BOOK REVIEW: Meander, Spiral, Explode: Design and Pattern in Narrative

Meander, Spiral, Explode: Design and Pattern in Narrative by Jane Alison
2019, 272 Pages, Paperback

If you have ever tried to fit a story plot into a “dramatic arc” (According to the 19th century German novelist Gustav Freytag: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, denouement) but failed, then you need to read Jane Alison’s book Meander, Spiral, Explode: Design and Pattern in Narrative. Alison’s book releases pressure from the traditional narrative structure and offers new insights into how to view and read narratives. As the Director of Creative Writing Program at the University of Virginia and the author of four published novels and one memoir, Alison uses her extensive experience as both a teacher of fiction and a writer to “[exploit] the visual and finding patterns other than the arc in [the] stories” (24). Meander, Spiral, Explode is Alison’s first published book that features exclusively literary analysis on narrative. In the book, Alison challenges the monopoly of the “dramatic arc” in the interpretation of narrative forms and proposes alternative natural patterns that could more accurately model story structures, such as the wave, wavelet, and spiral.

In the beginning of the book, Alison introduces to us to an incredibly intriguing and thoughtful idea: to model narratives on the patterns we see in nature. Alison discusses each pattern individually and cites numerous fictional works to illustrate their form. The book mentions eight natural patterns and does a thorough job relating the pattern to specific textual examples. For example, Chapter Six receives the name “Meander” from the Meander River in Turkey, and Alison quotes biologist Peter Stevens’s description of rivers to characterize this type of narratives: “winds and turns in a quiet but seemingly disparate manner to avoid the straight schuss to the bottom” (118). She cites Murray Bail’s Eucalyptus, Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine, and Marguerite Duras’s The Lovers, in which seemingly unrelated storylines slow down the pace of the main plot but promote the general developments imperceptibly, like rivers that meander irregular paths but eventually go to the sea.  

Although the book successfully establishes the connections between natural patterns and narratives, I noticed an asymmetry in the analogies of narratives and nature. Alison, being a professional writer and reader, undoubtedly provides sufficient literary information, but the knowledge surrounding natural patterns lack the same depth of expertise. Nature has its reason to form certain patterns, and humans, being part of nature, perform behaviors according to these similar patterns and for similar reasons. The informational asymmetry prevented the book from delving deeper into these intriguing connections.

One of the instances occurs in the chapter “Wavelet,” in which Alison sets up how small wavelets in narrative can capture small, but relentless, psychological changes more true to human experiences. While Allison provides sufficient literary examples– including Tobias Wolff’s The Barracks Thief, Raymond Carver’s Where I’m Calling From, and Marie Redonnet’s Hotel Splendid— the few descriptions of wavelets come from Alison’s observations at a North Carolina beach. Consequently, the analogy becomes especially thin when she tries to relate narratives to natural phenomena that she is not familiar with, like the dissipation of wavelets. So she leaves a loose and unsatisfactory end in her explanation of the endings of “wavelets” narratives: “the book does find an end, for there must be a way to extinguish these relentless little waves” (113) and nothing more is said. I believe the idea that Alison explores has greater analytical potential than what has been elaborated in Meander, Spiral, Explode, and I look forward to more revelations on the topic.

As a high school student who is not acquainted with literary theories, I found this book to be informative and insightful in general. Although it might not be the perfect book for casual reading, I would still recommend it to enthusiastic fiction readers and aspiring writers. Meander, Spiral, Explode offers a perspective for readers to gain deeper understandings of stories and for writers to construct their narratives in more creative and effective ways.

-Jing Wang ’19