Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Narrative Game Theory (How Does Fiction REALLY Work?)

This is thinking-out-loud...

The novel as self-generating game. What it generates is the game, the rules of the game, rules to reconstruct old and generate new rules. What are rules? Rules are what they do. What do they do? Rules define the parameters of change.

... I think I just learned something from Gertrude Stein.

If everything changes change will be invisible, undetectable. Everything does change but in pretending to hold some elements constant in memory comparison is possible. What it was, what it is (what it will be?) What it will be is the unknown to solve for. In fiction time can go backwards. The unknown-that-will-be can be either in the past or the future. This is, of course, figurative time. In a novel the future, the novelistic future--the unknown that will be--is the end of the book, the next chapter, the next page, the next sentence, the next hyphen comma dash colon semicolon period word phoneme letter

white space.

That is true even if we read backwards. Reading backwards only reverses forward and back, past and future. The future, the novelistic future, lies in what we've not yet read. The future lies. We read to expose the lie. To solve for the unknown. Solving for the unknown generates new unknowns. Why? Because of the rules. The rules are always making and remaking. Making and remaking themselves.

For there to be change there has to be something to change, different kinds of things changing in the novel. "Characters" for instance. We like to think we know what that is, the "character." I ask my students this question. You finished reading Emma. What did Jane Austin make Emma out of? What did Jane Austin make Mr. Knightley out of? We are made of a complex interaction of cells, and organs--interacting with each other and to what is outside the organism. What is Emma made of? What is Mr. Knightley made of? We are all made in basically the same arrangement, of the same material, the same general design. If I hold up a picture, one at a time, of every man woman and child on the planet and ask: what is this? --you could give the same answer for each one: a human being. And yet they are all different. We are all different. Emma is not Mr. Knightley.

Emma and Mr. Knightley must be made of the same things, held together by the same sort of operations... rules that govern change in "characters." Then how can we tell them apart? Are we to believe they are both the same and different--at the same time? Like the animals we believe them to represent? Or is that the fabric of illusion? What we bring to the novel, project onto, into it--from what we believe the world to be? I don't think we can speak of that part, not yet. That's the usual method: mix up what is in the novel with what is in us and what is in us with what is in the novel. Even if that's the most important part--where the meaning lies... that mixing up of us and it, how can we understand what we're thinking about if we can't answer the question: what is Emma made of, What is Mr. Knightley made of? What is in the novel that stays in the novel, that stays the same? Anything? Nothing?

Life is made up of chemical and physical reactions. What distinguishes life from other chemical and physical reactions is the cell, the cell membrane. Without inside/outside there is no life. Characters live in the novel. We live outside the novel, imagining ourselves inside it, imagining the characters outside the novel.... Emma Bovary in Woody Allen's Manhattan. Inside the novel Emma "exists" in space that is not-Emma, and not-Mr.Knightly. What are the rules that tell us what is Emma and what is not-Emma? Emma is one part of the much larger set: not-Mr. Knightly, and Mr. Knightly is one part of the much larger set: not-Emma. Negation makes them visible. Inside/outside.


Place in the novel. Another negation. Each element defined by what it is not, inside meeting outside, outside penetrating, engendering, driving, destroying. Rules taken apart, discarded, replaced by new ones.

In the game of the novel characters are action figures, figures appearing to initiate and suffer action. We speak of character "depth." What is that? A compliment of the complex opperative sets of stasis > encounter > penetration > reaction > adjustment > interaction > stasis.

Two poles of narrative, character, action: where the change is all in the between--and no account is offered of what has penetrated and assimilated into the character--not x becoming x: novel as action movie. The other pole, where everything, even what is presented as not-x, is within, interactions within the organism, the psychic furniture of the assimilated world of out-there. The Metamorphosis ? Endgame? Ferdydurk, Death of Virgil--very close to the end of the graded scale.

Inter-organic, Intra-organic.

Establishment (realist) Literary Fiction pretends to hold to the middle--though it is closer to the Action Movie end than to the Intra-organic.


  1. So you are criticizing realism because it doesn't get the "intra" part right?

    Seems to me, the more effectively a novel replicates 'real' human experience...by building up and describing a personality...by connecting the reader to the character...the more involved the reader becomes, the more profound and affecting the reading experience.

    The only rule is to move the reader...make them laugh or cry or see the world differently...

  2. Thank you for your comment, Nigel. My reply grew a bit too long for a comment. Look for it as a new post