Narrative Mapping: The Easy Way Out?

Having read arguably non-traversable texts (at least upon first reading) such as David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, I can relate pretty heavily to Stephen Mamber’s promotion of narrative mapping. Conceptually, this can be (and likely has been already) done in ways like mapping out Leopold Bloom’s walk through Dublin in Joyce’s seminal text Ulysses. Like Mamber says, some texts, like Wallace’s and Joyce’s, are just “ambiguous in some fundamental fashion,” (146). They might have “multiple explanations” with “elaborate temporal constructions,” (147). And what is more appealing than being able to draw back that curtain and visually map what has been intentionally left hidden from us, by the author?

But I think for a moment, and I really have to admit that when such things are done for me, it just does not have the same permanence. Perhaps it is because the Death of the Author is fresh in my mind from last week’s discussion and recent blog posts, but the importance of authorial intent drones on in my mind. I think of Mamber’s assertion of “going global,” using narrative mapping in an analytic fashion that re-creates the way we examine a work as readers, but it truly begs the question: am I, as the reader, OK with that?

I think it was Meredith who mentioned last week that a “betrayal” to the reader within a written narrative is more striking than when done in visually representative media, like video games. In print, we allow our imagination to run rampant, to think what we want to think, visualize it on our own, in the most horrifying ways, rather than watching it unfurl for us as they do in television, film, and games. And I similarly think back to Mamber’s suggestion of re-creating what the author has used to scaffold their narrative, yet have chosen to leave out.

But then I must ask: did they leave that narrative mapping out on purpose? And even if I watched Leopold Bloom’s day unfold similarly in format to this week’s reading of 21 Steps, would it have the same level of permanence with me, watching the story progress on my laptop, than if I tried to traverse the text, visualize it in my mind, and understand it, page by page? If mapped narratives become a new, superlative interface to the work itself – at least for my own understanding – is the actual experience of interacting with the text just as emotive?

To be honest, I am not sure it is. A narrative mapping assists my reading of a text and helps me remember who is related to who in The Count of Monte Cristo, but part of the fun of celebrating such literature is partially because it is difficult to read. I like the challenge of a tough book. And to have it decoded for me, to watch it instead unfold visually, is perhaps similar to buying a jigsaw puzzle already pieced together. In new, digital media, such elements of narrative mapping may be unique, helpful, if not completely novel. But I think something great, the experience of traversing a deep text, is destroyed in the creation of some kind of a graphic overlay.

When I read, while it may be convenient to use a narrative mapping to, as Mamber says, “[deal] with complexity, ambiguity, density, and information overload” (157), I feel something is similarly lost in the removal of that experience. And while it is true my hair may go gray quicker, and I may lose my patience with the method Joyce crafts his novels, I prefer to read certain novels as they are intended to be read: difficult, and sometimes with alcohol. I do not want to “deal with” complex books. I want to read my complicated books. I want to conquer them.

3 thoughts on “Narrative Mapping: The Easy Way Out?

  1. Why didn’t I think about Joyce when reading this?!

    What’s developed with Ulysses (and the cult of Joyceans that yearly recreate the text) is a literal mapping around Dublin. Plaques around town alert tourists to lines from the book or pubs Leo stopped in for a pint:

    It’s one thing to think of the map we create when navigating these seemingly unnavigable behemoths (and I’ve made them for books with many intersecting characters), but what can be said about imprinting a fictional text on the “real” world? What might this confusion have to do with the map? I’m not sure I’d put this on the level of Baudrillard’s simulacrum, but that’s what keeps coming to mind.

Comments are closed.