Response One

Michael Zyskind

Professor Alvarez

English 363

13 June 2011

To Bust Through the Wall, or Go Around It: That is the Question!

Opening this semester focused on narratology, looking at the way a text is written (rather in-depth), I keep coming back to a very interesting passage from Patrick Rothfuss’s The Wise Man’s Fear. The book is the second in a planned fantasy trilogy from the author, chronicling the life of a hero by the name of Kvothe, who is telling his story in the first-person. In the middle of the book, Kvothe, a skilled musician and song-writer, is thinking about a song, one that defies the standard set of rules, that he’s recently heard from his friend/love/muse, Denna, and relates his feelings into an elaborate analogy:

(Quote intended to be double-spaced and indented on Word.)  Think of music as being a great snarl of a city […] In the years I spent living there, I came to know its streets. Not just the main streets. Not just the alleys. I knew shortcuts and rooftops and parts of the sewers. Because of this, I could move through the city like a rabbit in a bramble. I was quick and cunning and clever.

Denna, on the other hand, had never been trained. She knew nothing of shortcuts. You’d think she’d be forced to wander the city, lost and helpless, trapped in a twisting maze of mortared stone.

But instead, she simply walked through the walls. She didn’t know any better. Nobody had ever told her she couldn’t. Because of this, she moved through the city like some faerie creature. She walked roads no one else could see, and it made her music wild and strange and free. (Rothfuss 465-466)

It reminds me of the clichéd saying that every teacher tells his or her students when they decide, whether intentionally or unintentionally, to flout the rules of the English language (after all, you see great writers do it all the time): you have to know the rules before you can break them. Kvothe is a fellow that knows all the rules, is proud that he knows the rules, and because of that, he knows the easiest way to get around a piece of music, twists a song in a way it hasn’t been twisted before in order to suit his purpose. And yet he seems to admire Denna’s blissful ignorance, her freedom to do whatever she wishes because of it, that makes her music so vibrant; there is almost that wish to be free of the constraints of rules, and be able to bust through walls because you don’t see—don’t know—that they’re there.

Anyway, as rules are important for the most part, I guess it pays to take a look what they are and how they work—so that they may be “properly” broken and experimented upon.

Guillermo Samperio’s “She Lived in a Story” is an example of an author tinkering with the structural levels of a story. Samperio’s story is an example of a matrix narrative, where the narrative contains “an ‘embedded’ or ‘hyponarrative’” (Jahn 2.4.1). In this scenario, there are narratives operating within narratives: the matrix narrative being the primary narrative, and the hyponarratives operating on deeper levels. “Ordinarily, both the transition to a hyponarrative, its termination and the return to the matrix narrative are explicitly signaled in a text; occasionally, however, a text closes on a hyponarrative without explicitly resuming the matrix narrative” (Jahn 2.4.1). In the story, Samperio clearly transitions into the hyponarrative by setting up the POV character sitting down to write and then breaking into the next scene with either Italics or a line break, but he never really transitions backward to the line of narrative that preceded it: e.g.: Segovia sits down to write a story about Ofelia, transitioning into her story, but the narrative never returns to Segovia—it does, but only in an even deeper level of narrative. And at the ending, where the two characters meet in a loopy twist of colliding narratives, not only does the story not return to the matrix narrative (if there can even be said to be one, when all is said in done), it’s as if the matrix narrative has been consumed by the narratives beneath it. The effect that Samperio seems to be shooting for here with his multiple hyponarratives is called “mise en abyme”: “The infinite loop created when a hyponarrative embeds its matrix narrative. ‘It can be described as the equivalent of something like Matisse’s famous painting of a room in which a miniature version of the same paintings [sic] hangs on one of the walls’” (Jahn N2.4.7).

The funny thing about the above paragraph is that it’s really not such a difficult concept; it’s all the fancy technical terms surrounding the simple idea of “stories within stories” that is just maddening.

Where Samperio’s story was delightfully trippy in its complexity and the kind of circular logic it demands from its reader, Borges’s “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” makes me real angry—at least for a bit, before I kind of admire the falsity of it all. It makes me angry because Pierre Menard is a fictional character—in this story’s world—who never wrote what the narrator is claiming him to have written; not only that, but the narrator is analyzing that writing as if it were truly real, screwing with the reader. The narrator says, “Those who have insinuated that Menard devoted his life to writing a contemporary Quixote besmirch his illustrious memory. Pierre Menard did not want to compose another Quixote. Nor, surely, need one be obliged to note that his goal was never a mechanical transcription of the original; he had no intention of copying it. His admirable ambition was to produce a number of pages which coincided—word for word and line for line—with those of Miguel de Cervantes” (91). Even if this story said “Short Story Fiction” in bold letterers at the top of the first page, how can anyone unfamiliar with Borges or this kind of tricky literary device not take all of this information about Menard as factual—especially considering the scholarly way in which the text written. It greatly reminds me of William Goldman’s The Princess Bride, where Goldman pretends as if he abridging his story from a longer one by this allegedly real Italian Morgenstern fellow. I didn’t know that Goldman had done this while I was reading it, and when I did some research about the sequel “being postponed because of problems with Morgenstern’s estate,” and discovered it all be one giant hoax, I felt pretty stupid. I love the book, though; it is one of my favorites, and, after years of contemplation, I have to admit my fondness for the literary device. And here again is this example of experimenting with traditional narrative, tinkering with the structure and rules of fiction itself to produce something pretty neat. No busting through walls required.

Works Cited

Borges, Jorge Luis. “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote.” Collected Fictions. London:   Penguin, 1998. 88-95. Print.

Jahn, Manfred. “Narratology: A Guide to the Theory of Narrative.” Universität Zu Köln. 28 May 2005. Web. 12 June 2011. <>.

Rothfuss, Patrick. The Wise Man’s Fear. New York: DAW, 2011. Print.

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