Book; Counter-book 2: Frames

A good story is like a good onion. Layers. Lots of layers. So many layers to peel through that take you deeper in, but when you finish you see that the material in the middle is made of the same stuff from the outside, only in a different form. A good story has a tangible change that doesn't merely appear, but grows organically. ("Organic" is a buzz word, over-used by musicians, athletes, and most any artist who wants to say "with an appearance of natural progression," regardless of any necessary artistic contrivance... I say it too. I'm a jerk.) A good story, as you've heard in a Lit class at some point in your life, takes a character through a change. If the character doesn't change, and he's the protagonist, antagonist, or anti-hero, well, then, that story is suspect... Or, very, very meta. More on that later.

A good story, like an onion, may also make you cry. But, what I'm getting at here and now is the layering because this edition of Book; Counter-book address frame narratives... Or, in keeping with the onion simile, "Onion-inside-onion(-inside-onion)" stories. Arguably, the most famous frame narrative is Mary Shelley's classic Gothic horror Frankenstein, wherein the tale is told through letters by seafarer Robert Walton, who is told the tale by Victor Frankenstein, who hears the details of the story from the Monster while seeking refuge in the mountains. All of this is compiled by Shelley, whose story of writing the book as a bet between herself, Lord Byron, and her husband to be Percy lends another layer to the "onion". Shelley's direct part in the frame is disputable, but the format is the key. 1) Shelley 2) Walton 3) Victor 4) Monster. For those of you who are now bored by my unnecessarily academic and pandering description of frame narration; I invite you to say aloud, "Fuck that!" now.

Two excellent, near essential frame narratives of the last 25 years are The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood, and Haruki Murakami's Hard-boiled Wonderland and The End of the World. These are the contenders, the book to each other's counter-book. While both books are alike in their alterations to the traditional frame narrative, they oppose each other in application and in purpose. This isn't going to be a clean fight between them, but if you want pulled punches, go fix a boxing match.

The Blind Assassin takes place in Ontario, Canada, and operates in a three level frame structure. 1) Iris Chase describing her days in older age and recalling her past from youthful debutante to unhappily married wife of a wealthy politico 2) A story of a pair of young lovers' illicit affair written by her sister Laura 3) The story within the story, as told by the male lover, which is a piece of science fiction called "The Blind Assassin". The narrative works as a puzzle, guiding us to the big reveal that Atwood offers at the end. Brilliantly, the reveal you're looking for throughout the frames is not the one that matters most, it doesn't end up being the climax, and that makes the novel especially compelling.

For Atwood, the frame narrative creates an essential distance between us and the inner workings of the Chase and Griffen families. It's a constructive way to make readers feel the distance Iris and Laura felt, while simultaneously preventing us from getting close enough to understand until Atwood wants to show her cards. Atwood offers the most depth and emotion in Iris' day-to-day as an older woman, and in the "The Blind Assassin" story, within the story, within the novel. There we are provided motive and passion, but it's meant to be cursory, and Atwood intends to mislead us through it, while also revealing honesty. The allegory of the young, blind, slave/assassin falling in love with the doomed-to-sacrifice virgin girl is beautiful and says far more about the motivations and thoughts of the Chase's than anything Atwood lets them say directly. The frame in The Blind Assassin is heavy like the weighty expectations put on the characters, and as complex as a Rubik's Cube inside the hedge maze from The Shining.

Murakami, in Hard-boiled Wonderland and The End of the World, takes a different approach. The frame is simpler in pieces, but more complex in execution. Depending on your choice of point-of-view, it operates: 1) Real world of a data calculation tech in a pseudo futurist Noir 2) Absurd, fairytale world of a man learning to read memories from animal skulls. Or, 1) Absurd tale of a data-tech evading silent monsters in a subway tunnel, falling in love with a voraciously sexual girl dressed entirely in pink, and losing his mind 2) A classic allegory on love and mythology with a simple, understandable setting and context.

In truth, Murakami's novel is both these of versions and more. It's a frame narrative that exists in split personalities. In a standard frame-fashion, the layers teach us more about each other, but more indirectly than the Frankenstein example, and less structurally clear as The Blind Assassin. The novel switches frames on alternate chapters, but even in the early chapters, there is a light trickle of the two frames into one another. The trickle may only start as a sentence, a fleeting phrase, but it pervades the book, until eventually, Murakami has presented you with a single well, a pool of water, where two currents flow into each other. The words and styles blend together, and the frames melt entirely. The frames are merged, and the structure is destroyed, thereby altering the minds of the the protagonist(s) while also wrecking the frame convention.

Murakami employs the frame only to immediately dash it and wear it down until no structure remains. Atwood took the frame as a way to illustrate the complete puzzle, providing the most detail pieces in unexpected places. Both takes are post-modern... the alteration of convention, the creation of a new design on a standard. The biggest point of contention between these two novels, though, is that while Atwood's frame narrative elucidates the mysteries within, Murakami's mixes ink into an already murky potion and compels the reader to take a sip.

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