In the fiction class I taught recently, we talked a lot about character and plot, those allegedly most fundamental elements of storytelling. The “classic” plot demands a character who desires something, and their pursuit of that desire—while fending off obstacles internal and external—is what drives the story, which takes the shape we’ve all seen before, the little mountain peak. By the end of the narrative, we know whether the character has achieved their goal, and how it has changed them.
In her book Meander, Spiral, Explode: Design and Pattern in Narrative, Jane Allison presents a number of alternatives to this plot structure, drawing upon examples from short stories and novels, arguing that fiction might take the shape instead of a tsunami, a fractal, a winding river, etc. So in that case, must your work feature characters who achieve or don’t achieve a goal, come to some sort of realization, undergo (for better or worse) a change? Experimental writers might argue you don’t need character at all. The novelist John Hawkes once said in an interview, “I began to write fiction on the assumption that the true enemies of the novel were plot, character, setting, and theme, and having once abandoned these familiar ways of thinking about fiction, totality of vision or structure was really all that remained.”
It’s worth thinking what might remain for you as a writer if you were to abandon the familiar ways of thinking about fiction. You don’t have to go as far as Hawkes suggests. To return to the concept of a character who changes, the poem and story in today’s issue both involve transformations, but they come in unusual ways—look for where the transformations happen not only to the speaker or character but to the language itself.
“Actaeon in cervum,” Illustration by Virgil Solis for Ovid’s Metamorphoses
The Descent of Man
My failure to evolve has been causing me a lot of grief lately.
I can't walk on my knuckles through the acres of shattered glass in the streets.
I get lost in the arcades. My feet stink at the soirees.
The hills have been bulldozed from whence cameth my help.
The halfway houses where I met my kind dreaming of flickering lights in the woods
are shuttered I don't know why.
"Try," say the good people who bring me my food,
"to make your secret anguish your secret weapon.
Otherwise, your immortality will be
an exhibit in a vitrine at the local museum, a picture in a book."
But I can't get the hang of it. The heavy instructions fall from my hands.
It takes so long for the human to become a human!
He affrights civilizations with his cry. At his approach,
the mountains retreat. A great wind crashes the garden party.
Manipulate singly neither his consummation nor his despair
but the two together like curettes
and peel back the pitch-black integuments
to discover the penciled-in figure on the painted-over mural of time,
sitting on the sketch of a boulder below
his aching sunrise, his moody, disappointed sunset.
Who is this guy?
Born in Bangalore in 1954, Vijay Seshadri moved to the U.S. as a child; he attended Oberlin College and earned his MFA from Columbia University. Seshadri has written several poetry collections, as well as essays and reviews for publications including the New Yorker, the Paris Review, and the Nation, and has received grants from the Guggenheim Foundation and the NEA. He directs the graduate non-fiction program at Sarah Lawrence College. He wrote “The Descent of Man” after a long period of not writing, and describes it as “conscious of itself, baroque, deliberately unbalanced... It's at least as much about its own technique and manner as it is about its subject.”
A Stone Woman (Excerpt)
The day came when the dressings could, should, be dispensed with. She had been avoiding her body, simply wiping her face and under her arms with a damp facecloth. She decided to have a bath. Their bathtub was old and deep and narrow, with imposing brass taps and a heavy coil of shower-hosing. There was a wide wooden bath rack across it, which still held, she saw now, her mother’s private things—a loofah, a sponge, a pumice stone.
The warmth of the water was nice. A few tense sinews relaxed. Time went into one of its slow phases. She sat and stared at the things on the rack. Loofah, sponge, pumice. A fibrous tube, a soft mess of holes, a shaped gray stone. She considered the differences between the three, all essentially solids with holes in them. The loofah was stringy and matted, the sponge was branching and vacuous, the pumice was riddled with needle holes. Biscuit-colored, bleached khaki, shadow gray. Colorless colors, shapeless shapes. The loofah and the sponge were the dried-out bodies, the skeletons, of living things. She picked up the pumice, a light stone teardrop, shaped to the palm of a hand. She felt its paradoxical lightness, then dropped it into the water, where it floated. She did not know how long she sat there. The water cooled. When she lifted herself, awkwardly, through the surface film, the pumice chinked against her flesh. It was an odd little sound, like a knock on metal. She put the pumice back on the rack, and touched her puckered wound with nervy fingers. Supposing something had been left in there? A clamp, a forceps, a needle? Not exactly looking, she explored her reconstructed navel with a fingertip. She felt a certain glossy hardness where the healing was going on.
The next thing she noticed was a spangling of what seemed like glinting red dust, or ground glass, in the folds of her dressing gown and her discarded underwear. It was a dull red, like dried blood. At the same time, she noticed that the threads of her underwear appeared to be catching, here and there, on the healing scars. As the phenomenon grew more pronounced, she touched the area tentatively, over the cotton of her knickers. Her fingers felt whorls and ridges, even sharp edges. Each day the bumps and sharpness, far from receding, grew bulkier. One evening, in the unlit twilight, she finally found the nerve to undress and tuck in her chin to stare down at herself. What she saw was a raised shape, like a starfish, like the whirling arms of a nebula. It was the color—or a color—of raw flesh, like an open whip wound or a knife slash. It trembled, because she was trembling, but it was cold to the touch, as cold and hard as glass or stone. From the star-arms, red dust wafted like glamour. She covered herself hastily, as though what was not seen might disappear.
The next day, it felt bigger. The day after, she looked again, in the half-light, and saw that the mark was spreading. It had pushed out ruddy veins into the tired white flesh, threading sponge with crystal. It winked. It was many reds, from ochre to scarlet, from garnet to cinnabar. She was half tempted to insert a fingernail under the veins and chip them off.
She thought of it as “the blemish.” It extended itself—not evenly, but in fits and starts, around her waist, like a shingly girdle pushing long fibrous fingers down toward her groin, thrusting out cysts and gritty coruscations above her pubic hair. There were puckered weals where flesh met what appeared to be stone. What was stone—what else was it?
—A.S. Byatt (Read the rest here)
Who is this lady?
A.S. Byatt may be the first Dame featured in this newsletter. The British novelist and short story writer, born Antonia Susan Drabble, grew up in a literary family: her father was a barrister as well as a novelist, her mother was a Browning scholar, and her sister, Margaret Drabble, is also a novelist. Byatt has written eleven novels, five story collections, and a number of biographies and essay collections. And yet she told LitHub she feels she has not yet written enough. In the same interview, she compared writing fiction to her hobby of collecting: “And because I don’t write autobiographical fiction, I need more than one life, just as I need more than one glass ball, all the different patterns, in order to see what is the same, what is different… It’s the human desire to know things.”
Write a story or poem that features a transformation, whether of a character or something more unusual—the style of language? The point of view? The narrator?
Alanna Schubach is a fiction writer, freelance journalist, and teacher. Follow her on Twitter @AlannaSchubach and read her work at alannaschubach.com. Send questions, recommendations for future newsletters, and the results of writing prompts (if you’re so inclined) to email@example.com