Flatiron Books: The Guest Book by Sarah Blake

Meander, Spiral, Explode: Design and Pattern in Narrative

Who knew literary criticism could be so much fun? That's the impression that lingers after finishing novelist, memoirist and University of Virginia creative writing professor Jane Alison's Meander, Spiral, Explode: Design and Pattern in Narrative. It's Alison's impassioned brief against the dominance of the Aristotelian dramatic arc, the "one path through fiction we're most likely to travel," in which a "situation arises, grows tense, reaches a peak, subsides." Instead, serving as an assured and entertaining guide through an assortment of narrative structures, she hopes more writers will follow her lead and not "feel oppressed by the arc, that they'll imagine visual aspects of narrative as well as temporal, that they'll discover ways to design, being conscious or playful with possibilities."

Alison (Nine Island) offers a well-stocked "museum of specimens," from the work of writers both widely known (Philip Roth, Raymond Carver and W.G. Sebald, one of her favorites) and less so (Marie Redonnet and Murray Bail). She meticulously but briskly unearths an impressive body of evidence to support her argument that the arc structure "makes sense for tragedy, but fiction can be wildly other."

Even for those reluctant to abandon the classical narrative arc for more adventuresome fare, Meander, Spiral, Explode is a joyous celebration of literature's robust shape-shifting qualities. At the very least, it's a book that will have open-minded readers viewing the next work of serious fiction they encounter with a more discerning eye, ear and mind. --Harvey Freedenberg, freelance reviewer