Friday, 30 May 2014

The narrative imperative

The other day I was walking down Green Lanes when I passed a young woman pushing a buggy, a mobile phone held to her ear. She was speaking so loudly into it that it was impossible not to overhear the following:

Woman (into phone): I don't care what he says. I'm not dropping the charges.
she puts the phone away into her handbag and, looking around, speaks to no one in particular
Fucking bitch.
She bends over the buggy and speaks to the child in it
Don't worry sweetie. Mummy's alright now.

Immediately I knew. She was a victim of domestic violence. The person on the other end of the phone was a friend or relative of the perpetrator, seeking either to pass on his tearful apologies or to threaten her into taking no further action. However she was standing firm, envisaging a new life for her and her baby, freed from the man who had made her life hell.

Or maybe not. Maybe the "charges" were related to something else entirely and the "Mummy's alright now" was a simple reference to the fact that she had had a cold this morning but was recovering. The point is though that out of this tiny snippet of one side of a conversation my mind had constructed an entire narrative, with an immediacy and force that changed the way I saw the woman and her child.

Which set me thinking about what I have called the narrative imperative: the seemingly unstoppable drive in our minds to construct narratives out of everything we see and hear. We are at it all the time, because narrative is the means by which we draw together strands of observation and memory and use them to predict the future.

Some narratives are simple and entirely predictable: when a cricket ball soars into the air our mind immediately constructs its path as a narrative that allows us to predict where the final scene will occur and position ourselves in an appropriate position to be there. However our mind goes further than that and even as we run our mind is constructing one of two denouements- either the tragicomic one where our hands transform into unwieldy flippers that flap aimlessly at the flying projectile or the heroic one where our dive is perfectly timed and our fingers unerringly clutch the ball to our chests. And in constructing that narrative our brains determine its progress.

Other narratives are more complex and less linear, but I do not believe it is any accident that we use the verb "read" for our analysis of complex situations. So a driver approaching a busy junction "reads" the traffic by constructing a series of interconnected narratives: will that lorry turn left? And will that car overtake it? And what about that motorbike, weaving through the line of vehicles? A police officer similarly "reads" the situation outside a night club at 3 am. Is that group of lads going to wander off drunkenly down the street or are they going to respond to the taunts of that other group? And if they do, is one of them (the one who's putting his hand inside his coat) going to produce a knife?

This process of reading and constructing narratives even applies to static images. When we see an effective piece of photo-journalism we cannot help but construct a narrative that puts that person in that place, and that expression on his/her face. And this applies even to apparently abstract still images. To take a slightly bizarre example electricians use the language of narrative to "read" circuit diagrams: "See, the power comes in here, then that junction box sends it down that spur..." etc. Non physicists use verbs such as "flow" to describe how current works, not because it is a realistic description of what appears to happen (everything happens effectively simultaneously in electrical circuits) but because it allows us to construct a narrative that makes the circuit comprehensible. Film makers understand this. It is why in disaster and action movies lights go off in a sequence rather than instantaneously together when the big explosion goes off.

Perhaps the most intriguingly minimalist expression of our minds' ability to construct narrative is the indie platform game Thomas Was Alone. I have not played it, but the consensus is that its narrative is compelling and imbued with sadness. It has been described as "funny and heartfelt" and its central character as "charming". A central character which, like all its other characters, is a monochrome rectangle.

So why is this? It seems to me that a large part of our conscious mind is devoted to pulling together strands from everything we see and hear around us and combining that mass of data with stuff plucked from our memories in order to construct narratives that help us make sense of the world. I am quite sure that this predates the development of the human brain (how else does a prey species perceive something as a potential threat, or a predator stalk its prey?) but has expanded massively with our brains' increased capacity. So unbeknownst to us, our unconscious mind is constantly constructing narratives, to the point that it is these narratives that help us understand everything around us.

So of what relevance does this have for literature? It is of course central. Narrative is what holds almost all literature together. Even lyrical poetry has a narrative of sorts and it is a rare haiku that does not, for all its often static depiction of a single experience, imply a narrative. Here's a rather sweet one, picked at random:
the first cold shower
even the monkey seems to want
a little coat of straw

In more obviously narrative forms this driving imperative in all of our brains allows authors to imply narratives, often in the subtlest of ways, trusting to the reader to fill in the gaps. So in Browning's My Last Duchess the final act of this chilling story of autocratic power is stated simply in the words:
"This grew; I gave commands;
Then all smiles stopped together."
Out of context it might be possible to misunderstand these lines but by the time we get there in the poem our mind needs no more information than this to construct the narrative of the Duke's cold-blooded murder of his first wife.

An even better example is Alan Bennett's Talking Heads monologues. I unfortunately do not have the text but remember one called Soldiering On. This is the story of a recently widowed woman who is being slowly scammed of her inheritance by her son and whose daughter was sexually abused by her late husband. Except that she does not tell us any of that, and (it being a monologue) neither does anyone else. So how do we know? Because, like it or not, our minds cannot help constructing narratives, in exactly the way I did when I overheard the young woman with the buggy.

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