W. G. Sebald’s Emigrants was the first novel to show Alison how forward momentum can be created by way of pattern, rather than the traditional arc. Drawing on work by Nicholson Baker, Gabriel García Márquez, Clarice Lispector, and more, Meander, Spiral, Explode is an exploration of story structure and craft.
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.