The carrier bag versus the spear

Been worrying lately about the narrative structure of my work in progress, Tragédie.

The core of the problem is obvious to me. I’m used to inventing stories, usually adventures for younger readers, which I build from event to event to a climax, alongside the characters. Or something.

But in this case, I’m working with real historical events, a woman’s life which, extremely eventful though it is, just kind of petered out at the end. (You can read more about Mademoiselle de Maupin here.)

I’m writing it in an episodic way, as my interpretations of the events come to me – not in any particular order, and interspersed with purely fictional passages in her voice.

I also have a formal structure of five acts plus prologue, the same as the tragédies en musique in which she appeared  on stage in Paris.

My question – to myself and also to my PhD supervisor, Lucy Sussex – was, basically, is that OK? Is an episodic approach enough? It feels a little uncomfortable to me, because it’s not what I’m used to, but that’s part of the point of a doctorate.

Lucy suggested I read Ursula Le Guin’s essay ‘The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction’, from her brilliant collection of essays, Dancing at the Edge of the World (1989).

Le Guin’s contention is that the narrative with which we are most familiar – that of events leading up to a major climax – is the male form. She (rather delightfully) retraces the possible narratives that would derive from a hunter/gatherer society: one which relates a great many repetitive daily tasks – the gathering, done by women; and another in which the thrill of the hunt and chase and final climax of the kill is told – by the men, the hunters.

Le Guin argues that the stories of the mammoth hunt are those which are remembered in the cave art and in the ideas that have come down to us about what makes a narrative. Thrilling adventure stories, perhaps, or even those stories in which small things happen but still follow an arc to climax – the story of the Hero and his conflicts. But those, she says, are not the only stories that can be told.

The first tool, she argues, was not a weapon, but a receptacle, a bag or leaf or scoop in which to carry the results of the gathering:

“…the natural, proper, fitting shape of the novel might be that of a sack, a bag. A book holds words. Words hold things. They bear meanings. A novel is a medicine bundle, holding things in a particular, powerful relation to one another and to us.”

Should note here, too, that there are a great many modern narratives told by men in which nothing much happens beyond maybe an affair or a slight humiliation, but it seems that when they are told by middle-aged public-school white blokes, that still counts as a mammoth hunt story – to them, and to those that award prizes for narrative.

Hence – well, let’s not go there right now.

Been thinking also about some of those novels which subvert that structure. Obvious examples are Atonement, in which the climax in the action arguably comes quite early on, while the narrative itself (as distinct from the plot) slowly reveals and builds to something quite different and equally shattering.

Or Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith, which does climb to a peak but in which the central narrator switch hinges on a moment so dramatic that I shouted aloud.

In my case (not that I’m comparing) the episodes in La Maupin’s life will appear confused, perhaps happening out of chronological order, as they are remembered by a feverish mind. Not sure yet. Don’t want to confuse the readers but I do have great faith in their intelligence.

It is La Maupin’s narration and her reminiscence that needs to build, then falter, and again.

It’s not an action thriller for kids. It’s a life, an imagined but nevertheless real life, filled with too many dramatic moments nobody could never dream up – and, as always, it’s the character – the woman – at the core of the story that matters the most.

So although the process of questioning also kicked off some major re-ordering of episodes, and it still feels unfamiliar to me, I’m at peace with it now. Me and my carrier bag.

What do you think?

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