Who knew literary criticism could be so much fun? ... Alison (Nine Island) offers a well-stocked 'museum of specimens,' from the work of writers both widely known (Philip Roth, Raymond Carver and W.G. Sebald, one of her favorites) and less so (Marie Redonnet and Murray Bail). She meticulously but briskly unearths an impressive body of evidence to support her argument ... Alison's gift for close reading brings to mind fellow novelist and critic Francine Prose's Reading Like a Writer, and her enthusiasm for this literary archeology project is infectious ... Meander, Spiral, Explode is a joyous celebration of literature's robust shape-shifting qualities.
Alison is in a lightly transgressive space, in which chatting about your own sexual pleasure is as unremarkable as mapping a metaphor, and in which the two things are highly relevant to each other ... One quibble is that the book’s thesis, that literature is boringly in thrall to Aristotle, is a bit of a straw man. Another quibble is that Alison is working at a level of abstraction that insures she can apply almost any shape to almost any text. These vulnerabilities are not lethal—a house-of-cards constructedness is a feature of a lot of literary criticism. What matters is the ingenuity and beauty of the construction, and Alison’s close readings can be exhilarating ... Meander, Spiral, Explode is a deeply wacky book, in ways that are both obvious and subtle. Alison cuts extraneous words for breathless effect ... [Alison's] verbal raptures may ensorcell seventh graders and leave older readers occasionally feeling that they need to lie down. But the fecundity of Alison’s writing is of a piece with her larger mission: to turn narrative theory into a supersaturated mindfuck of hedonistic extravaganza. It is a special kind of literary criticism that can make the reader appear to herself a prune, or a prude ... Her book takes the shape of a roller coaster.
...invigorating ... [seeks] the elegant forms that order nature in the structures of stories and novels. [Alison's] bugbear is the dramatic arc, the shape that Aristotle noticed in the tragedies of his time but that has become a tyrant of creative writing instruction ... Alison has other ideas for excitement ... In brief, compelling meditations on contemporary fiction, she teases out figures we might expect to spy from a plane window or in the heart of a tree. Here are corkscrews and wavelets and fractals and networks of cells. Is this forced? Alison recognizes the cheekiness of her project, knows her readings of form may not convince every reader. Her aim is not to classify tales, to pin them like butterflies on a styrofoam board ... Shapes appear in Alison’s mind as clusters of images, so what begins as literary analysis condenses into a small poem. For “meander”, Alison asks us to 'picture a river curving and kinking, a snake in motion, a snail’s silver trail, or the path left by a goat' ... The point is not ornamentation, though Alison can write a sentence lush enough to drown in, but tempting fiction writers to render life more closely. Against the grand tragedy of the narrative arc, she proposes small undulations: 'Dispersed patterning, a sense of ripple or oscillation, little ups and downs, might be more true to human experience than a single crashing wave'. These are the shifting moods of a single day, the temporary loss of the house keys, the sky a sunnier hue than expected.
Regardless of how familiar the reader is with these patterns going in, they will leave the essays with a deeper knowledge of the craft of fiction, as well as a heightened understanding of the natural rhythms and patterns of language itself. Oftentimes, reading Meander, Spiral, Explode feels like sitting in on the most demanding graduate seminar on narrative structure ever taught ... If there is one fault with this craft book, it is that it does not take into account the history of structural and formal experimentation found in works by women and writers of color ... In a book where the author calls the narrative arc 'masculo-sexual' and pushes for alternative forms of storytelling, the choice to then privilege white male voices is a strange one ... As a craft book, however, Meander, Spiral, Explode still has a great deal to offer readers looking to improve their writing.
Alison’s book is like a cold shower to ward off the standard narrative arc and rewire our mental circuitry to see the patterns of nature in the structure of novels ... This is a playful and exciting book that opens up all sorts of new possibilities for narrative arcs.
... not without value as a briskly written, compact overview of the various spatial strategies writers have successfully employed, and might continue to be fruitfully employed if writers had a more synoptic view of them, along with a few models of the way they can work ... To the extent that her book convinces writers there are indeed credible alternatives to the reflexive preference for Freytag’s 'arc', Alison will have served a worthy purpose. But the book never really destabilizes the notion of 'story' itself as the ultimate object of the fiction writer’s craft ... Although the analyses provided could be of interest to some readers not themselves writers, the book would likely be most useful as a supplementary text in a creative writing workshop. Perhaps this also accounts for Alison’s at times somewhat breathless prose and frequent reliance on figurative phrasing rather than a more analytical critical language. One could wonder, though, whether this gives the book greater accessibility or underestimates most writers’ (and writing students’) tolerance of more critical rigor. A book that considers thoroughly the principles animating the impulse to 'experiment' in fiction, and looks at all the formal strategies adventurous writers have attempted, would surely be a service to readers and writers alike. That book has yet to be written.
In this wholly original analysis of style, novelist Alison (Nine Island, 2016) explores the forms and shapes that narrative can take, pushing the bounds of storytelling beyond the infamous pyramid of climax ... Her observations of the sensory aspects of literature are indulgent and delectable, and sure to elevate the experience of readers and writers alike.
A novelist tries her hand at literary theory ... After her lengthy theoretical introduction, she explores the ways that writers have used these structural patterns in more than 20 diverse short stories, novellas, and novels: her 'museum of specimens.' Readers should perk up as Alison 'dissect[s]' these texts, demonstrating how 'we travel not just through places conjured in the story, but through the narrative itself' ... For readers interested in literary theory, Alison does a great job making it palatable; for casual readers, it may be too much.
...[a] boundlessly inventive look at narrative form ... It would do a disservice to this work to pigeonhole it as 'literary criticism'; the study is filled with clarity and wit, underlain with formidable erudition.