by L. Shapley Bassen
Tyro authors learning how to cook up a story would be well-served by sous-chef Iain Pears, whose novel Arcadia, together with Chef Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism, would make a cordon bleu semester course in any MFA writing program.
Last Christmastime, I missed my chance to see J.J. Abrams’s new Star Wars: The Force Awakens in 3-D and didn’t see the point of going to a 2-D showing. “The medium is the message” has never been more zeitgeist-true than now.
Turns out, in 2013, J.J. Abrams published a co-written hardback tome titled just S. It came packaged (perfect for that Christmas) in a cardboard book slip and worked very hard at being multi-dimensional as a novel (Ship of Theseus) with notes in the margins that made up an ongoing conversation/love story between a student and scholar studying the text. Plus, there was the editor of the book who appeared in an introduction and footnotes.
Also three years ago, British author Iain Pears was invited to give a seminar talk at Oxford, which he called “Egos in Arcadia: Telling tales in a digital age.” The clever pun of the title of his then work-in-progress book/iPad app alluded to the 17th century Poussin paintings of a tomb in a pastoral idyll, and echoed the classical phrase, Et in Arcadia ego, whose translation (“Even in Arcadia, there am I”) is a reminder of 4th dimensional, temporal perspective: in the midst of even the best of Life, Death is present.
Pears’s work-in-progress was published in England in Autumn 2015 and in New York in the New Year as Arcadia, as a 21st century, double 3-D version/vision. It took the Abrams concoction up a notch, BAM! Gluten-free and delicious utopia/dystopia, Time, and Story are major ingredients in this Arcadia. No need to rue the roux: mixtures of metaphor and everything else stirred together in Arcadia make it a truly movable feast. Also no need for me to repeat the rave reviews that the novel received last autumn; they do a fine job of guiding you through the book’s Möbius strip structure (see Escher’s famous portrait of Relativity). The hearty takeaway/takeout I’d like to share is that tyro authors learning how to cook up a story would be well-served by sous-chef Pears, whose new novel Arcadia, together with Chef Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays would make a cordon bleu semester course in any MFA writing program. Bon appétit!
The Ingredients: Arcadia is Faber & Faber’s first novel to have been written primarily with digital readers in mind. The British publishers believe it to be the first book of its kind in existence. “While the hardback is 180,000 words, the app comes to 250,000, offering additional stories and expanding those told in the hardback.” Iain Pears summed up: “The three plot lines in the book are a realist spy fiction set in the 1960s; a sci-fi one set centuries later in a nightmarish overpopulated world; and a fantasy one in a rural paradise, Anterwold … Woven in with this are landscapes derived from Claude Lorrain, a curious girl (named Rosie) rather like Lewis Carroll’s Alice, scenes from As You Like It (starring Rosie/Rosalind), and asides on and references to Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. The fantasy bit is without gods or magic. Tolkien almost did that, but he always slips in a bit of magic, and C.S. Lewis depends on magic. But I didn’t want any talking lions. The point about Anterwold is that it’s an attempt to create an ideal, stable society that could actually exist.”
Arcadia‘s solo author, Pears, was inspired by a science article that said that many of the problems of physics would be solved if time dropped out of equations and everything happened simultaneously (alright, alright, alright, more zeitgeist! Matthew McConaughey in Interstellar). One reviewer exhorted readers to “treat this novel, and its app, as a meme-park where a whole menagerie of tropes, themes, myths and motifs from centuries of fantasy and romance can frolic.” As Rosie remarks about Anterwold, ‘You steal ideas from everyone.’ Shakespeare, Sidney, Carroll, Bradbury, Huxley, Orwell, Tolkien-and-Lewis, Le Carré, Fleming—to label Arcadia as ‘derivative’ would be both to miss and to make Pears’ point. In a world (or worlds) menaced by terminal risks, Pears builds a story-ark: a granary or seedbank of genres.” That’s my underlining to emphasize the novel’s primer/cookbook possibilities as well.
About Time & Taste: When you read the novel in hardback, the stop-start intercutting of chapters becomes an experience of time travel in/of itself. 19th century Dickens and 20th century Asimov are more consistently linear, but 21st century Pears intentionally leaps from locales/characters to others so that your first experience of every chapter is getting your bearings again, literally finding yourself at the same time as you do the characters/story lines. The hardback reading results in a real suspension of routine experience of linear time reality. The digital rendering of the whisked-together stories allows a reader to follow the addition of one ingredient at a time, but that freedom implies that 2-D is an illusion. At the same time contrasts with one at a time to great cumulative effect: (1) recognition of the questionable reality of our primate-evolved, cause/effect linear assumptions about Time; (2) recognition that Arcadia moves free of time just as subatomic particles do and we can in memory and speculation. This is real fun and food for thought.
And now, to the Fry[e]ing pan: Iain Pears plays a game of friendly Three-card Monte not only with space-time, but also with storytelling formats. One of the most influential literary critics of the 20th century, Northrop Frye, would frolic through Pears’s pages/screen. Frye’s four Anatomy modes are the destinies manifest in Arcadia
Just follow the seasons:
Spring: Mistaken identities and disguises revealed at story’s end come right out of Comedy mode, as does the Angela-mother/Emily-daughter generational handoff. Comedy is the vernal promise of reconciliation of the old generation with the new, and it usually ends with a celebration/wedding/party.
Summer: The Asimov-worthy sci-fi plot (consider the time travel novel The End of Eternity and short story “Spell My Name with an S”) pits a dystopian evil villain Oldmanter (name out of Dickens) against a dynamic duo of time machine maker mother and her daughter, an environmental/cultural conservator reminiscent of Fahrenheit 451. When superhuman good defeats superhuman evil, you’re reading/writing Romance.
Autumn: Tragedy is the story of homicidal disorder caused by flawed superiority with order restored at great but ennobling cost. In Arcadia, time travel enfolds the tragedy of atomic apocalypse within its overriding Romance plot.
Winter: When dystopia prevails or utter confusion of definitions of identity/reality takes over (also momentarily in Star Trek Next Generation’s Moriarty holodeck episode, “Ship in a Bottle”), you’re in Irony.
But since Pears serves up the wish fulfillment half of Frye’s wheel (Comedy/Romance) rather than the realistic quadrants (Tragedy/Irony), freedom relieves entrapment in most, but not all, cases.
MFA Alert/Servings: Frye’s catalogs in The Anatomy of Criticism mean that readers, students, and writers of stories need not reinvent the wheel, but just keep the one above snowballing into the future just as Pears does in Arcadia. There, nothing is ever lost but stays afloat in his “story-ark” when a time-traveling scholar-author meets a facet of himself in a future society where Storytellers are its most valued citizens. Consider the creative power of recognizing pattern: you need not get lost in history, nor repeat it. Instead, it can be a guide to your own story.
And in case you thought I forgot: here is a different delicious recipe for fried pears: http://www.justapinch.com/recipes/dessert/fruit-dessert/fried-pears.html.
L.S. Bassen, a native New Yorker, now lives in northern RI. 2014 saw the publication of a novel and short story collection, and April 2016, her second novel, MARWA. A Fiction Editor at Prick of the Spindle: A Journal of Literary Arts she also writes book reviews for THE RUMPUS and others and is a prizewinning, produced, published playwright. Find her more complete bio at: http://www.samuelfrench.com/author/1158/lois-shapley-bassen