Monday, 20 July 2015

The fault in our stars (a narrative paraphrase)

There’s a pleasure we seem to take in looking for gaffes, for slip-ups. And that’s what I want to think about this week.


Source: Why to Read
When I started posting my book reviews on Zero to One I also started searching the net for others’ impressions on the same books. I simply want to know where I’m sitting compared to others. Something reviewers in general do, I’m told. It gives me/them a good feeling to know. Or so it should. What I’ve noticed, among other things, is that most book reviewers (and not just the anonymous bloggers that inhabit the vast expanses of the online desert, but also the ones who write for big papers and enjoy big audiences) take much pride in making known their dislikes. Especially their dislikes. And I don’t want to be trivial. I’m not accusing any of these reviewers of vanity. I’m only taking note of this trend.

Texts need space to breathe

There’s something essential that needs to be said, especially about prose writing: novels, essays, that kind of stuff. Not everything a writer says must be perfect! A lot could but not everything must, not everything can. I don’t know how many readers expect every given line to be the equivalent of a Mona Lisa to be put in a gilded frame and sent off to the nearest Louvre. But there seems to be quite a few of them out there who’re asking precisely for this.
Things, however, don’t work that way. They’ve never worked that way. Texts need breathing spaces. There are passages with a role as simple as their name suggests: they’re made to facilitate passage. That’s all they need to provide. Not explosive metaphors, not kerosene-like imagery to fire up one’s mind. If a book is good enough it will have plenty of those throughout its pages. But books, mind you, are not continuous displays of brilliance. Fueled on good ideas, which come always at intervals, books in general are made up of fits and starts. The reader has to be shaken out of their state of habituation with the text; they need to encounter surprise; they need to find gems strewn between parts made of base metal. There’s a good part here, another good part there, but most of what’s read is made to carry the plot, to fill the pipes that traverse a text.

Kernels and satellites, two elements of any narrative

Seymour Chatman has put together a whole theory of narrative structures, which is predicated precisely on this play with joints and juxtapositions. According to this theory, stories are made out of narrative blocks that follow upon each other. Within these blocks there are two crucial components, something that Chatman names, translating to a certain extent from Barthes, kernels and satellites. The terms should be pretty self-explanatory: kernels are cores, nubs, hearts, essences, while satellites are adjuncts, appendages, accessories. Think of kernels as the main actors in a film and of satellites as the supporting actors and the extras. The former make the limelight; they carry the message of the film’s narrative, they get the awards and the applause. The later are not so swell but they’re the mass that enable the protagonists to shine. In spite of their uncompromising differences, none of the two is possible without the other. In order to be the lead role one needs minor characters to wander around and fill the screen. At the same time, without the alpha character the minor ones have no reason to be.
When Chatman describes his theory in Story and Discourse, he makes it as clear as possible that the structure of a narrative requires a skeleton (a scaffolding, a framework, a pretext; something like the hardware of a computer) and the flesh that comes upon it (matter that makes the connections, a tissue, a context; a software, if you like).
“Kernels are narrative moments that give rise to cruxes in the direction taken by events. They are nodes or hinges in the structure, branching points which force a movement into one or two (or more) possible paths. Achilles can give up his girl or refuse; Huck Finn can remain at home or set off down the river; Lambert Strether can advise Chad to remain in Paris or to return; Miss Emily can pay the taxes or send the collector packing; and so on. Kernels cannot be deleted without destroying the narrative logic. In the classical narrative text, proper interpretation of events at any given point is a function of the ability to follow these ongoing selections, to see later kernels as consequences of earlier.”


To Chatman, kernels are some kind of signposts. They signal where the story could have become something else. They are also nubs where the story turns out to be hanging on mere threads. It’s with kernels that one becomes aware of structure as such. Satellites, however, are context-dependent; they are peripheral elements, the role of which is to cover the kernels, to make them invisible so as to create the illusion narratives are famous for.
“A minor plot event – a satellite – is not crucial in this sense. It can be deleted without disturbing the logic of the plot, though its omission will, of course, impoverish the narrative aesthetically. Satellites entail no choice, but are solely the workings-out of the choices made by the kernels. They necessarily imply the existence of kernels, but not vice versa. Their function is that of filling in, elaborating, completing the kernel; they form the flesh on the skeleton.”
To put it otherwise, in Twitter-like terms, strictly speaking a novel’s plot can be shorthanded into one sentence fairly easily. The essence doesn’t take much space. What happens beyond it is what comes as a surplus to the framework on which the novel is built. All that meat covering those bones is there to make the transition between the skeleton’s parts possible. Without the connecting tissue, the kernels would remain isolated, visible, ugly.

Navigating with satellites

I’m going to exaggerate here, but truth is we need to take these things (the fits and starts of stories) as what they are, so as not to demand a shining armor from something that’s meant to be rags.
With poetry yes, things are different. From poetry we have the right to expect perfection, because poetry is precisely the quest for faultlessness. In a poem, every line and every word must be taken seriously. The distinction between kernels and satellites is irrelevant in most of the poetic genres (with the unsurprising exception of the so-called narrative poetry, whose very title says it all). A poem is a kernel in itself. It can be read in isolation, even when the reader is aware of the poet’s oeuvre and where they can make the necessary connections between different poems, between different themes.
But the point of this post was to bring about the issue of the guilty pleasures we experience when we come across imperfections. The danger of exercising this pleasure is easy to identify: if one moans about the parts that aren’t that essential (which, unfortunately, happens very often – or at least in a lot of the cases I’ve seen so far) one risks missing the point. The point, i.e. the kernel. Outside the point one navigates with the satellites; one looks at the secondary; one looks at what could be taken out without affecting the structure.