UVA Arts, University of Virginia

Vol 11 Winter 19 Library
Photo Credit: Sarahmay Wilkinson, Designer; Nicole Caputo, Art Director; Catapult, Publisher
Creative Writing

Jane Alison and Meander, Spiral, Explode: Design and Pattern in Narrative

UVA Creative Writing Professor Jane Alison’s latest book, Meander, Spiral, Explode: Design and Pattern in Narrative, offers a fundamental challenge to a centuries-old narrative formula that both guides and constrains writers. "Curiously," Alison writes, "there's been a single path through fiction we're most likely to travel – indeed, one that aspiring writers are told to follow: the dramatic arc. A situation arises, grows tense, reaches a peak, subsides." There is something awfully familiar about it, Alison writes, particularly from her perspective as a female artist. "…something that swells and tautens until climax, then collapses: a little masculo-sexual, no? Why is this the only form we should expect our stories to take?" Through a scholarly-yet-playful approach, Alison takes a convention-busting journey beyond the traditional arc format and into a host of other shapes that have long provided alternatives to writers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Joyce Carol Oates, Caryl Phillips, and others – shapes also found in nature, like spirals, meanders, explosions, fractal patterns. "These fundamental patterns inform our bodies, too,” Alison writes. “We have wiggling meanders in our hair, brains, and intestines; branching patterns in capillaries, neurons, and lungs; explosive patterns in areolae and irises; spirals in ears, fingertips, DNA, fists. Our brains want patterns. We follow them instinctively: coiling a garden hose, stacking boxes, creating a wavering path when walking along the shore. And we even invoke these patterns to describe motions in our minds: someone spirals into despair or compartmentalizes emotions, thoughts meander, rage can be so great we feel we'll explode. There are, in other words, recurring ways that we order and make things. Those natural patterns have inspired visual artists and architects for centuries. Why wouldn't they form our narratives, too?"

The book has won her raves from throughout the literary community. "Doctors don't imitate Galen," wrote Edmund White, author of The Unpunished Vice: A Life of Reading, “Why should writers follow Aristotle? Jane Alison, in her new, fresh, original book about narrative is our new Aristotle.” Publishers Weekly called the book “A boundlesslyinventive look at narrative form…filled with clarity and wit, underlain with formidable erudition,” adding that “it would do a disservice to this work to pigeonhole it as literary criticism.” Katy Waldman of The New Yorker called Alison’s prose “potent and lush, her enthusiasm infectious,” and called the book “a special kind of literary criticism.” This latest work is the latest in a career that has won Alison consistent acclaim. Her first novel, The Love Artist, was published in 2001 and has been translated into seven languages. Next came The Marriage of the Sea, Natives and Exotics and a nonfiction novel, Nine Island. She has also published a memoir, The Sisters Antipodes, and Change Me, featuring translations of Ovid’s stories of sexual transformation. Showing her trademark lack-of-interest in artistic boundaries, Alison has also collaborated with composer Thomas Sleeper on a mini-opera and song cycle based on her books.

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