Notes on Literature: Literary Miracles of Three Kinds

In the world of literature, there are at least three kinds of works (fiction and non-fiction) that, in my opinion, could be termed miracles:

  1. Those that inspire awe both because of their sheer storytelling and-or narrative complexity and because of the non-obviousness of the organising principle used to derive such complexity. They are complex in form and content.
  2. Those that are great fun to read precisely because of the apparent structure of their formal organisation, yet are no less complex as stories and-or narratives and are no less awe-inspiring. They are complex in content, but are rather playful in form.
  3. Those that embed stories, complex in form and content, within playful narrative structures.

All books of the second and some, possibly, of the third kind revel in the obviousness of their artifice, in the toy-like playfulness of constructing a narrative. But they are miracles nonetheless because, while it’s clear that they’re put-together, it’s no less clear that they’re the works of singular minds—if their authors hadn’t beefed up the formal skeletal structures with the flesh and blood of their erudition, imagination, wit, humour, etcetera, no one else could have.

At the moment, I can only think of Robertson Davies’s Fifth Business and perhaps the entire Deptford Trilogy, John Crowley’s Little, Big, Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, and Murakami’s Wind-Up Bird Chronicle as instances of works of the first kind. A.S. Byatt’s Possession, Hope Mirrlees’s Lud-in-the-Mist, Diana Wynne Jones’s Charmed Life, Lewis Carroll’s Alice books, and Douglas Hofstadter’s Godel, Escher, Bach are certainly literary miracles of the second kind. I had to give some thought to identifying works of the third kind and am now reasonably convinced that these fit the bill: all of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials Trilogy, and Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita.

If you look at this from a combinatorial point of view, there is a fourth potential category: playful stories told as complex narratives. However, do such works exist? Some of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels might come very close to falling into this category, but in my opinion, none of his stories are as simple or playful as they seem. P.G. Wodehouse perhaps? I’ll be glad to hear more on this.

P.S. In Are you a gardener or an architect?Alec Nevala-Lee beautifully articulates (architects?) the making of literary works of the third and, perhaps, also the second kind. He quotes George R.R. Martin’s analogy of architects and gardeners,

There are some writers who are architects, and they plan everything, they blueprint everything, and they know before the drive the first nail into the first board what the house is going to look like…And then there are gardeners who dig a little hole and drop a seed in and water it with their blood and see what comes up, and sort of shape it.

Going by this, could the first and the fourth kinds be described as the works of gardeners?

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