Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Vast Narratives

In the library catalog I ran across something called Third Person: Authoring and Exploring Vast Narratives (edited by Pat Harrigan & Noah Wardrip-Fruin in 2009). Naturally this sounded like something worth exploring but you never can tell with these kinds of things. A check of the contents showed pieces on Dr. Who, Cerebus, RPGs, more Dr. Who, the Cthulhu mythos, superhero comics and yet more Dr. Who. Now certainly more my kinda thing (even though I had successfully resisted Dr. Who until a couple of years ago) but this being an academic library I had to wait a full year for whoever had it out to feel inclined to tote it back.

Unsurprisingly the book is something of a mixed bag. The contributors range from academics to genre novelists to computer programmers (in fact the library shelved this with the computer gaming books - again it being an academic library nearly all the books are theoretical instead of practical). This does generate a bit of the (hold on metaphor alert) illuminating friction that was clearly intended. Chris Sim's account of Cerebus is useful as a corrective to standard critical approaches, David Kalat's piece on Fantomas as substantial as most of his work is, a couple of Dr. Who novelists on the place of those books in the canon is indeed surprising (this sort of stuff is usually sidelined but they make a case that indeed there could be more here than the TV episodes), an account of the development of Black Lightning shows some of the multiplicity in mainstream comics.

But there's a lot of filler. Sean O'Sullivan's piece on Deadwood and third seasons is odd, at least partly because it's unclear how the show could be considered "vast" and in any case a mere third season would argue against that. And odd would be acceptable but not dull, unimaginative and using unnecessary newly coined terms. Robin Laws and Scott Glancy drone on about games in pieces that really needed an editorial hand. Respected TV academic Jason Mittell investigates The Wire but sounds more like an entertainment critic than somebody who supposedly thinks for a living - lots of superlatives and nothing to make me reconsider having given up on the whole show as too cliched after two discs. Michael Bonesteel writes about Henry Darger's In the Realms of the Unreal as a "literary masterwork in the rough" but anybody who's read excerpts of this extremely long work would surely doubt this. I'm a little unclear whether Bonesteel has read the entire thing or even most of it - Darger's book has never been published which is hardly surprising considering how monumentally tedious it seems to be. And a piece about Mann's Joseph and His Brothers apparently drifted in from another anthology.

What's unusual for a book at least partly from academics is how little theorizing there is. There's no real attempt to even define "vast narrative" though a sidebar in the introduction says they're doing more by example - fine to a degree but a bit more boundaries (or is that too contrary to vastness) would have prevented things like the Deadwood misstep. Which may be just as well - we hardly need more smug references to Bourdieu or Baudrillard (though Bahktin maybe). Third Person manages to skip what might be the most familiar vast narrative in our culture - soap operas. The geeky tone of the book is likely one reason, and also likely why there's so little mention of more conventional high culture.

For instance, easily considered as vast narratives:
Trollope's novels
Musil's The Man Without Qualities
Henry Williamson's A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight
the Trojan epics (even if most no longer exist)
the Mahabharata
Truffaut's Antoine Doinel films
Rivette's Out 1
modernist maxi-poems like Pound's Cantos, Olson's Maximus Poems, Zukofsky's A, etc
duration-breaking documentaries like the Up series, Shoah or Phantom India
Wagner's Ring cycle (though Berlioz's Les Troyens was so long that it was actually replaced by Tannhauser)
Shakespeare's history cycle (even if not intended as a group)
Ken Jacobs' Star Spangled to Death
even things like Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County or James Branch Cabell's Poictesme

And the SFF worlds of course abound in vast narratives though admittedly many are merely just very long. Perry Rhodan is little known in the US but the series is over 2600 (nope, not a typo) novels and novellas - the English translations are a mere fraction at about 120 books. Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan saga is about twenty overlapping books. Michael Moorcock's Eternal Champion cycle/structure/whatever is pretty much a unique case of vastness as it echoes, interrelates, skips among, shares pieces and whathaveyou among dozens of books. For even more fun many are long out of print and quite unlikely to be in your local library.