Monday, August 22, 2016

Choice: a possible future of storytelling

Multiple Choice, by Alejandro Zambra, is fiction, nonfiction, poetry, something more, and something else entirely. It consists of 90 thought experiments, creating one big meta thought experiment about narrative. It is structured in the form of a standardized test (complete with a sheet on which you can mark your responses), 5 sections that cover skills like word choice, sentence order, and reading comprehension.

For example, for the following exercise, mark the answer that puts the sentences in the best possible order to form a coherent text.
31. Relatives

1. You group them into two lists: the ones you love and the ones you don't.
2. You group them into two lists: the ones who shouldn't be alive and the ones who shouldn't be dead.
3. You group them according to the degree of trust they inspired in you as a child.
4. For a moment you think you discover something important, something that has been hanging over you for years.
5. You group them into two lists: the living and the dead.

A) 1-3-4-5-2
B) 5-2-1-3-4
C) 1-3-5-2-4
D) 3-4-5-2-1
E) 1-2-3-4-5
(I answered B. Or maybe A.) Wouldn't you love to discuss this question with your family? The conversational tangents it inspires!

I'd like to present some of these exercises to my team of editors, so we could debate the subtleties in meaning between, for example, "but," "yet," and "notwithstanding," what order of facts and opinions conveys the most effective emphasis, which sentences aren't essential to moving the narrative forward.

It was a perfect read for me, the perfect time and place, serving to slow me down. In this way the book was much like poetry. Read a page, think about it, let it sink in, reconsider it. It's a short book, but it demands a lot of breathing space. It has served to make me feel really smart, and also really stupid. That's a good thing.

I rather wish that more books would not merely invite but forcibly ask me to pause and reflect on what I read.

Multiple Choice failed completely to make an impression upon people I know, some off whom are actual readers. It's as if by physically pressing the book upon them, forcing them to cast their eyes across a sample "question," was like making them sit an actual exam. One person was outraged that there was no answer key. What do you mean there are no answers!

As the author responds in one Q&A (This Week in Fiction: Alejandro Zambra):
I think that this story and the book as a whole argue against the illusion of a single right answer. But it’s also a book about the wish for that answer, the na├»ve or visceral desire for there to be a truth. In “Multiple Choice,” I was interested in the question of how those structures mark you: the rhetoric of options, distractor questions, the true and the false—that whole complex and crude game, deeply ideological, of exclusions and inclusions.
Reading Comprehension: Text No. 1 [excerpt]
Reading Comprehension: Text No. 3

Liminoid Magazine
The Rumpus

The Future of Storytelling
Quite coincidentally I recently visited the exhibit Embodied Narrative: Sensory Stories of the Digital Age. I see Multiple Choice easily slipping in alongside these experiences, curated by Future of StoryTelling (FoST), and all foretelling the future of storytelling.

All highlighted the significance of context: how context predominantly figures in shaping an experience for a "reader." For example:

Experiencing the last 4 minutes of JFK's life through sound and smell ("Famous Deaths") only becomes art because we know how it ends, and we're aware of its historical significance. I mean, on its own, in isolation of context, it stands as an aesthetic juxtaposition of audio and olfactory cues — but I could guess at the smells only because I could line up the accompanying sounds with footage I've previously seen. What a person brings to the experience in terms of their knowledge and expectations is what makes it a meaningful narrative. The mortuary fridge you're rolled into enhances the anticipation of death.

A video game that consists of a police database which the user can query ("Her Story") has no structure; it's driven entirely by the user's interests. When I first sat down at the terminal, I was at a loss; it felt a little bit like work. If this is a police database, I've been cast in the role of investigating officer. Where to start? I reasoned, a police database must have something about murder in it, so that was my first keyword search, which delivered some video footage, which soon had me asking, who's Hannah? and, what baby? Every session will yield a different story.

Blindness experienced through a VR headset ("Notes on Blindness") might seem like a contradiction in terms, but the flashes of light begin to take shape according to sound prompts. The experience is inspired by and complemented with the audio recordings of John Hull, a theologian who with a scientist's precision documented his experience of going blind. (The associated film, by contrast, I have no interest in seeing — the trailer leads me to expect an overly sentimental drama that emotionally manipulates its audience, playing on themes of loneliness vs connection rather than on the cognitive aspects of blindness that are so much more interesting to me.) The most poetic of the chapters in this VR experience dealt with rain and with wind. He describes the rain as a blanket that gives things shape and dimension (think: the sound of rain on metal vs glass, on the roof vs the window, in tight alleys vs open fields). Wind is the equivalent of a sighted person's clear and sunny day, bringing one's surroundings to life.

A short film unfolds according to decisions the audience makes via mobile devices ("Late Shift"). A choose-your-own-adventure movie, only you're not watching alone; the direction of the narrative is based on majority votes. Some of the decisions are straightforward yes-no scenarios, but others ask you to take a more philosophical perspective (selfish or selfless?), thereby defining character and moral context. And some questions frustratingly don't offer as an option your preferred course of action. One unsettling aspect is that the story doesn't always go the way you want it to go. You wonder who your neighbour is, do they believe what you believe, what is their motivation.

Of these examples, I feel that Death and Blindness don't entirely fit the storytelling mould — they don't tell a story so much as share an experience. Zambra's book would be a perfect conceptual fit for this exhibition, but perhaps, being print-based, it would be considered too traditional.

1 comment:

Stefanie said...

Zambra's book sounds really interesting. I am going to have to see if my library has it! And what a fascinating exhibit about storytelling! It's great how the book you read managed to fit so well with the exhibit. I love when things overlap like that!