I’ve been pondering The Matrix movies lately. Key pieces of plot and character information were offered in animes, computer games, and so on. Back in the day, I thought this was lazy and exploitative. Now, I think I was wrong.
Narrative is getting old school. For thousands of years, the great public stories were built on mythology. Mythologies are inchoate tale masses, springing to life when the simply defined character traits of their protagonists encounter the rich complexities of life.
That narrative breadth was reflected in the variety of media employed to communicate those mythologies. Over the years, their stories were told orally, enacted ritually, depicted through sculpture, painting, illumination, even sung.
Narrative units were excerpted for use in churches or temples, in the house or workplace, or even just on personal amulets or altarpieces, giving a particular devotional emphasis as necessary.
By presenting a single story through multiple different media, that could be engaged with individually or taken together to form a whole, the Wachowskis were tapping into this very ancient set of narrative techniques.
They’re not the only people to do it. Throughout genre writing, this kind of multiplicity is being actively engaged with.
Take the Hellboy franchise, for example – now including comic books, novels, cartoons and feature films. Or the richly populated Star Trek universe, which can be explored through everything from the original episodes to fan fiction, boardgames to a (rather strange) small museum in Las Vegas.
What’s interesting is why it’s genre writing that’s working like this; and why (for a couple of centuries at least) fiction pulled away from this kind of multiple narrative.
Genre fiction’s always been at home with the episodic, the multiple; rooted in short stories, television series, radio serials and even comic books as much as in novels, it comes ready tooled for these kinds of story telling methodologies.
Over and above this, it’s enjoyed by a highly active – and very creative – fan base that’s very comfortable with reworking favoured narratives according to personal need.
And why did we step away from multiple narratives in the first place? For me, it’s linked to the rise of the literary novel as a discrete art form. Such novels are understood to present unique narrative universes, created by and under the control of single, named writers.
Only Dickens can write like Dickens; only Cervantes can write Don Quixote (tho’others tried and failed, as Cervantes successfully managed to defend his own turf against them). This kind of emphasis on individual, highly personal world creation militates against the kind of shared narratives I’ve been talking about.
So what’s going on? How to conclude? Really, by pointing out that genre writing is helping maintain a very ancient narrative tradition; and that literary writers are not the sole arbiters of what fiction is, and how it works.