The Shape of a Story

In K2: Outside Reality Faith follows the Biggest Bird into the Mountain. The Biggest Bird escorts Faith beyond the bounds of reality as we know it and tells her to jump into a specific moment. When Faith enters reality, Jay explains he’s already heard this part of the story.

To recap, Jay entered the monastery of Sheridan to hear a story from Virgil Jango Skyy. In the story Faith appears from smoke to learn about Jango’s brother Jun, then returns whence she came. The first time we read these sections we read them from Jay’s perspective. Now we reconsider those sections with Faith’s perspective in mind, and we see the intersection of strange timelines.

One of my goals with Akayama DanJay is to write a story which feigns linearity, but cannot be understood linearly. When the reader realizes they cannot depend on chronological order, they must consider the whole story at once as a simultaneous object.

If the reader can hold the whole book in their mind at once, and consider its beginning and ending to be concurrent with every other part, they become like the aliens in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-FiveSL5 features aliens called Tralfamadorians (who appear in different forms throughout Vonnegut’s works) who can see every point in space-time simultaneously. The Tralfamadorians describe the end of the universe as if it had already happened, and they keep humans in a zoo to speculate about the nature of our limited minds.

SL5 follows one human, Billy Pilgrim, as they struggle with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder after WWII. The disorder is likened to being “unstuck in time” as Billy perceives events in an unconventional order; the reader is whisked from past to future to present and back. In this manner Vonnegut enforces upon the reader a feeling of disconnection with reality. Vonnegut’s Post-Modernist story-shape induces a symptom of PTSD within the reader, temporarily, in order to convey the senselessness of war and the meaninglessness of life. “So it goes,” says Vonnegut.

Akayama DanJay is less bleak but no more straightforward. The dual character DanJay begins the narrative by immolating himself in a furnace as Dan, led by an obsessive desire for spiritual cleansing. He is reincarnated as Jay alongside his previous life, and the vantage point allows Jay to come to terms with his destiny. Dan feels incomplete without his fantasy of idealized love in Beatrice; Jay knows he contains everything he needs.

And Faith connects them all. In life, she brought Dan to Beatrice. In death, she visits Jango and Jay. Now the Heart of the Mountain requests Faith to wrap the Wheel with the white wing—Faith literally binds reality together.

The white wing belongs to Beatrice, who appeared as the wing-thing in the afterlife after she was hit by a bus. Beatrice’s compassion and spiritual purity manifest as indestructible wings of infinite length. My vision of reality as a spinning circle, maintained by Faith’s application of compassion, is generally optimistic. Faith is even reunited with her lost love, even if she hasn’t caught on yet.

Kurt Vonnegut described the “shape of a story” in a delightfully mathematical way: graph the protagonist’s state over time. From the beginning of a book to the end we can draw a line which dips when the hero struggles and spikes when the hero overcomes. I especially like this description of a story’s shape because Vonnegut’s own books can be difficult to graph: should Slaughterhouse-Five be graphed using time in the traditional sense, or using the non-chronological order presented to the reader?

When writing SL5, Vonnegut planned the story by unrolling toilet paper and drawing each character’s “lifeline” across its length. When a character died, their line stopped. I imagine Vonnegut felt like a Tralfamadorian as he reviewed his toilet paper plotting: he could see the beginning and the end and everything in between at once, if only in a fictional universe of his own creation. Maybe he drew a line which curved back on itself, or disappeared and reappeared elsewhere, representing Billy Pilgrim or the reader themselves, who journey through time in the unconventional order presented in the text.

Whatever timeline we use to “graph” SL5, flattening out a book gives readers a “god’s eye view” of the narrative. In Akayama DanJay, I describe the whole of reality as a spinning circle which the characters can observe. I hope viewing the universe from the outside—even within a story—is an intriguing experience.

At the same time, the reincarnation of Dan as Jay presents a circular story-shape. DanJay lives as Dan, then simultaneously as Jay, walking the same path again. In an abstract sense, DanJay’s reality really is a spinning circle, as I depict it. Or maybe I’m just being pretentious.

So it goes.

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