Date of Degree
English Language and Literature
narrative theory, paratext, 21st century literature, hypertext
This paper examines how the physical and para-textual features (title, cover, front matter, page numbers, footnotes, glossary, etc.) of a book may be used as a vehicle for narrative discovery. Often, reading requires the use of extra-textual knowledge—that which comes from outside the book—to gain a proper understanding of the narrative. Intra-textual knowledge—that which occurs within the confines of the text—is more accessible, but still requires a great deal of foreknowledge to understand. However, contemporary novels that use the paratext for storytelling offer the same amount of accessibility to the reader while disrupting normal reading patterns. Thus, new readings patterns can be developed and access to new narrative devices and storytelling techniques becomes possible.
Writing does not occur in a vacuum, and as such, reading cannot either. In what author Peter Mendelsund (What we See When we Read) refers to as “the game of reading novels,” predicting what will happen in a text requires foreknowledge on the genre, date of publication, style of the author, and so on: “The rules are codified—but occasionally counterintuitive to the unexperienced.” Through the examination of Chekhov’s Gun (which states that an object introduced to the narrative is often a promise that it will be utilized) and Aomame’s Gun (as found in Murakami’s 1Q84, a Chekhovian Gun referenced so often that its use would cause the direction of the narrative to be too obvious) I explain how authors create ambiguity and mystery in text, and how the reader might properly predict what will occur based on knowledge that has come from outside text. Of course, it is unfair to suggest that authors do not regularly place clues inside the text, however, the detection and understanding of these clues are informed by what the reader and the writer have seen occur in other works of fiction; therefore, the proper application of these clues is not always intuitive, as Mendelsund suggests.
However, contemporary authors have been using the physical structure of the book and the paratext to disrupt the expectations general expectations readers might have entering a novel. I discuss in detail how these expectations are formed and why they exist, how they interact with one another, and which texts break them, such as Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch, Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, Doug Dorst’s S, and Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves. As I examine the books that break expectations, I argue that the disruption of normal reading patterns in the case of these texts creates additional avenues for discovery of clues and narrative objects, and that finding narrative clues in this manner is more rewarding and accessible than finding clues via the use of extra-textual knowledge.
In the increasingly digital world of text, the act of reading is regularly distilled from reading a book to simply reading its words. It is unfair to suggest that these are the same thing, especially in instances where the book as a physical object can be used as a narrative device. It seems as though many contemporary authors are playing with the physicality of books and with paratext as a way to remind readers why the book, as a physical object and narrative vehicle, is important.
Mason, James, "Paratextuality and Contemporary Narrative: The Physical Object as a Storytelling Device" (2016). CUNY Academic Works.