Constraint

A Passage from Luminous Airplanes, or Things As They Were: A Hyperromance


The memory of Alex’s diets leads me to an almost completely unrelated technical question, which has been bugging me as I work on this Commentary. Is it necessary to have restrictions in order to write something? I.e., is it necessary to establish rules whereby some things are allowed in your story, and other things are verboten? Most fictions are, like Alex, fussy eaters: they demand that you begin at the beginning and move causally to the end. (That’s “plot.”) Human actions should mostly be explicable. (That’s “character.”) Things can only be in one place at one time; they ought to persist in space unless there is a reason why they shouldn’t do so. (That’s “setting.”) Then there are the rules writ in divers manuals of the writer’s craft: drop protagonist and antagonist into the same pot of water; let them struggle until one tears the claws off the other (that’s the “climax”), then heat the pot to the point where mirages of another world appear (“epiphany”); void the pot and serve, or else let it go on boiling (“closure,” or its lack). And do it efficiently, please, efficiently! Your guests are waiting.

Of course, there are ways around this. The OULIPO, a sub-gang of French poets and mathematicians, gave themselves arbitrary rules to follow, for example, that every word in a poem had to be longer than the word before it, or that certain letters of the alphabet were off-limits. See Georges Perec’s novel La Disparition, translated as A Void, and devoid, in both English and French, of the letter e. Beyond these explicit rules, everything goes. The idea being that a chef who is given directions which have no obvious connection to the idea of edibility, or even to the properties of any known ingredient, will have to be more creative than one who is cooking out of Escoffier, or Child.

What I want to know is, what happens if you take these restrictions away? Beginning, I guess, with the idea of a definite beginning, or a fixed end. And then also: what happens if you let everything in?


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