A book is a labyrinth that guides you through itself. Actually, that’s not quite right – a labyrinth is a single route laid out in a complex way, whereas a maze is a complex route with many detours, divagations, and digressions to dead ends. A book, in that case, is a maze: its language both builds the puzzle to be solved and reveals the solution, along with other deceptive paths that lead you in the wrong direction. Its text creates the puzzle, a story to be discovered and journeyed through, while also leading the reader through its twists and turns. Except that, unlike a maze, there is not usually one correct destination. We have just set out on this essay and have already reached a dead end. Let’s retrace our steps.
Books are journeys, that much is clear. Their language creates a labyrinthine exploration of an idea or theme or question, in two dimensions. This is the floorplan. The architecture of the language – how it is selected, how this word buttresses that word, how one sentence leans on another in mutual support like a dry stone arch – gives the book three dimensions. Without this, there is a spatial quality to the novel, as it moves from beginning through middle to end, but no depth. EM Forster wrote that “The king died and then the queen died” is a story (the layout of the journey), but “The king died and then the queen died of grief” is a plot (the experience of undertaking the journey).
Well-written books create a confluence between your reading experience and the emotions, themes, and journeys expressed within the book. This is when the style matches the subject. Writers know how to construct the emotional and narrative architecture of their stories to achieve this, but some writers take this much further than language to convey their journey; they also exploit what the poets have long understood about the physical space of a text, the layout of the page. These writers challenge the conventional left-to-right, top-to-bottom manifestation of the written word (in Latin scripts) and allow their texts to run free across the page. An example of this is Henry Eliot’s recent book, Follow This Thread, on the history of mazes, which flips the text as you travel through its pages, on its side and upside down, so that you must continually turn the book around as if following a labyrinth. The reader’s experience of reading this book matches its subject.
The first time I discovered that books could play in such a way was when, as a child, I took my first tumble down the rabbit hole of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Among many other twists and misadventures, Alice meets a mouse
who tells her
his tale and
the text is
in such a
way as to
As I marvelled at this discovery, I felt what Alice felt as she wandered this absurdist land where logic was as malleable as language. In this way, I became Alice, who tells the Caterpillar, “I know who I WAS when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.” We all change many times through our reading.
Reading fiction is often a performative role; it is often said that we inhabit the world of a book, but it is less frequently observed that we can even become a character from the book. We align ourselves so closely with the hero, the author does such a seamless job of weaving the character’s desires and fears into our consciousness, that we cease to see ourselves as ourselves (for the duration of reading) and imagine ourselves instead as Dante descending into Hell, Holden Caulfield on the run, or Frankenstein reviling his monster (whom we also become during his turn at narrating the story).
To this end, the act of reading itself can become an important part of the performance, and the physical book can become a prop that encourages the play. At its simplest, this is the intimate affinity between reader and Elizabeth Bennet as we read from the book in our hand about Elizabeth reading a book in hers. We are “performing” what we read on the page and our empathy increases; I am literally acting the same way the protagonist is. A book like Doug Dorst’s "S" takes this much further.
"S" is about a fictional novel by a fictional author, shared between two strangers who leave it in the library for the other to collect, writing to each other in the margins. We read two stories, that of the book they are writing in, and that of the developing mystery and romance between the two readers. "S" presents the physical book as a manifestation of the story inside – it is what it depicts, it is a library book with handwritten scribbles along the margins with notes, newspapers, and postcards tucked between the pages. This places the book in a meta-realm where it accepts that it is a book but only to encourage the deception that it is the fictional book of the story. I pick up "S" and am convinced that I have, like the two protagonists of the marginalia, discovered the book in a library and am part of the mystery surrounding it. I am performing the part of a character in the world of this story.
Books that take the performance this far and this seriously are rare. The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt, for example, does a convincing job of pretending to be an academic text about an artist, made up of an editor’s introduction, footnotes and citations to publications that don’t exist, and the “reproduced” journals of the artist in question. But the cover is a standard book cover and its blurb gives away that this is a fiction. "S" is a love-letter to literature, a panegyric to the physical book and its inimitable qualities, and its production affirms this. The Blazing World is a different kind of book with different goals. Books like Hustvedt’s (Nabokov's Pale Fire, Murakami's The Strange Library, Danielewski's House of Leaves, and David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas) are directly commenting on particular conventions of literature, from academic criticism to literary genres. They do not need to convince the reader that the book they hold is the real book described in the text; they are instead trying to convince us that they are legitimate texts.
All books are reaching for reality. Some, like those discussed above, grasp for it by bridging the divide between the text and the performance. Other books attempt to narrow the gap between the text and the experience. Just as the first kind of book says, “Look, this is what it is like to be inside this text,” the second sort of book says, “See, this is what it is like to be inside my mind.”
This is the impulse that drives “literary naturalism”, the desire to (paradoxically) use literary techniques to expunge technique and affectation from the writing to better approximate reality. BS Johnson became so obsessed with ejecting technique to reach the truth of his experience that at the end of Albert Angelo, he screams across the page, “FUCK ALL THIS LYING”. This is also why he divided The Unfortunates into 27 sections (which come in a box) so the reader may shuffle the middle 25 and read the book in whatever order they like. The Unfortunates is presented this way to capture the apparent randomness of memory, the way that scenes from the past emerge in the mind with little causality. Johnson also felt that allowing readers to determine the order of reading was more “natural” and less affected than ordinary novels.
David Foster Wallace played with the physical text of Infinite Jest in an experiment not dissimilar to Johnson’s book-in-a-box.* Instead of the shape and manner of memory, Wallace evoked the disjointed, fractured consciousness of contemporary life (relying on the VHS as his symbol, writing a decade before Twitter and the social media onslaught against our attention). There is a tension inherent in these projects, which different authors navigate in different ways: The closer a work gets to accurately portraying its subject, the more attention is paid to the craft and art of writing. Wallace used endnotes rather than footnotes or simply jumbling the sentences up because he felt they were a way to “fracture the text that [isn’t] totally disorienting”. This apparent paradox deeply upset Johnson, who wrote, “Telling stories is telling lies, and I want to tell the truth.” (See my essay Truth Be Told for a different take on truth in literature.)
Mark Z Danielewski’s House of Leaves uses typography and the white space of poetry to create a sense of disorientation, of the winding, looping, in-and-out nature of mazes. His novel requires active engagement on the reader’s part to navigate the text; just as in three-dimensional mazes, there are sections here where it is possible to travel round and round in an infinite loop, following (in one example) footnote 134 to a sub-footnote that sends you to a previous footnote and so on until you arrive back at footnote 134, where you begin following those footnotes again ... The novel is threaded together by the character of Johnny Truant, who becomes increasingly paranoid and discombobulated. We are supposed to occupy Truant’s position here, feeling what he feels, and the tangled structure of the text and its serpentine page layout induce his confusion in us – while maintaining enough narrative control that we eventually do make sense of things.
Books are something between labyrinth and maze: They contain many routes, some of them dead ends, some of them joining other paths or looping back on themselves, but there are many destinations. There are numerous paths and myriad end points. The author lays her own path through the narrative, the labyrinth she constructs within her novel, and her tools are syntax, grammar, diction, and – for the authors discussed here – the typography and layout of their words. The physical space on the page becomes the configuration of her labyrinth. But the reader may reject that path and find his own way through the maze of various readings.
Whether this playing with the body of the book is intended towards performance or subjective experience, what the reader hopes to find at the centre of this exploration is something honest – in spite of the calculated deceptions that bring us there. (Ironically, masterful use of grammatical and literary tools is what masks the deception and allows the reader to engage with the authenticity of the text.)
Borges once wrote that “there is no need to build a labyrinth when the entire universe is one”. But that is precisely why writers build labyrinths, to offer themselves and their readers a semblance of understanding the nature of life, which is (in Stanisław Lem’s phrasing) “a labyrinth made of labyrinths”. We might never reach the centre of life’s labyrinth or see the web of the universe in its entirety, but in making the journey through these smaller mazes of human existence, we can at least be reassured that we are not entirely lost.
* The novel is invaded with superscript numbers** indicating endnotes that drag the reader’s attention away from the main narrative, constantly interrupting the flow of reading, in an effort to portray the way “that reality’s fractured right now”.
** Foster Wallace was by no means the first to use such a device; Nicholson Baker’s first novel, The Mezzanine, famously used extensive footnotes – the difference here being that these are not additions or digressions (although they appear to be just that), they are as much a part of the central text as the writing above. In weighting the footnotes with equal importance, Baker comments on the way that so much of our conscious experience occurs away from the present moment and the external world.
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• EM Forster, Aspects of the Novel (1927)
• Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865)
• Henry Eliot, Follow This Thread (2018)
• Mark Z Danielewski, House of Leaves (2000)
• Doug Dorst & JJ Abrams, S (2013)
• Siri Hustvedt, The Blazing World (2014)
• BS Johnson, Albert Angelo (1964) and The Unfortunates (1969)
• Charlie Rose interviews Author David Foster Wallace on YouTube
• BS Johnson, quoted in ‘Death by naturalism’ in Prospect (2003)
• Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking (2001)
• Jorge Luis Borges, Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings (1962)
• Stanisław Lem, Fiasco (1986)