Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Subverting the Linear Order

What, in the goddess's name, is this mysterious thing called style?
digitalised detail, mixed media 'bird hiding'
The wonder of it is that, at the tail of a writing career, I should be asking myself this question at all. But looking back over thirty years of writing and, latterly, painting, there’s the imprint of a picture that keeps recurring: Paul Cezanne’s ‘Route Tournante’ that I saw when works from London's Courtauld collection came to the Australian National Gallery many years ago.  

 Colm Toibin has spoken about this painting and of the importance of omission in Cezanne’s work.  There are things left unsaid on this canvas.  As for me, I was and continue to be spellbound not only by the gaps but by the lines between the spaces, the ones that if allowed to proceed would connect, but stop before doing so.  In response to this, one pesky word keeps popping up.  The word is ‘fragmentation’.
In trying to intellectualise all this, I’m obliged to pay homage to the writer John Berger, who in his many essays equated modernity with mass migration, its impact on ways of perception and how we translate those into art.  For Berger has contended that the twentieth century was ‘the century of people helplessly seeing others, who were close to them, disappear over the horizon.’ Here he also asserts that migrants are people who have lost the centre of their worlds and flounder in a world of fragments. (This is a paraphrase: I’ve lost the direct quote.)  These thoughts have stayed with me, a migrant myself from a family of migrants, ever since I first came across them.  They are still apposite today, arguably even more so, when increasing numbers of people are crossing national borders, either propelled by force or beckoned by wider opportunities.

There was another influence working on me and the two are indisputably connected, as they were in Berger’s mind.  Mass migration had its impact on mass media, the movies in particular.  America’s ‘melting pot’, so called, was in no small part stirred by the twentieth century’s dominant art form, when images overtook words because words had not yet been fully assimilated.  Too few migrants to America spoke English, but the movies helped them interpret, and then go on to fashion, their brand new world.  And while my immigrant family, largely self-educated, worshipped the word, they were also immersed in that boundless world of pictures.  Pictures that they put together in order to form a narrative.

The linear narrative has had a place in the human psyche that, for all the countervailing pressures, can’t be easily shifted. When we watch a well-made movie, it’s difficult to realise that the narrative is made up of frames, and next, of scenes, and that the transitions between the scenes are very often visual rather than strictly linear. This ‘way of seeing’ has wormed its way into our consciousness to such a degree that we can relinquish awareness of it; what we do instead is impose a sequential pattern on it, one that conforms to our expectations of how narratives should behave.  This, more often than not, is how we ‘read’ the movies.  But how has this affected the way that we happen to read?

In the early 1970s Frank Moorhouse adopted what he called the ‘discontinuous narrative’, a hybrid form that combines the short story with the novel.  Others have described it as ‘a novel in short stories’, and for a time nervous publishers were content with ‘linked stories’.  It’s a demanding form, in that the stories have to work on their own and at the same time work together as an overarching narrative.  But for that very reason it has its appeal, despite its detractors, who seem to be uneasy with the ambiguity.

I’ve been thinking about all this because while hunting for something altogether different, I’ve come across a clipping from a 2006 Los Angeles Times Book Review that I obviously kept with these inchoate thoughts in mind.  It’s a review of a book of interviews with 26 filmmakers by the multi-media artist Doug Aitken.  Called Broken Screen, its subtitle – Expanding the Image, Breaking the Narrative – alludes to the fact that we're taking the whole process further, when filmmakers themselves come celebrate the method of their madness.  As the critic Peter Lunenfeld writes in his review: 

‘Together the voices here explore new ways of telling stories that have emerged in the wake of avant-garde moving image experimentation and the relentless innovations in information technologies.’

The gist of the book is that, after over a century’s exposure to nonlinear narratives in the visual media, ‘linear story telling has become at once over-familiar and insufficient,’ and the more attuned we are to narrative fragmentation, the easier it is to put the bits together.  Robert Altman refers to the intercut, intertwined, ‘meshed’ stories he put to use in Nashville, while French artist Pierre Huyghe tells how he ‘carves up’ his video installations to open them up to what he calls the ‘exponential present’ – in other words, the dizzying range of WiFi, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and all the other feeds and platforms that a mere eight years down the track we’re heir to.  

But the message, though fractured, is nonetheless clear, and leads me to greater understanding of my own compulsion to chop up my narratives into component parts, and then reassemble them in a way that accords with my own altered consciousness and, more, my lived experience.  Though it’s taken me years to recognise, there’s hardly a book or a story or a painting of mine that hasn’t been so assembled.  And longer still to comprehend fully why.  Though, as said, I did have my inklings.

Let’s go back to Cezanne, his ‘Route Tournante’ and its ‘omissions’ - the gaps left unpainted between the broken planes of colour - that play such an integral part in the painting’s structure. The depth of the picture comes from extending the lines, or from filling in those spaces, or simply letting your eye follow either, in order to gain a sense of the artist’s perspective.  Reading, and seeing.  Seeing, and reading.   Always an interaction, always a conversation, always a challenge - if you’re game enough to take it. 

(P.S. I apologise for not having the techno-savvy to supply either the image of or the link to  'Route Tournante' or Colm Toibin's talk on it, but invite you to google them both.) 


  1. Wonderful post as usual Sara ... you are always able to make my brain hurt!

    Love that comment by John Berger "that migrants are people who have lost the centre of their worlds and flounder in a world of fragments". I've just finished a memoir by a migrant propelled to Australia by force and this idea of having lost the centre is a perfect description of what she describes. Her book is mainly about war and post-war trauma - so the lost centre has a physical meaning (her country is gone) as well as an emotional and spiritual one.

    While I enjoy a good linear narrative - after all, good writing and good storytelling is just that, good - there can be something "real" (and exciting) about fragmented narratives that try to capture organically (does that make sense?) the connections and disconnections in life/experience. BTW I think Alexis Wright, though it may not be she, talks about indigenous storytelling and world-view not being linear.

    I had forgotten that term "discontinuous narrative". Thankyou for reminding me.

  2. I love that comment of Berger's too but have had the hardest time unearthing the exact quote again. I used it in a review once for the Canny Times and Gia Metherell, who was the literary editor then when the paper had a literary editor, helped me find it. (I wasn't even able to find the review!) Another influence on this whole business is Henri Bergson, Proust's cousin among other things, and his ideas on 'lived experience'.

  3. Couldn't finish the last comment for some reason. Was going to observe how vast this subject really is. Just watched Caroline Baum's interview with Marion Halligan and Marion, while suggesting that all her novels are composed of short stories, she makes particular reference to Valley of Grace, and how the component parts interact, enhancing and expanding on each other, with a central character in one part becoming a bit player in another. I simply love how such an approach can work.

  4. Terrific discussion Sara!

    I'm coming at the problems of linear narratives from another angle. I find that, since my mother died, I've lost interest in writing anything based on straightforward assumptions of causality, of A leading to B, or B following on from A in a series of chronological events. I've begun writing poems that may or may not fit together. (And I don't much care either way.) Of course, this might just be a phase, in my case, but I was interested to come upon your post.

  5. Really intrigued to learn of your reaction to your mother's death, Dorothy. And poems! I have written a few, rarely published, but I am now embarked on brushing up a few old manuscripts as thrillers, so here we are like ships in the night going in opposite directions. Now I did say thriller but my grasp of the distinctions within the crime genre is shaky to say the least. Can you are anyone out there help me with that?

  6. Mmmn, thrillers as compared with other kinds of crime fiction - I think the distinctions are often arbitrary and I'd like to say they don't matter. But, for marketing purposes, sadly, they do.Crime novels are usually taken to mean some form of who-dun-it or an investigation which concludes with a baddy being identified and caught. Thrillers can be more open-ended. There may be no mystery as to who has committed the crime, for example, or the story may be written from the perpetrator's point of view.

    Back to those non-linear narratives - I was thinking just now of a lovely line of Brian Castro's, an answer to a seemingly straightforward question about his writing aims.
    He said, (and I'm sure being a migrant influenced this): 'to sail the seas without a compass, and trust the stars to bring me home.'

  7. That line of Castro's is truly lovely. Wow! Wish I had thought of that. Mine would be more like Trust in the Goddess.

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