innovative fiction as liquid architecture Lance Olsen Essay

person_pin innovative fiction as liquid architecture

by Lance Olsen

Published in Issue No. 122 ~ July, 2007

Usually, the metaphor of architecture is applied to fiction, if it is applied at all, with an eye to italicizing the notion of craft in fiction’s creation. Emphasis falls, that is, on the act of skillful, careful making. One is often taught, from sentence to story, that one should strive for proportion, symmetry, balance, harmony. The language of such an enterprise is neoclassical in nature, the outcome a kind of Monticello of the mind. Or, occasionally, mention is made of architecture within fiction–Borges’s celebrated Escherian library, for instance, a metaphorical interzone comprising an infinite number of identical hexagonal galleries through which a librarian uses up his life searching futilely for the book of books, the magic volume that will serve as compendium for the rest; or the avant-gothic regions in Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves: the Navidson family’s sudden discovery, for instance, that the internal measurements of their dwelling somehow are larger than the external.

I’m interested in asking something else altogether about the relationship between architecture and fiction–especially innovative fiction: how might it be illuminating to conceptualize fiction’s structures and discourses as spaces one lives in and moves through as one might, for instance, a Bauhaus building, a tenement, a cathedral imagined by Gaudi? There are, naturally, problems with the question. In a sense, architecture is fundamentally spatial, narrative temporal–although, I would quickly add, the inverse is also the case: strolling through a temple is wandering through time; every narrative arrives, not only as a series of necklaced stories, but also as shaped edifice of language. Still, as Jeffrey Deshell reminded me when I first considered this topic, it’s difficult to imagine actualized architecture questioning its own existence as actualized fiction often does. “A building is a thing in the world, a thing in Being, and can be studied like other things in the world,” Deshell commented, “whereas literature is not completely a thing in the world. Literature is not like other `things’.”1

It is no doubt important to keep such differences in mind whenever comparing aesthetic apples and pears. More than a century ago, Nietzsche pointed out that it is thorny enough, if not plain impossible, to put one pear side by side with another, let alone with an apple; that, as soon as one employs a metaphor of any type, one immediately bumps one’s nose up against various limitations inherent within the implied resemblance. This thing is never that thing. This thing isn’t even itself at two different moments in the tale called time. Yet it is also important to keep in mind that to employ any sort of metaphor also opens up an interval of opportunity to make connections one hasn’t made before, to see objects and ideas in a new and thereby revealing light–as do, for example, William Gass and his architect wife, Mary, who, in their essay “The Architecture of the Sentence,” sketch out floor plans for signature lines composed by Sir Walter Raleigh, Henry James, and others.2

While I suspect some sorts of fictions are especially apt for comparison with architecture, some less so, some comparisons less revelatory or more forced than others, what links most innovative fiction and architecture for me is how my experience of them is not so much one of objects-in-the-world as one of events. Entering a building or a book feels to me like entering a possibility space, a networked field of impulses, influences, conversations, warrens that I immediately want to learn how to negotiate, navigate, how to make sense of, how to talk about. Texts, be they architectural or narratological, begin to become interesting for me precisely at that instant when they begin to become much more than predictable, much more than those I’ve seen before, when they begin to impede my easy understanding of them, challenge me to invent a modified and fairly complex mode of speaking in order to converse with them. Moving through them, I sense a certain density, a certain difficulty of imagination. Espen Aarseth has famously referred to such texts as ergodic–a word derived from the Greek for work, meaning those that require “nontrivial effort” to negotiate.3

In his essay “The Beginning and the End of Reading–The Beginning and the End of the Novel,” Milorad Pavic asserts that there are two kinds of art: reversible and nonreversible.4 Reversible is that which, like architecture or sculpture, can be entered at several points, wandered through without a sense of beginning, middle, or end, and visited and revisited from a number of considerably different points of view. Nonreversible is that which, like a piece of music or most fiction, is made to be experienced linearly from launch to landing. Pavic’s aim is to transform his fiction from nonreversible into reversible art–to make it feel, in other words, more like architecture. He accomplishes this by designing texts that thwart conventional reading and interpretational blueprints while obliging the reader to make a succession of self-aware choices about how to plot a course through them. Hence the genesis by Pavic of extended narratives in the forms of a lexicon, a crossword puzzle, a clepsydra, and a Tarot deck; of sophisticated Byzantine texts that call attention to themselves as three-dimensional structures in the reader’s hands, little book buildings.

And not, I want to emphasize, with a goal of performing acts of self-indulgent textual brinkmanship. Rather, Pavic has a much more consequential explanation, according to the intrusive narrator of Landscape Painted with Tea: “because any new way of reading that goes against the matrix of time, which pulls us toward death, is a futile but honest effort to resist this inexorability of one’s fate, in literature at least, if not in reality.”5 To disrupt the deep-structure of a story that itself mimics the deep-structure of life, with its unstoppable slide from alpha to omega, amounts to nothing short of an assertion, however short-lived and in the long run inadequate, of human freedom. Nor, naturally, is Pavic alone in his project. Such reversible, architectural texts run the gamut from Julio Cortázar’s well-known novel Hopscotch, whose table of contents affirms that “this book consists of many books,”6 while providing the reader with various navigational paths; to Robert Coover’s recent aleatoric piece in McSweeny’s “Heart Suit,” which comes as a pack of fifteen playing cards the reader shuffles to enjoy; to my own 10:01, a novel in prose poems that visits the minds of several dozen characters collecting in a theater at the Mall of America during the ten minutes and one second before the feature commences, and its complementary paper and hypermedial versions.

If innovative print texts tend to arrive in our hands with certain obvious material limitations (most, for example, appear in bound spines), thereby suggesting an at least relatively stable if reversible architecture, then hypermedial ones arrive on our screens with certain less obvious material limitations, a greater sense of option, thereby suggesting what Marcos Novack calls the liquid architecture of cyberspace–an architecture, as he says, “without doors or hallways,” a visionary architecture that seeks out extreme regions that feel like “spatialized music,”7 a continuously unfixed, flickering, mercurial architecture “whose form is contingent on the interests of the beholder,” “a version of what it is becoming, a structure for what does not yet exist.”8 Or, perhaps, as Michael Joyce proposes, digital designs suggesting not this particular building or that, but whole urban landscapes where “different populations occupy different cities within the actual one by virtue of their interactions, their perceptions, and their status.”9 It is easy enough to grant that there is a good deal of unsuccessful e-writing out there, that much of it is produced by visual artists who have little ability with language; or authors of written texts who have little ability with the visual; or so-called artists who simply like to see things stir on a computer screen and go bang in the night, more interested in technical verve than vision. That said, projects by the most interesting creators–I’m thinking of Stuart Moulthrop, Young-Hae Chang, and Stephanie Strickland, for instance–by their very presence pose the double-helix question: what is fiction and what is its relationship to an architecture of change?

Perhaps an equally important question is how might we bring such amphibious notions out of the realm of abstraction and into the praxis of the creative-writing workshop, thereby inviting students to explore such possibility spaces themselves. Let me mention two examples in passing. In her experimental writing class, Debra Di Blasi offers a section on what she calls “the architectural space of fiction, i.e., the 4D `design’ of literature.” “We study Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye and read texts on architecture,” she explains. “Students eventually create a work of fiction based on architectural design principles and present it with a statement of intent, just as would an architect.”10 I have had luck teaching what I think of as Room Portraits, asking a student or, better, a group of students to find a small architectural space–a closet, a study cubicle–and turn it into the self-portrait of a character from a story they have written recently by using text, talismans, sounds, images, furniture arrangement, and so on to reveal the character’s desires, past, strengths, weaknesses. Then I ask them to write a page about what they’ve discovered concerning the nature of characterization and the relationship between two-dimensional and three-dimensional texts.

But why, at the end of the day, perform such liquid experiments, on the page or off, inside the workshop or out? For me, the idea is to generate what Robert Sheppard, in his discussion of Krzysztof Ziarek, refers to as beyonding art–a kind of self-reflective, always-in-process creating that moves one outside traditional notions of aesthetics and commodification.11 Sheppard’s perspective slant-rhymes nicely, as it turns out, with Jean-François Lyotard’s thoughts on the role of the postmodern writer and artist:

The text he writes, the work he produces are not in principle governed by pre-established rules, and they cannot be judged according to a determining judgment, by applying familiar categories to the text or to the work. Those rules and categories are what the work of art itself is looking for. The artist and writer, then, are working without rules in order to formulate the rules of what will have been done. Hence the fact that the work and text have the character of an event; hence also, they always come too late for their author …, their realization always begins too soon.12

One invents such post-avant-garde gestures, I would argue, to answer the question the architect, in the documentary Sketches of Frank Gehry (2005), says every artist must ask him or herself: “How does democracy express itself?” One invents them, that is, because the world now comes to us as the equivalent of a clutter of strip malls, McDonald’s, and used-car lots. The spaces of innovative narrato-architectural texts remind us continuously that we can always live in other buildings, other cities, other suburbs, always alter our fabrications of mind and spirit into something honestly astonishing.

1 Deshell’s comments were made in an exchange about this topic on the Now What blog on 13 September 2006:

2 William and Mary Gass, “The Architecture of the Sentence,” in Conjunctions 32 (1999): 93-108.

3 Espen Aarseth, Cybertext (Johns Hopkins UP): 1-2.

4 Milorad Pavic, “The Beginning and the End of Reading–The Beginning and the End of the Novel,” Review of Contemporary Fiction 18.2 (Summer 1998): 142-146.

5 Milorad Pavic, Landscape Painted with Tea, trans. Christina Pribicevic-Zoric (New York: Knopf, 1990): 186.

6 Julio Cortázar, Hopscotch, trans. Gregory Rabassa (New York: Random House, 1966): 5.

7 Anjali Arora, “Liquid Architectures in Cyberspace”: liquidarch.html.

8 Quoted by Michael Joyce in “Café Cul-de-Sac: Made Up Space,” a paper delivered at the University of Idaho in May 2001: 5, 6.

9 Joyce: 2.

10 Di Blasi’s comments were made during an exchange about this topic on the Now What blog on 9 September 2006:

11 Robert Sheppard, “A Carafe, a Blue Guitar, Beyonding Art: Krzysztof Ziarek and the Avant-Garde,” in Avant-Post: the Avant-Garde Under “Post-” Conditions (Prague: Litteraria Pragensia, 2006): 264-80.

12 Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (Manchester: Manchester UP, 1991): 81.

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Lance Olsen is the author of 17 books of and about innovative fiction, including, most recently, the novel Nietsche's Kisses and the hyperfiction 10:01. His short stories and, essays, reviews, and poetry have appeared in a wide variety of journals and anthologies, and he currently serves as chair of the board of directors at fiction Collective Two.