A Storyless Story? A Fictionless Fiction?
Claims that Scarlett Thomas’s latest novel, Our Tragic Universe, published earlier this year will make you rethink your understanding of the world [see The Guardian link below] are perhaps over stated but Thomas’s writing certainly delivers food for thought. Thomas’s writing is invariably praised, and indeed are, novels of ideas with a rolling, pacey prose style that is affective in keeping the reader on board throughout the novel’s many narrative tributaries and occasional ox bow lake. Fundamentally Our Tragic Universe is a story about story. It asks us to think about what story is, how it works ,what we ask of it, want from it, need from it.
Can there ever be a storyless story? Thomas invites us to entertain the idea that there might. What exactly is a storyless story? According to Vi, an academic friend of the novel’s heroine, stories are generally formulaic, they start with a conflict and end with a resolution, and that seems a bit dull. Limited. Stories ought to [and can] do a bit more than that. The opposite of a formulaic story is presented through Vi research interest as a story that subverts formula. She cites her experience of listening to elderly people talk about their lives. Without fixed beginnings or endings undercutting what could be dramatic moments in favour of some form of self-depreciating, self effacing comic or tragic representation. Of course some people are good at converting the events of their lives into 3 acts and dramatic arcs, full of lessons learned and resolutions earned, but most of us drift on, accumulating experience with no idea if any of it amounts to any type of hill of beans – broad, aduki, butter, pinto, whatever.
For the novel’s heroine, a writer deliberating between the merits of genre fiction writing [that pays] and her ‘proper’ novel [constantly rejected, deleted and rewritten], the cerebral discourse around fictionless fictions and storyless stories reflects the practical day to day realities of her life. Zoom the lens out a little wider and they can also be seen to reflect Thomas’s own writing journey, guiding her own novel’s project and shape.
So can there be a storyless story? The case presented here is unconvincing. Perhaps a distinction needs to be made between story and narrative? All stories are of course narratives, but are all narratives stories? The word narrative suggests something broader, looser. Still governed by the same laws but more open and accommodating of chance and anomaly. Sure, there are causes and effects, actions, events, characters and ideas, acts and arcs but the patterns these elements can form are more varied and capable of cutting new neural routes through our brains if released from what can be seen as the ‘constraints’ of traditional storytelling.
Guiding us to read and thus see things anew.
So can there be a storyless narrative? Yes, maybe. Regardless of the testedness of the case for storyless stories it is certain that however we take them our appetite for stories and our belief in their value to activate us both in feeling and in mind remain unchallenged.