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Cambridge University Press 2002




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Ergodics and intrigue



Espen J. Aarseth, in his book Cybertext came up with an interesting solution to the role-playing conundrum that you may find useful, or at least provocative. In a game, like a football game, for example, Aarseth argued that you have a sequence of actions but not a story. The actions, then, are not narrative actions, but "ergodic," that is, "a situation in which a chain of events... has been produced by nontrivial efforts of one or more individuals or mechanisms." In "adventure" or role-playing games, the "user" (not reader) to a degree creates by her or his own actions the ergodic chain of events, but only within the constraints of something that seems like a hidden story. Aarseth uses the term "intrigue" for this plot-like element that the user can only find out by making moves, that is creating events through action. Instead of a fixed story with its linear course, there are multiple possibilities, and that series that happens is recorded in the manner of a log: "Instead of a narrative constituted of a story or plot, we get an intrigue-oriented ergodic log."7


In this chapter and the last, I have stuck closely to what is essential in defining narrative so that we know what it is we are dealing with when we move on to focus on the dynamic interaction between ourselves and stories. There are a great many other features of narrative, formal and affective, that have been named and classified over the years. And there are terms like "mimesis" and "diegesis," "heterodiegetic narrators" and "homodiegetic narrators," "focalization," "prolepsis," "analepsis," "topos," and "type." In this book, I have sought to limit my focus to the most vital and useful of these many terms. They will come up in various appropriate places in the chapters that follow, and many more are included in the Glossary.

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Selected secondary resources



Katherine S. Gittes's Framing the Canterbury Tales: Chaucer and the Medieval Frame Narrative Tradition (New York: Greenwood, 1991) is a solid introduction to the historical genre of framing narratives. In this chapter, however, I wanted especially to feature the less generic but much more various and broadly distributed device of framing a central | narrative with a narrative fragment that provides its own unique rhetorical impact. There are few studies of the device described as such. Gerard Genette's Paratexts covers the subject in its title. As for narrative's interesting new life in electronic media, there are three important texts worth recommending, George Landow's Hypertext 2.0: the Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology, his edited volume, Hyper/Text/Theory (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994), and Espen Aarseth's Cybertext (Baltimore: I Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997).

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Additional primary texts



The history of literature abounds in examples of framing narratives. Many, as in The Turn of the Screw, are devoted to the initial situation of the telling of a story, or the finding of the manuscript that tells a story, or the recovery of an ancient book that tells a story, and so on.

The story that is then told is almost always in the first person. A classic example is Conrad's Heart of Darkness (1899), whose initial narrative of the story's telling plays a critical role in most interpretations of the work. One of the more complex examples of the use of framing and embedded narratives is Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1831 edition). In this novel, readers make their way in and then out of a succession of at least seven different narratives, each with its own narrator. These narratives are layered within each other like Chinese boxes. In the 1831 edition, the outermost layer is actually a paratext, an introduction written by the author, narrating the circumstances under which the novel was originally conceived. Another powerful example of an embedded narrative is Mikhail Lermontov's A Hero of Our Time (1840).

As for stories that go from end to beginning, few are so thoroughgoing at the molecular level in the manner of Martin Amis's ^ Time's Arrow (mentioned above). One that comes close is the short story "Journey to the Source" (1944) by the Cuban novelist Alejo Carpentier. Don DeLillo's Underworld (1997) moves backward in time through a succession of large stretches of (forward-moving) narrative. Harold Pinter's play Betrayal (1978) similarly moves backward scene by scene, and on 20 November 1997, the American sitcom, Seinfeld, screened its own version of Pinter's backward narration in an episode titled "The Betrayal" (coyly underscoring the theft by naming Elaine's boyfriend "Pinter"). A fascinating final example is Christopher Nolan's "backward thriller," Memento (2001), which is premised on the neurological condition of "anterograde memory loss."


Chapter 4
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The rhetoric of narrative



The rhetoric of narrative


The rhetoric of narrative is its power. It has to do with all those elements of the text that produce the many strong or subtle combinations of feeling and thought we experience as we read. These include those elements that inflect how we interpret the narrative: that is, how we find meanings in it. Arguably, everything in the text contributes to its impact and our interpretation of it, and so everything has some rhetorical function. Change one thing, and the effect of the whole changes, if only subtly. As Barthes says, "everything in [the text] signifies. ... Even were a detail to appear irretrievably insignificant, resistant to all functionality, it would nonetheless end up with precisely the meaning of absurdity or uselessness" ("Structural Analysis," 261).


^ Who is exercising this power?


Note that when Barthes says that "everything has a meaning" he is not saying that the author of the text is necessarily in control of, or even aware of, the meaning of everything in the text. This is not to denigrate authors or to demean their often extraordinary gifts, but to acknowledge that interpreting texts is a complex transaction that invariably has to do with more than what the author consciously intended. The issue of meaning and its relation to the author is as important as it is vexed. I will return to this issue in Chapters Seven and Eight. But it is important to establish before we get too far along that the impact of a narrative, including its meaning, is not something that is securely under the author's control.


It is no exaggeration, then, to call narrative an instrument of power, and in fact many exceptionally powerful narratives reflect upon this power. Richard Wright, who became a story-teller of great power in his own right, described the impact of hearing the story of Bluebeard as a poor black child in the South: "As she spoke, reality changed, the look of things altered, and the world became peopled with magical presences. My sense of life deepened and the feel of things was different, somehow. Enchanted and enthralled, I stopped her constantly to ask for details. My imagination blazed. The sensations the story aroused in me were never to leave me."1 This chapter and the next are devoted to some of the major rhetorical effects of narrative and some of the devices that produce them. In this chapter, I will start out with two closely related effects that are more mundane than what Wright was describing, but no less important for that - the sense of causation and (more broadly) normalization. Then I will turn to a major rhetorical device, the master-plot. Chapter Four is devoted entirely to the issue of closure, which is both an effect and a device in narrative's rhetorical arsenal.

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