Making Rules to Break Rules

It seems like almost any world-building narrative has a sequence of setting up the rules, followed by the breaking of the rules. The Matrix–a perfect system, except for The One who will break the system. Inception–inception is impossible, so let’s go do it. Harry Potter–there’s a spell that kills you, except this one kid who survived it. Here’s the system; here’s the flaw in the system. This is arguably necessary to the genre, so that we have…you know…a story. This might be why spec fiction and meta/experimental fiction seem to go hand in hand, at least in terms of their rise in popularity. Metafiction does the same thing, but to the entire medium of fiction. Here are the rules we created over time, and here’s how I’m going to break them.

The intrusion of a supposedly extradiegetic narrative presence into the story is a pretty frequent metafictional device, (for ex. Alasdair Gray’s Lanark). It could often be criticized as a gimmick, but I think good authors work this from a “gimmick” to a valuable element of the story/theme, taking it beyond, “Hello, I’m the author, nice to meet ya” to something that challenges our ideas of storytelling or knowledge. Mainly, I think this complication is accomplished by a process parallel to the one I describe in the first paragraph. It’s not just that the narrator enters to give some deep answer to the text; rather, the narrator gives supposed answers that are then immediately troubled in their own way. When Narcon9 enters the story, we get a clear set of rigid parameters about Narcon behavior, which are unsettled a page later when we observe that 9 might be hearing 3 and 27, and that Xanther might see Narcons. This narrative intrusion, then, isn’t for its own sake, but rather parallels the question of knowing a creation. Can a Narcon “know” the personalities it portrays? Can it really be following a set of rules/parameters if the combinations it creates are infinite? Can we “program” an AI if true AI is that which makes its own choices? Can an author know his/her characters? On a human (and perhaps tritely expressed here) level, can we know ourselves, or do we all have an animalistic “familiar,” something part of us but ultimately unknowable?

Just like the Question Song, this moment that acts as if it gives us answers is more important for the new questions it creates.

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About andrew todd

U Tennessee. Grad student in contemporary literature.

3 responses to “Making Rules to Break Rules”

  1. melindaborchers says :

    You make some valid points about the way this authorial intrusion is more than just another gimmick that has become popular in experimental fiction. I agree that it parallels how well any creation can be known. Your questions, like all good questions, raise other questions:
    What is the primary purpose of a Narcon? Narcon9 thinks of itself, among other things as “not original…a conflation of convenient linguistic techniques, born out of context and choice…”(566). It also brags that it is “a pretty advanced Electronic Service Liaison” (570). So if Narcons act as liaisons, who are they in the service of the reader or the author? Do they act as familiars to help the characters know themselves (even if they cannot have direct interactions with non-Narcons)? Or are they constructed for the reader to help us navigate the landscape of the characters thoughts?

    • ashleypuffer says :

      I like the idea of thinking of the narcons as familiars, almost like a muse that inspires thoughts within the character, because the narcons’ frequent interruptions to characters’ thought processes (always begun in braille) seem to influence the characters’ later thoughts and actions even if the character is not aware of how this process works. For example, Anwar keeps hearing “the sound” in his office and feels compelled to help the creature that is uttering it even though he can’t see where it is coming from. I interpreted “the sound” that the characters heard as originating in the narcon’s heightened awareness of the characters’ futures and almost forshadowing them for them.

      • atodd102015 says :

        Yeah, I’ve liked the way that Danielewski’s played with the distinction between animal and machine, and this seems to be the end result of that, with machines filling the role of a familiar, something that’s usually a spirit/demon animal. It’s easy to take this a step further and ask why he wants to do this. So the line between animal/machine becomes blurry. What does this mean? Is it just to press on our idea of what it means to be “living”? The familiar seems to relate this somehow to our experience of time and the future, as you point out. And the relationship he’s suggesting is interesting, but still fuzzy.

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