The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

August § The Common Test / 2016-02-16 21:04:46
Robin § Unforgotten / 2016-01-08 21:19:16
MsFitNZ § Towards A Theory of Secondary Literacy / 2015-11-03 21:23:21
Jon Schultz § Bless the toolmakers / 2015-05-04 18:39:56
Jon Schultz § Bless the toolmakers / 2015-05-04 16:32:50
Matt § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-05 01:49:12
Greg Linch § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 18:05:52
Robin § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 05:11:02
P. Renaud § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 04:13:09
Jay H § Matching cuts / 2014-10-02 02:41:13

The primes of the story


Over at BLDGBLOG, Geoff Manaugh has a new interview with Zachary Mason, author of the amazing Lost Books of the Odyssey.

So I have to tell you about this book:

The Lost Books of the Odyssey manages a pretty impossible mix; somehow, it’s both mathematically precise and completely wacky. Like, you start reading it and, especially if you know its reputation (a combinatorial exploration/explosion of the classic myth, written by a computer scientist, etc.) you expect this cold, hard Borgesian puzzle-box. And the book does, in face, tickle your brain in that way, and with no word wasted in the process… but then it also surprises you with warmth, and real sadness, and a terrific storyteller’s voice all throughout. It’s one of my absolute favorites of the past few years.

Zachary Mason is therefore predictably fascinating over on BLDGBLOG, especially with an interviewer as wide-ranging as Geoff Manaugh. I could blockquote the whole thing, but this bit in particular really grabbed me:

Mason: It sounds like you’re reacting to my preoccupation with what I might call the primes of the story. There are aspects of the Odyssey that seem essential, and these are few in number, just a handful of images. There’s a man lost at sea, an interminable war a long way behind him, and a home that’s infinitely desirable and infinitely far away. There’s the man-eating ogre in his cave; there are the Sirens with their irresistible song; there’s the certain misery of Scylla and Charybdis.

I feel like these images are responsible for the enduring power of the story, and its survival, more than the particular details of, say, dialogue among the suitors, or what have you. I wanted to work directly with these primes, to present them in as powerful and stripped-down a way as possible, and to explore how they could interact, and how they could combine to make new forms. I suppose this kind of minimalist, reductive aesthetic does has a mathematical flavor.

There are at least two things to love there:

First, “the primes of the story.” What a great, evocative phrase—I’m going to appropriate it. Sure sure, they go by other names: themes, archetypes, whatever. But primes! Who wouldn’t want their story to have primes? Who wouldn’t want to build something from them?

Second, the focus on durable imagery. When I think back to the books I’ve read over the past few years, I don’t really remember a lot of plot details—what happened when and to who. Instead, I remember images. From Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, it’s a boarding-school student walking across Antarctica, burning like a star. From Paolo Bacigalupi’s Windup Girl, it’s an agent of agribusiness combing far-off farmer’s markets. From Karl Marlantes’ Matterhorn, it’s a helicopter swooping in low, trying to land in the fog. (Lots more from that book, actually—Matterhorn was jam-packed with images.)

So increasingly, this is how I judge a book: does it leave me with at least one truly durable image? Is there one moment I can see again in sharp detail two months or two years later? If so, I call that success. As Zachary Mason says: in the long run, as stories get told and re-told in different languages and different formats, it’s probably the images that keep a story alive. It’s probably the images that last.


Robin – Many thanks for highlighting the phrase “primes of the story”. It adds another dimension to characterizing key elements of any story.

On the imagery, my visual thinking has dominated the analytical one and I can perfectly see what you mean. Invariably books that have evoked strong images of characters and moods have stayed with be longer than those that don’t. Roberto Calasso’s Ka, on Indian mythology, has long been a favourite of mine for this reason.

As someone who tells stories WITH pictures (in the form of large narrative drawings, and more traditional comics), the idea of ‘primes’ is very appealing, and also makes a lot of sense when I think about how I work.

My stories usually start with a single, powerful image, without any context. A boy hammering his treehouse shut, or someone stumbling upon a severed hand in the woods. The context and meaning sorts itself out later in the writing process. What I think is interesting though, is how important the context is, as a way of separating the Primes from the ‘details’. The context is what gives specificity and depth, and what allows those prime elements to blossom in the reader/viewer’s mind.

As an example, if the boy I mentioned was shuttering his treehouse because winter was coming, that drains a lot of the power out of it, and makes the image seem more mundane. If he’s closing it up because his father killed himself, and hes determined to put aside childish dreams and become a man despite his age, that bolsters the power of the image and cements it as a ‘prime’ rather than a detail.

I’ll be thinking a lot about this as the day goes on. Thanks, Robin.

I also love the idea of primes. Factoring a number into primes was one of the few tedious exercises of childhood arithmetic that I really enjoyed, and there was always something almost a little emotional about the hunt. It’s a hunt inside of the number, taking it apart, rather than out in the world, finding random things. There’s something about how the primes mulitply instead of add to make your final product which also seems apt somehow.

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