I’d like to discuss a type of narrative construction I’ve been working with lately I sometimes just call MirandaJulying, but I’d like to pretend I’m smarter than I am by giving it a fancy name: radial construction. It’s fun. It’s easy (as long as you’re in touch with your subconscious and you don’t get caught up in dumb crap like, I don’t know, thinking and stuff). And you don’t see nearly enough stories constructed like this, but you can make a really gorgeous story this way (gorgeous in the Miranda July sense of the word). And I’ve never read anybody writing about narrative construction in this way. Why not? It’s great. Maybe because when I read about narrative construction it usually goes like this: Them: “Narrative is constructed around this triangular thingy or whatever.” Me: “Aw, hell, what is this crap? I’m done!” I have rage issues I’m working through.
Anyway, so many writers seem solely infatuated with what I’d call folded construction. I suppose this is like the traditional Freytag’s whatever, but when a narrative element is introduced that causes some degree of uncertainty (stimulates the reader, in 4 Worlds parlance), it’s not left dangling; it’s ultimately folded back into the narrative. It’s the old Chekhov cliché about cocked guns (though Chekhov didn’t really practice it, like, at all ever in his short stories). With radial construction, all those dangling elements that would be folded into a conventional narrative are turned outward, made radial like the sun shining, and the sun shining is a lot prettier than folded things. The uncertainty is allowed to stimulate to its heart’s content. It’s built on what I’ve called elsewhere the VRP (Viscerally Resonant Parataxis) in which two elements stimulate by seeming to connect though the connection remains irrational and unresolved. Also, this is similar in some respects to the way I discussed Harry Potter and Saw, but in both those cases, narrative elements are mostly resolved, so it’s not technically radial construction, just sloppy construction (and my point was that sloppy construction works very well sometimes, and writers have a right to be sloppy). As I’ve said already, radial construction can be gorgeous, and it can be just as clean as a clean, folded construction. Kafka is really the master of lack of conventional resolution in all its forms, and in shorter pieces like “The Metamorphosis,” he radially constructed a handful of elements — the monstrous vermin, the muff, the apple, etc. — and his novels are essentially constructed this way with a lot more elements, but the whole industry of Kafka critics have been striving for decades to de-mystery-ify all of Kafka, so recognizing this might get cloudy. I call it MirandaJulying because Miranda July does this beautifully in everything — mostly because she is beautiful in every way possible. Plenty of other people’s stories work well this way, including a lot by Mr. Russian Guncock himself.
I’m using my own story as an example here, not because I’ve perfected it. This is essentially a first draft, and in doing this, I have to resist all the little irrelevant things I’d tweak about it to demonstrate the thought process that goes into constructing something radially. Using early draft stories like this (and I have one I wrote a while ago that I’ll post soon about why metaphorical readings annoy the hell out of me and why thinking metaphorically can be poisonous to a story, so stay tuned) is valuable in that 1) these are first draft considerations dependant on access to those deep irrational subconscious images before too much brain swoops in there and screws it up; 2) you can admire how incredibly brave I am for sharing a first draft; 3) if you hate it, I can just say, “Oh well, that’s first drafts for ya,” so score one for insecurity.
This story’s called “Sadboy :oR: The Perpetual Breaking” and it was first written as part of my “Midnight Serial” series of Twitter first draft stories I post around midnight every night, #mns (should be #cheapplug, but whatev, this is my blog, not yours) and it was based on this image I had of a little boy finding his father being folded inward and broken to contrast with his Saturday morning sweet cereal and cartoon intentions. Why is this happening? Beats me, but that’s not my job. I don’t think explaining it really needs to be anybody’s job, but it’s a free country.
“Tommy Melicloy went to wake up his dad Saturday morning for sweet cereal and cartoons to find his dad writhing, bones cracking. His back arching, spine poppopping like twigs, arms bent back like elbows on the wrong way, feet rotating like a ticking clock, he’d pooped himself. Tommy Melicloy’s panicky screaming weeping got the neighbors to open their doors and say, ‘What’s wrong little boy?’ When he said, ‘My father’s being perpetually broken, he’s turning inward backward, they’d say ‘we all have our troubles, kid’ and close the door.” His dad always told him, ‘If I’m in a serious emergency, you must memorize the list of names of people on this hallway. Go to them for help.’ He seemed to know there’d be an emergency. Tommy imagined Emergency was a man out of whom evil things emerged who could touch & break men. Tommy’s dad even used the phrase ‘perpetually broken.’ Tommy said, ‘What kind of emergency, Dad?’ His dad said, ‘If, for example, you come in one morning to find me being perpetually broken.'”
So we have the initial scenario, constructed like/ripped off from Kafka: strange happening without explanation followed by evil people who don’ t give a crap. But this is just one image. When we add other images, we see how the radial construction starts to take shape:
“Tommy’s dad told him, ‘If I’m in a serious emergency, go first to the Scorpions across the hall. They’re a nice husband and wife, and they have kids.’ So, when there was an emergency, he knocked on the Scorpions’ door and a little kid covered in blue chalk opened. ‘We’re decorating for Easter!’ ‘It’s October.’ No identities discernible but screaming children and two genderless adults likewise covered in blue chalk. Easter eggs all over the place. Tommy went to the two adults and said, ‘I need help. My father is being perpetually broken.’ They seemed to have at least eleven kids running around that kitchen, arms flailing to pacify. ‘We all have our troubles, kid.’ Tommy saw elsewhere one kid mounting another, stabbing the lower belly with a kitchen knife, cackling, red flowing over blue chalk. He wanted to say something to the adults, but they already had their troubles, as they said. Why add anything more?”
So we have Scorpion, a very visual name that coheres with Tommy’s dad’s situation, but this is contrasted quickly by kids covered in blue chalk decorating for Easter. The pleasantness of this is contrasted by their lack of identity and the disjointedness of time. Then the scorpion image comes back around as one kid stabs another. Each scene has its internal VRP which also contrasts/resonates with the initial image. It’s not like some plot element in the Scorpions section is going to ultimately help Tommy help his father or come to some sort of epiphany; they’re just contrasting, viscerally resonant (hopefully) images that makes his misery more acute (hopefully) (this is a first draft, can’t be blamed if it fails, viva la insecurity). Then we have the next image:
“He went down the hall to the next apartment. Aurora Peyzer. His father made him memorize all the names. The door was open. Aurora Peyzer was sewing seven red wedding dresses on live models. Thread and needles in her mouth and all over like monsters. She was so frantic she seemed to be sewing all seven live models together in their red wedding dresses, red thread spiderwebbing around. ‘I need help. My father is being perpetually broken.’ ‘We all have our troubles, kid. I need to get these dresses done today, and that ceiling is going to collapse any second.’ She pointed up. The ceiling was covered in an upsidedown inchtall garden. ‘He insists on taking those goddam baths.'”
Are these symbols of sin and purity and supplication and punishment and blah blah blah? Think whatever you want to, but that’s not my job. My job is to make sure they resonate, not to make sure they mean anything or symbolize anything. In fact, when constructing a story this way, I like to throw stuff in there that seems like it might be a symbol, but, ideally, the resolution exists just out of reach. I remember a teacher once talking about the apples in “The Metamorphosis,” how frustrating they are to interpret. I didn’t hear that and think “I wonder what the apples mean?” I heard that and thought “Frustration, delicious, yum, gimme some!” Anyway, it’s a valid technique for stimulating the reader. You throw gardens out there and people try to turn them into Eden. You’ll do them a favor if Eden doesn’t actually lead anywhere.
I’ll skip the next two parts because it’s essentially the same idea. He sees an old monstrous guy obsessed with paper and big images of burning suns, and then he finds a cop who’s cold like ice. They find an old guy in a wheelchair living in Tommy’s house, and the cop decides to move in too. Total Kafka rip off, you get the picture. Then it ends this way:
“Tommy went out to the street and sat beside a man who seemed to be nursing a terrible head pain. He looked closer and saw a square hole. ‘I’ve been having these damn doves for ages now.’ As if to preempt a question, a dove flew out of the square hole in the man’s head. This dove was followed by another and another, flapping out in a way that seemed painful for both man and bird, and away up into the sky. Soon doves were flooding out, the sound made anything the man tried to say seem only like pantomime. The sky was full of doves. They were killing and eating all the blackbirds. The whole world was drowning in doves. Tommy had to go back inside. He had to. The world was too full of blackbird-eating doves now. He huddled in his father’s room, door locked, as more and more people moved in and the world outside the window was birdflooded. His father seemed to grow new limbs in his perpetual breaking as if this was only the hatching process of some new and glorious being.”
So I move from Kafka rip off to Ionesco rip off, sure, but I thought “How is this going to end?” and an image of doves flying out of a guy’s head came to me. I don’t ask too many questions, I just work here, move along. The primary consideration in the radial construction of a narrative is not how things resolve or fold into each other to create some clear resolution. The main focus is on making sure the images resonate viscerally and they all form a beautiful shape together. Too much resolution can undermine this. If you forget about irrelevant things like making sense, you can have a beautiful radial story you can be proud of and that your mommy will put up on her fridge.