works about the giant squids that inhabit the waters of Ambergris – indeed, the second half of the book is a series of appendices. While every story in Sourdough is meant to act as a portal, as an in-the-moment involuntary memory, when ‘the past impinges on the present without our conscious control’ (Duggan, 2001, p.147), City of Saints and Madmen functions as a kind of faux historical document cobbled together, such as one might find after the decline of a great city – a collection of artefacts that give an impression of a civilisation. The stories are mostly in past tense and told in third person (although the case notes are written in first person) and they move in a linear fashion, tracking the rise and fall of the city. The shift here in City of Saints and Madmen is that in making this an historical document (faux or otherwise), VanderMeer is creating a form of remembrance which depends on a voluntary memory; wilful collection. Reading this work makes one feel like an archaeologist, stripping away the layers of a city’s past. In VanderMeer’s creation of a ‘written’ history (a kind of memorial), I’m reminded of Prosser’s observation that ‘… quotations also signify the passage of memory from the oral to the written: they revive a historical event, but they also bear witness to the fact that the event has passed out of living memory’ (2009, n.p.)? and the memory that is dealt with in this situation is voluntary. In being a work so firmly embedded in ideas about history and memorial City of Saints and Madmen is not designed to tap into the sensations of an involuntary memory.
Another form of mosaic is the ‘chain’ novel, in which the fragmentation occurs not only in the story elements, but also in the number of authors who contribute to the work. This term has been used for anthologies set in a shared world with each story written by different authors such as the major speculative fiction series Thieves’ World edited by Robert Aspirin and Lynn Abbey and Wild Cards edited by George R. R. Martin. The form had its genesis in the arena of Gaming (for example, Dungeons & Dragons) and reflects how a role-playing game functions, operating in a shared world environment, with each player taking on a persona. Sometimes, the book will be less of an anthology and more of a novel, with several writers each producing a sequential chapter rather than a separate stand-alone story; sometimes a novel will be written by one writer using the same shared worlds and characters and the next book in the series will be written by a different writer using the same shared world and characters.
The multi-author nature of the work and the idea of passing the story along to the next author captures the sense of the chain and an extra layer of mosaic comes from outside of the story, in the fracturing of the writing across different authors. The latest version of this kind of chain work is an online project called The Mongoliad by authors Neal Stephenson, Greg Bear and ‘Friends’, which is described as a ‘community-driven, enhanced serial novel’ (Stephenson & Bear, 2010, n.p.), with instalments added each week. The genres of chain novels are generally epic or high fantasy or science fiction and the multi-author nature of the works does not make them suitable for comparison with Sourdough, which is a single-author work dealing with involuntary memories within, and as, fairy tales. In addition, the shift along the narrative thread in a chain novel tends to be linear, in imitation of a traditional novel. In doing so, it tends more towards the idea and shape of a ‘history’ and therefore something voluntarily remembered; it goes against the idea of involuntary memory being disorganised and out of sequence – so, once again, it is a version of the mosaic that does not tap into or recreate the sensations of the involuntary memory.
In the section on Memory, I discussed how Catherynne M. Valente’s two volume The Orphan’s Tales deals not with involuntary memory but with a personal history told through a series of framed tales moving through time via remembrance and voluntary memory. Each divergence from the central plotline is brought back to the main narrative thread. The difference between this novel and the other works listed here is that this tale has a single over-arching story question, which explores the young girl’s identity – that is always the arc the story follows, no matter how many times the story veers from the main tale – each story is a step on the path to a single point as in most narratives. Each separate tale presents its own mysteries and questions, but these are all solved and tied into the overall plot of the novels by the end of book two; for example, there is the tale of the girl who in one story is a talking fish, in another an ordinary girl, and in another a dragon – the tale ends in another story entirely that involves a basilisk and the fish’s daughter. All details and detours are intricately crafted, with essential mysteries often solved in the oblique via another tale, and all invariably lead back into the central thread. In this way, the books are more akin to a tapestry than a mosaic.
Although The Orphan’s Tales share some elements of the mosaic structure – the diverse tales told of many different characters – what differentiates them from the mosaic of Sourdough is the solving of all mysteries, the tidy resolution of all plot questions. Sourdough, structured like a series of involuntary memories, and dealing with the sporadic but connected nature of these types of memories, leaves mysteries for the reader. We are not told the details of Patience’s life between her desertion of Olwen and her becoming part-owner of the Golden Lily. We do not know what happened to Theodora’s parents and we do not see the earlier inciting incident between her and her sister Polly. We never uncover the details of Ella’s escape/exile from her father’s kingdom and we do not know if she ever finds her way back home or simply wanders, snatching bad children as she goes. When the unnamed narrator of “The Navigator” leaps from the cliff, we do not know if Windeyer swoops down to save her or not – in a way, she is left to fall forever. This kind of memory, fragmented and imperfect due to its involuntary nature, is not evident in The Orphan’s Tales.
The effect of the mosaic technique in Sourdough is to give the reader the uncomfortable feeling that there is more story happening off screen, beyond the edge of the tile, in the space where there seems to be nothing but ‘putty’. Like an involuntary memory, the edges of the story blur, they are uncertain – and to strengthen the sense in the reader that there is a tale they are not told (Benjamin’s ‘inferred continuation of the narrative world’ (1969, p.100), I have used connecting links between story-tiles. Without those links, the stories would truly stand-alone, there would be no light bulb moment when a reader thinks ‘Ah! She’s the daughter of Emmeline!’ or ‘Faideau started this whole thing!’ There would be no cause for a reader to wonder what happened in the liminal space. Thus the links have a similar effect to a sight, sound, smell, or indeed one involuntary memory triggering another.
These links act as ‘hidden’ plots; that is, occurrences that become known to the reader purely through a later story. For example, in “Sister, Sister” the reader knows of Theodora’s desperate race to save her child from the troll-wife. What is not known until the very end of “Under the Mountain” is that she failed. The reader is not told when or how the substitution of troll-changeling for child came about, but the later story flows from the consequences of that hidden plot. Similarly, in “Sister, Sister” Theodora mentions that Kitty says Rilka talks in her sleep and that she thinks Rilka may have killed someone ? this is the only hint given that the former Marshall of the Battle Abbey is haunted by the death of Ingrid in “The Bones Remember Everything”. In “Under the Mountain”, Faideau’s role in the events that occurred ‘off-screen’ ? the stealing away of the baby Polly ? is revealed; in “Sister, Sister” these events were essential to the story, but it is only in the later revelation that they throw the earlier story into a sharper, more complex light.
With Valente’s books you always feel as if you are being told a story– that a voluntary memory is being given as an anecdote. Another element that differentiates The Orphan’s Tales from Sourdough is that with the former, there is no doubt in the reader’s mind that one is being told a ‘true’ tale, a ‘true’ history. There is no doubt about the reliability of the narrator; she is telling a story that is set ? it is written on the girl’s face; she is a kind of public memorial. With Sourdough, in order to highlight the sense of each story being an involuntary memory – all memories being imperfect – I have ‘blurred’ the stories characters tell about each other. In “Lost things” Jessamyn admits freely that she’s told so many lies they now all seem to blend seamlessly with the bits of truth she knows and she can no longer tell the difference. Similarly, Faideau tells her lies when she asks about his life and his mother ? he lies because he does not know anything. When Theodora sketches her fellow inhabitants of the inn in “Sister, Sister”, she says that Fra Benedict lost his tongue in a monastery brawl, but the reader knows from “A Porcelain Soul” that his tongue was cut out by the boy Dante. She also gives us part of Bitsy’s story – that she lost her wits through making too many dolls – but without any hint of the circumstances surrounding that incident, just the rough kind of (possibly unreliable) information we gather about the people around us. Theodora is not lying – she is merely reporting what she believes she knows of her fellows; she is repeating, in some ways, rumours. Using something as destabilising as ‘rumour’ helps to contribute to the fragmented nature of the text and underpins how the mosaic form can be used to create a fictional equivalent of an involuntary memory.
These slight shifts from the truth of one story to how it is recounted in another, these lies (conscious or otherwise) which my characters tell increase the sense of uncertainty such as one might feel when struck by an involuntary memory in which the details are unclear. What is presented as truth in one story is slightly changed in another – so there is also a sense of rumour running through the society of Sourdough. The effect of this is to slightly destabilise what a reader may view as ‘truth’ ? and as a writer it’s my intention that this kind of destabilisation mirrors the same disturbing effect as an involuntary memory ? just as the event which a short story privileges is ‘an implosive breach in the everyday flow of time’ (Trussler, 1996, p.566), so too is the involuntary memory. Rumours and anecdotes, as with retold fairy tales, change with every telling. As they pass from mouth to mouth, the same kind of Chinese whispers effect comes into play – the effect in the text is to make the Sourdough stories, and in some ways the stories within the stories, seem like retold fairy tales – infinitesimally but undeniably changed, uncertain, imperfect and as powerful and surprising as an involuntary memory – indeed as destabilising as Proust’s ‘dazzling and indistinct vision’ (1983, pp.899-900).
Another version of the mosaic novel, Alan Moore’s Voice of the Fire (marketed simply as a ‘novel’), is similar to Sourdough in that it uses first person, present tense narrators for all of its twelve story-chapters, and it has similar occasional recurrences of characters in various stories (for example, as ghosts or in the form of death masks). However, the book is an imagined history of Moore’s birth city of Northampton ? and as such, it is an imagined remembrance. Each tale is set at a particular point on the city’s 5,000 year timeline (including the Neolithic era, Crusades, burning times, Roman settlement, and the 1930s of murderer A. A. Rouse). As with VanderMeer’s City of Saints and Madmen the city is the constant – and the book makes the reader a sort of historian. Where Sourdough uses fairy tale tropes and motifs as its shorthand, Voice of the Fire uses historical and cultural landmarks such as Northampton’s cathedral and castle and local legends such as ‘shagfoals’, which he scatters among his fictional ones to add verisimilitude and to help anchor the reader in a Northampton that they both know and do not know. VanderMeer does something similar with his use of ‘story talismans’ (McDermott) such as the mushroom folk who infect the city, the Borges Bookstore and the street-side saints.
Voice of the Fire also differentiates itself from Sourdough by each story relying on history, and therefore voluntary memory, for its foundations. Stories are anchored in an historical reality – particularly the final story, “Phipps’ Fire Escape” where Moore writes himself into the tale. It is a kind of meta-fiction, in which he as author sees the ghosts of his characters; the ultimate meeting of writer and writing. This, however, has the effect of breaking the bonds between story and reader. Reality intrudes not through carelessness, but through authorial intent. In “On Fairy-Tales”, Tolkien described what happens when the secondary world fails:
Inside it [the Secondary World], what he relates is “true”: it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside. The moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken; the magic, or rather art, has failed. You are then out in the Primary World again, looking at the little abortive Secondary World from outside. If you are obliged, by kindliness or circumstance, to stay, then disbelief must be suspended (or stifled), otherwise listening and looking would become intolerable. But this suspension of disbelief is a substitute for the genuine thing, a subterfuge we use when condescending to games or make-believe, or when trying (more or less willingly) to find what virtue we can in the work of an art that has for us failed (2008, p.52).
We are thrown out of Moore’s fiction when he deliberately introduces reality – while we have been reading his stories set in the past, we know it is a fictionalised history he has given us. But “Phipps’ Fire Escape” wakes us up – breaks the secondary world. Sourdough, however, is constructed to ensure the reader remains inside the secondary world. The world of Lodellan and its hinterlands remain intact, sealed off from ‘reality’, safe in the constructed space of the fairy tale, where magic happens, hermetically if not hermeneutically sealed – doubt does not creep in because we as readers, as Freud has pointed out, ‘adapt our judgment to the imaginary reality imposed on us by the writer’ (1997, p.227).
City of Saints and Madmen and Voice of the Fire are each set in a city which remains constant throughout, anchoring the story to a place, although both cities are shown as changing over the timeline of their life cycles (thus using a technique McDermott refers to as a ‘dynamic narrative cement’ (2010, n.p)). The Orphan’s Tales has as its overarching setting the Sultan’s gardens and palace; even though all the sub-tales the narrator tells are set in many different lands, the reader is always drawn back to the focal location of the gardens and palace.
Sourdough’s setting is more varied – although the cathedral-city of Lodellan acts as the setting for some of the stories, other tales are set in Bitterwood, Briarton, Tintern, Breakwater or in the woods between these locations. An anchoring point is the mention of Lodellan in other stories that are not set there – for example, in “A Porcelain Soul” the cathedral-city is spoken of as if it is the big city to which all ambitious folk in small towns wish to go. In addition, tales not set in the cathedral-city identify characters the reader knows have been in Lodellan at some point in other stories, such as Blodwen in “Ash”.
Both City of Saints and Madmen and Voice of the Fire, cover a grand historical sweep of time, and the stories in The Orphan’s Tales, although recounted over a relatively short period in the frame tale (perhaps a year or two in the narrator’s life), spans hundreds of years within the sub-tales, compacting the period. The movement of time in all three works is mostly linear, laying out tales as events on a set timelines. In Sourdough, however, time is obviously fragmented in this mosaic – stories cover a period of roughly 100 years, and in order to create a reflection of the temporal distortion of an involuntary memory I wanted the movement of time to feel slightly asynchronous. I wanted the reader to experience a sense of time fugue so as to mirror the sensation of not being able to remember when (and indeed how) things happened precisely, when your memories are a blur. Salaman writes of finding that the memory of the layout of the house in which she lived the longest would set itself as the ‘background’ landscape for many of her involuntary memories, even those that occurred when she lived in a different house, mixing up time (1970, p.86). In effect I took advantage of the leeway given to fairy tales about which Bakhtin wrote: ‘hours are dragged out, days are compressed into moments, it becomes possible to bewitch time itself. Time begins to be influenced by dreams; that is, we begin to see the peculiar distortion of temporal perspectives characteristic of dreams’ (1981, p.154). Sourdough’s chronotope is intended to appear as a kind of shifting mist, creating the same kind of temporal uncertainty experienced by those in the grip of an involuntary memory and helping to create a fictional analogue of the state.
Characters and narrators are fractured in Voice of the Fire, City of Saints and Madmen, The Orphan’s Tales and Sourdough. Voice of the Fire and Sourdough both use a different first person narrator telling each tale in present tense, whereas City of Saints and Madmen and The Orphan’s Tales both use third person, past tense narrators. As a writer, I find the use of third person largely loses the ability to intimately and intensely engage a reader – third person always feels as though a story is being told to you and puts a barrier, no matter how slight, between the story and the reader. Involuntary memory is direct, proximate and urgent, and first person, present tense are techniques that reproduce those effects. First person allows the reader to avoid Cixous’ ‘distancing dimension’ (1994, p.47) and tap into the protagonist’s feelings and experiences. The use of past tense means that a story loses its immediacy – it has become history – it loses that ability to recreate the strangeness that is inherent in the involuntary memory, of existing always in its own time and always out of it, of the past re-occurring in the present.
Edith Wharton firmly believed that the writer’s ‘first care [was] to choose his reflecting mind deliberately, as one would choose a building site’ (1925, p.11). The next step for her was to then ‘live inside the mind chosen, trying to feel, see and react exactly as the [character] would, no more, no less, and, above all, no otherwise’ (1925, p.12). Using first person gives an author an excellent chance to convince a reader that the narrator is honest – reliable ? at least in the reader’s initial encounter with the narrator. The journey the writer undertakes in living inside the reflecting mind mirrors that of the reader who, also placed inside the reflecting mind by the ‘I’ lives that journey, seeing things from the narrator’s point of view – by sleight of hand, the author disappears and replaces her/himself with the narrator.
For a reader to instantly sense that the narrator is unreliable can have the effect of impairing the engagement with the narrator. At least at first ‘sight’ a narrator should seem dependable to the reader, hopefully somewhat sympathetic ? an excellent example of this (although not a fairy tale) is Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle. The first person narrator, Merricat, gets the reader in, engaging her/his sympathy by depicting herself as someone who is outcast by the villagers and who is bullied by them. It is only as the story proceeds that we begin to see cracks in her reliability: her strange magical thinking, her bizarre habits and, ultimately, the revelation of her as the poisoner of her own family. But the important work of engaging the reader has been done at the beginning of the story, and that is very firmly founded in the use of a first person narrator.
Direct engagement with the ‘I’ can help get a reader onside, even with a character who may be doing some rather nasty things. Once again, a reader may not like them, but if they understand them, then the reader empathises and that is half the battle in convincing a reader of the narrator’s reliability. With Sourdough I wanted my characters to be and be seen as more reliable than they otherwise might be. To do this, I have tried to paint them as unforgiving of themselves, laying out their stories without trying to mitigate their own failings and crimes. They simply spread their acts out before the reader for judgment. In showing my narrators as having no interest in telling lies to save themselves, I’ve attempted to increase the reader’s engagement with, and empathy for, them (even the ‘bad’ characters like Olwen and Ella), as well as their reliability in the minds of readers. This, of course, creates a tension: the idea of a reliable narrator who passes on rumours, like Theodora. The effect of this, I hope, is to tap into a reader’s own self-concept: that they themselves are reliable, but who doesn’t like a little gossip? In this, I also hope the reader will see this tension as a natural characteristic of a narrator, rather than a ‘deal breaker’ in the reader-writer contract. It also contributes to that sense of destabilisation in that I want to mirror the sense of uncertainty engendered by the strike of an involuntary memory ? the unexpected, unforeseen breach in the everyday.
Something that City of Saints and Madmen, Voice of the Fire and Sourdough all have in common as mosaic texts is intact themes – that is, all the stories in each tome share at least one theme. The Orphan’s Tales have consistent overarching themes (at its heart, a search for identity and fear of the Other) because it is a tapestry tale, an entity which, in the end, is whole. McDermott suggests that fragmenting themes is an acceptable way of creating a mosaic (2010, n.p.), but in order to make the component parts of a mosaic cohere, I think it essential to ensure that the themes are consistent – that each story in some way connects to a shared theme, no matter how it engages with other ‘one-off’ threads that are particular to an individual story. Some works claiming the title of ‘mosaic’ have fractured themes, such as Dan Simmons’ Hyperion. As each of the tales in this particular book fractures narrator, plot, theme and setting, the book relies on a single element to keep the reader anchored – the idea that all the narrators are travelling to the planet Hyperion. This means that the collection is held together not by consistent internal story elements but solely by an external, overarching idea of a shared destination. This makes Hyperion less a mosaic and more of a frame tale.
City of Saints and Madmen, Voice of the Fire and Sourdough all have consistent, unfragmented themes that keep the story-tiles connected to each other and the reader connected to the story. Voice of the Fire’s recurrent themes include the link between magic and art and madness, fear of the Other and the power of fire to both destroy and reinvigorate. City of Saints and Madmen’s themes include the effect of colonisation, the inevitable decay of civilisations, and (again) fear of the Other. Sourdough’s overarching themes include lost children, the power and affect of involuntary memories, the need to belong, the effects of being outcast and fear of the Other. Themes as constants are a means of ensuring a reader is aware of the interconnectedness of the stories and of keeping a reader in the story.
Sourdough shares some characteristics with works such as City of Saints and Madmen and Voice of the Fire, as well as some elements with the tapestry tale of The Orphan’s Tales. However, in combining the unorthodox structure with the fairy tale genre to create fictional involuntary memories in the form of story-tiles, the work offers a different kind of mosaic. Each story-tile is designed to be a portal, taking the reader to a space where different kinds of memory are on display ? the portal moment provides the breach in the present for the reader, mirroring the way the involuntary memory breaches the present. In using this mosaic technique, the tales feel lived rather than related/told to the reader.
Sourdough, is not neat – it is a reflection of the ragged edges of memory. It does, however, work both as a whole and as component parts. The stories in Sourdough actively interact with each other and the connections between them go beyond the ‘story talismans’ VanderMeer and Moore have used to suggest links between their stories (a mention here and there of a character or an event). Sourdough tales loop forward and backward in time, revealing back story and hidden plots and relationships that serve to illuminate other stories in turn and in retrospect. Characters are layered and textured by shifting them from a story as narrator to subsequent story as a secondary character viewed through another’s eyes. The hidden plots are also revealed in this manner, helping to ‘build up a picture of a world obliquely’ (Walton, 2008, n.p.) and thus aiming to add depth and complexity to the entire work.
Each story in Sourdough deals in some way with involuntary memories that surface as unexpectedly as a flash of lightning, imperfect and intense. In mirroring this kind of involuntary revelation in the way I have written Sourdough, I hope that a reader will experience the same kind of intense sensations an involuntary memory brings, and so feel that they are experiencing the story along with the narrator – and, in some way, existing both in and out of time.