Unnatural Narrative

Impossible Worlds in Fiction and Drama
Jan Alber

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Part 1. Concepts of the Unnatural
Introduction: The Range of the Impossible 3
1 Theorizing the Unnatural


Part 2. Unnatural Narrative Features
2 Impossible Narrators and Storytelling Scenarios 61
3 Antirealist Figures: Paper People Gone Wild 104
4 Unnatural Temporalities
5 Antimimetic Spaces



Conclusion 215




Index 295

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Unnatural Narrative
Impossible Worlds in Fiction and Drama
Jan Alber

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The Range of the Impossible

One of the most interesting things about fictional narratives is that
they not only reproduce the empirical world around us; they also often
contain nonactualizable elements that would simply be impossible in
the real world. Ruth Ronen (1994, 45) writes that “fiction can construct
impossible objects and other objects that clearly diverge from their
counterparts in the actual world.” Mark Currie (2007, 85) goes one step
further by arguing that “the impossible object, and even the impossible
world, is of course the very possibility of fiction.” Indeed many fictional
narratives confront us with bizarre worlds that are governed by principles that clearly transcend the parameters of the real world.
In this study I show that, throughout literary history, the storyworlds of novels, short stories, and plays teem with “unnatural” (i.e.,
physically, logically, or humanly impossible) scenarios and events that
challenge our real-world knowledge.1 The unnatural (or impossible) in
such narratives is measured against the foil of “natural” (real-world)
cognitive frames and scripts that have to do with natural laws, logical
principles, and standard human limitations of knowledge and ability.
Even though the unnatural proliferates in literary texts from various
periods, narrative theory has not yet done justice to these many cases
of unnaturalness—nor to the question of how readers can make sense
of them.
To illustrate the ways in which the unnatural may deviate from realworld frames and scripts, I begin by presenting four striking examples
of impossibility that concern the narrative parameters of the narrator,
the character, time, and space.

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One of the figures in Harold Pinter’s (1981) radio play Family Voices. In Caryl Churchill’s ([1979] 1985) play Cloud Nine.” “an endocrinopathic catastrophe. . on February 18. for example. and. Still other postmodernist narratives deconstruct our real-world knowledge about time and temporal progression.” and/or “a hermaphroditic explosion of chromosomes” took place within my body between midnight and four a. who is still alive. is Professor Kepesh. a mammary gland such as could only appear. . the characters age more slowly than the society that surrounds them. as a consequence. one would have thought. as follows: “I am dead. who has miraculously transformed into a female breast. 1971. There are also postmodernist narratives that present us with impossible spaces.” it is only “twenty-five years later” (243). . Hoffman causes internal desires to materialize as entities in the storyworld. is a letter-writing corpse and thus alive and dead at the same time.Unnatural Narrative Impossible Worlds in Fiction and Drama Jan Alber Copyrighted material The first-person narrator of Philip Roth’s (1972) novel The Breast. and converted me into a mammary gland disconnected from any human form. Even though about one hundred years of standard chronology pass between Acts I and II. In Angela Carter’s ([1972] 1985) The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman. for instance. A last kiss from Dad” (294). I’m writing to you from the grave. As dead as a doornail. He describes his current state as follows: I am a breast. A phenomenon that has been variously described to me as “a massive hormonal influx. The dead father describes his situation in a letter to his son. Dr. . (12) Other postmodernist narratives confront us with unnatural characters (rather than narrators). still. Just to keep in touch. the setting becomes rather fluid: Cloud palaces erected themselves then silently toppled to reveal for a moment the familiar warehouse beneath them until they 4 Concepts of the Unnatural Buy the book . . I am said to be of a spongy consistency. “for the characters. in a dream or a Dali painting. and measuring. An old hullo out of the dark. A quick word for old time’s sake. for example. weighing in at one hundred and fifty-five pounds . for instance.m. six feet in length.

and writing. for example. and settings do not suddenly change their shapes. the story of my life” (1). many older narratives represent impossibilities as well. (18–19) All of these examples are unnatural because they defy our real-world knowledge and “suggestively violate some sort of important conceptual ‘boundary’ ” (Zunshine 2008. The unnatural proliferates in postmodernist narratives in particular. fixed steadfastly upon me. The novel opens as follows: “I am an old dog now. The narrator of Marshall Saunders’s ([1893] 1920) children’s novel Beautiful Joe: An Autobiography. In Matthew Lewis’s ([1796] 1998) The Monk: A Romance. which he describes as follows: “I beheld before me an animated corpse. were lustreless and hollow” (140. writing corpses do not exist. the paleness of death was spread over her features. they changed to silent flowers. and her eye-balls.Copyrighted material Unnatural Narrative Impossible Worlds in Fiction and Drama Jan Alber were replaced by some fresh audacity. When he leaves the pygmy’s world. for instance. the scope of the unnatural is not limited to these types of literature. In the actual world breasts do not talk. for instance. is a dog that speaks to a human interlocutor. I am interested in the purpose or point of these unnatural phenomena in fiction. he realizes that he Introduction 5 Buy the book . the Briton king Herla spends time with a pygmy. Her countenance was long and haggard. Don Raymond encounters a ghost. In Walter Map’s (1983) twelfth-century De Nugis Curialium (Courtiers’ Trifles). the flow of time cannot be slowed down. 19). Unnatural characters proliferate in many earlier genres. painted kites over the giggling chimney pots. such as the Gothic novel. Giant heads in helmets of conquistadors sailed up like sad. Hardly anything remained the same for more than one second and the city was no longer the conscious production of humanity. or rather getting a friend to write. her cheeks and lips were bloodless.2 However. with night. Various pre-postmodernist narratives also tamper with the natural flow of time. in the question of what these impossibilities might mean to the readers. A group of chanting pillars exploded in the middle of a mantra and lo! they were once again street lamps until. that is. it had become the arbitrary realm of dream. my italics).

51). in different manifestations. contain conventionalized impossibilities that are parts of familiar generic 6 Concepts of the Unnatural Buy the book . while in his own experience the lapse of time seems to have encompassed “but three days” (31). a narrative mode that persists across different epochs. or put it into a Progressive Motion. as they pleased” (146). These earlier narratives represent impossible narrators. to raise. on the other hand. such as Jonathan Swift’s ([1726] 2003) satirical Gulliver’s Travels. Unnatural spaces also exist in earlier narratives. and anthropomorphic limitations that are permanent and stable. A literary genre is constituted by an operative principle or shared convention (Todorov 1973. . the differential temporality in Cloud Nine. who were able . . animated corpses. 3) and can be seen as “a matter of discrimination and taxonomy: of organising things into recognizable classes” (Frow 2006. better. “changes are likely to be minimal. inhabited by Men. temporalities.3 The second group of examples. 258) argues that the “cognitive parameters by which authors and readers cognize the world in terms of fundamental processes of human being in the world” are relatively constant. logical principles. the world we inhabit is dominated by physical laws. I thus assume that phenomena such as speaking animals. characters. and flying islands were as impossible in the past as they are today. and settings that are similar to my examples of unnaturalness in postmodernism insofar as they also flout our knowledge about how things in the actual world tend to work. coexisting time flows. In book 3 Lemuel Gulliver observes the flying island of Laputa. and the shape-shifting setting in The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman) are estranging instances of anti-illusionism or metafiction that draw attention to the fictionality of fiction. Furthermore the impossibilities in the narratives just mentioned are tied up with the conventions of literary genres. My four examples of the unnatural in postmodernism (the speaking breast in The Breast. the writing corpse in Family Voices.” For me the unnatural is a concept or. Similarly Monika Fludernik (2003a. In this study I posit a historically constant notion of the unnatural: to my mind.Unnatural Narrative Impossible Worlds in Fiction and Drama Jan Alber Copyrighted material has actually spent “two hundred years” there. which he describes as “an Island in the Air. sink.

postmodernist narratives foreground Introduction 7 Buy the book . 14) to experience the transcending of physical laws. This study has a major focus on the unnatural in postmodernism. 10) argues that “the dominant of postmodernist fiction is ontological. the magical narrative. with the conventionalized impossibilities in non-postmodernist narratives to illustrate which modes of unnaturalness exist across time. the unnatural has an unexpected story potential: “violations of ontological expectations seem to be ripe with narrative possibilities” (Zunshine 2008. Third. turned into basic cognitive categories? This study has three major goals.Copyrighted material Unnatural Narrative Impossible Worlds in Fiction and Drama Jan Alber conventions (such as the children’s book. that is. despite obvious interpretive difficulties. the Gothic novel. I address the question of how readers can make sense of the unnatural. defines postmodernist texts as being metafictional. First. I am interested in the question of what readers can do when real-world parameters and explanations fail. While most critics define postmodernist narratives as being meta fictional or self-reflexive. which constitute forms of anti-illusionism or metafiction. Second. and such experiences are restricted to the world of fiction. logical principles.4 In this context I also address the question of how these conventionalizations of the unnatural have come about. Patricia Waugh (1984. I want to document the startling and persistent presence of the unnatural in British and American literary history from the Old English epic to postmodernism. or standard human limitations of knowledge and ability.” According to him. 69). and the satirical novel) and do not strike us as being disconcerting or estranging. Similarly Brian McHale (1987. 1–11). These types of “muted” metafiction evoke the following two questions: How are the estranging examples of the unnatural in postmodernism related to the familiar ones in older narratives? How and why have certain instances of the unnatural become conventionalized. they are fictional texts that self-reflexively foreground their fictionality. I foreground the central role of representations of the impossible in postmodernism. In other words. Unnatural scenarios and events primarily concern the question of “what it is like” (Herman 2009. As I will show. for instance. I compare the impossibilities in postmodernist narratives.

unnatural temporalities. The unnatural relates to metafiction in a rather complex manner: while all instances of the not yet conventionalized unnatural (such as the speaking breast in The Breast) are metafictional (because they strike us as being defamiliarizing and thus draw attention to the fictionality of fiction). Linda Hutcheon (1988. or space. For Hutcheon historiographic metafiction is the most important manifestation of postmodernism. rather postmodernism can be described in terms of the concentration and radicalization of modes of the unnatural—modes for which there are numerous antecedents in literary history. logically. characters. However. 26. not all instances of metafiction are automatically unnatural. antirealist characters. opens up a new perspective on the history of postmodernist narratives. and human impossibilities are not completely alien to our sense-making 8 Concepts of the Unnatural Buy the book . logical. postmodernist narratives are full of physically. among other things. In contrast to other critics. and antimimetic spaces. 129) has a slightly different focus: she sees the defining feature of postmodernism in the playfully parodic transformation of tradition through mocking references to earlier texts or styles. In addition I demonstrate that the reading strategies I outline in chapter 2 may generate provisional explanations that illustrate how readers can make sense of the unnatural.5 Also the conventionalized examples of unnaturalness (such as the speaking animal in the beast fable) lie beyond the scope of metafiction.Unnatural Narrative Impossible Worlds in Fiction and Drama Jan Alber Copyrighted material questions of being that consistently challenge the existence of their represented worlds. I define the postmodernist project in terms of the systematic undermining of our “natural” cognition of the world. The ultimate goal behind my readings and interpretations is to show that physical. I look at postmodernism from a vantage point that. time. or humanly impossible scenarios and events that relate to the narrator. Postmodernist texts deconstruct the traditionally human narrator and the anthropomorphic character as well as our real-world understanding of time and space by confronting us with impossible narrators or storytelling scenarios. the unnatural was clearly not invented by postmodernism and is definitely not a brand-new phenomenon. In other words.

through which certain modes of the unnatural have been conventionalized. Thus. In this context I also move beyond Lisa Zunshine’s (2008. my analysis of the development of the unnatural in non-postmodernist narratives allows me to reconceptualize postmodernism as an intertextual endeavor that consistently uses impossibilities that have already been conventionalized in well-known generic contexts. it does not paralyze our interpretive faculties. turned into basic cognitive frames. Moreover I try to unearth the history of the postmodernist rebellion against our natural cognition of the world..Copyrighted material Unnatural Narrative Impossible Worlds in Fiction and Drama Jan Alber practices. In this connection I also show that the unnatural is a hitherto neglected driving force behind the development of new literary genres. Benhabib 1996. and once they have been turned into literary conventions. By looking back at non-postmodernist narratives. On the other hand. On the one hand. even though the unnatural urges us to deal with impossibilities. and my investigation of literary history reveals the unnatural to be a significant driving force behind the creation of new genres. 164) argument that “cognitive uncertainty . 2. postmodernism is not Introduction 9 Buy the book . In doing so I seek to qualify the stereotypical argument about the antimimetic extravagance of postmodernism (see. . but the impossible scenarios and events of postmodernism were anticipated by earlier narratives. my focus on the central role of the unnatural in postmodernism immediately evokes the question of whether there are other modes of the unnatural that postmodernist narratives are connected with. In a surprising number of cases. that is. e.g. from my perspective. We can in fact productively engage with the impossible. . flexes and trains our categorization process. Currie 2011. Lyotard 1997). new generic configurations develop as unnatural elements become conventionalized.” I spell out different cognitive mechanisms that help us make sense of the various kinds of unnaturalness that exist. they can be used for a different purpose—a process that typically leads to the creation of further genres. The unnatural figures prominently in postmodernist narratives. I show that impossibilities have always played a crucial role in literary history. Federman 1975a.

and science-fiction novels is one that involves reciprocity and mutual borrowings. points out that “the word postmodernism . the relationship among postmodernist narratives. see connections between postmodernism and certain historical genres. the stream-of-consciousness novel.” He argues that the aesthetics of modernism reached a point of exhaustion (he speaks of the “used-upness of certain forms” [64]) and that literature was in a way replenished by the self-reflexive playfulness of postmodernism (206). . and the science-fiction novel. the omniscient narration in many realist texts. the ghost play. Harold John Blackham (1985. however. the heroic epic. 19–37). the more recent fantasy narrative. The standard way of relating postmodernism to other types of literature is to see it as a reaction to literary modernism (McHale 1987. many of which were published during the heyday of postmodernism). he claims that “the Aesopic use of animals is the primal and simplest form of [the] freedom of representation. 193–206) distinguishes between what he calls “the literature of exhaustion”—especially the work of Samuel Beckett—and “the literature of replenishment.” Marjorie Perloff (1985. for instance. 176).6 Rather postmodernist narratives recruit from conventionalized impossibilities associated with historical genres such as the beast fable. more recent fantasy texts. John Barth (1984.7 This process may either take place along the diachronic axis (as in the case of the epic or the beast fable. for instance). 91–92). . sees the Aesopian beast fable as one of the most important sources of postmodernism. on the 10 Concepts of the Unnatural Buy the book . the Gothic novel. 62–76. the children’s story. 177). 87. evokes what it wishes to surpass or suppress.” namely “modernism itself. 1992a. certain types of romance. for instance. Ihab Hassan (1987. and I build on their work in this study. 3–25. or at the synchronic level (as in the case of more recent fantasy and sciencefiction narratives. the eighteenth-century circulation novel and other satires. Other critics. While the former process can be described as a form of harking back.” and he presents a list of oppositions to illustrate crucial differences between modernism and postmodernism.Unnatural Narrative Impossible Worlds in Fiction and Drama Jan Alber Copyrighted material at all the completely innovative and wholly unprecedented explosion of antimimeticism that certain critics consider it to be.

Andrew M. In paranormal texts impossibilities happen without there being a supernatural explanation for them: “The opposition [supernatural vs. or caricatures that merge with the unnatural (see also Stableford 2009.” the supernatural becomes absorbed by realism. and precognition. telepathy. slippers. speculating that the magic in Lewis Carroll’s children’s stories may mark “the beginning of those far-reaching challenges to our cultural notions of mimesis and representation which culminate in what we have come to call the simulacrum of postmodernism. that is. are taken to be as physically possible as any commonplace human ability” (Traill 1996. Traill (1996. banknotes. 1992b). rather we have to look for other explanations.8 Indeed satirical critique is often “arealistic” (Booker and Thomas 2009. 17). In the paranormal mode the supernatural realm disappears because it has become a realist option in the human world itself. Link 1980). ‘natural’] loses its force because we find that the word ‘supernatural’ is merely a label for strange phenomena latent within the natural domain. Brian McHale (1992a.” More generally Nancy H. Flint 1998. Clairvoyance. Veronica Hollinger (2005). represented impossibilities cannot be explained through supernatural interventions. for instance. and the unnatural in postmodernism through what she calls “the paranormal mode. 229–39.” Examples include Jonathan Swift as well as the many circulation novels that are narrated by speaking objects such as coins. 17) identifies a connection between the supernatural. extranatural forces that belong to the divine sphere or the world of magic.Copyrighted material Unnatural Narrative Impossible Worlds in Fiction and Drama Jan Alber other hand. and even an atom (see also Bellamy 1998. Gabriele Schwab (1994. distortions. What Traill calls the paranormal mode is virtually identical with the unnatural in postmodernist narratives insofar as in both cases. connects postmodernism with the “performative. playful mode of eighteenth-century ironists. and Elana Gomel (2010) look at the reciprocal Introduction 11 Buy the book . Butler (2003). 358). Blackwell 2007b.”9 Traill shows that in nineteenth-century narratives such as Charles Dickens’s (1866) “The Signal-Man. 177) points to a different connection between postmodernist and earlier experiments with representation. 5) and involves exaggerations.

Since physical laws. my corpus has to do with my profession: as an English studies person. I am primarily familiar with examples of English literature. creating self-reflexive blends between realist and unnatural modes. In this study I show that impossibilities have been an important ingredient of many types of literature. 150). I demonstrate that antimimeticism spans the development of English literature from its beginnings in the Old English epic to the anti-illusionist types of unnaturalness in postmodernism. For me fictional literature is interesting and special because it can represent the unnatural. my study deals with more than a specifically “English” notion of unnaturalness. 247) argues that “both science fiction and mainstream postmodernist fiction possess repertoires of strategies and motifs designed to raise and explore ontological issues.” He points out that there has been “a tendency for postmodernist writing to absorb motifs and topoi from science fiction writing. Focusing on the history of English literature. or the futurist 12 Concepts of the Unnatural Buy the book . and that science fiction “tends to ‘literalize’ or ‘actualize’ what occurs in postmodernist fiction as metaphor” (1992b. Among other things. Presumably literature as such involves the unnatural in one way or another. logical principles. analogous investigations of other literary traditions. modes of the unnatural feature in many different narratives throughout literary history.Unnatural Narrative Impossible Worlds in Fiction and Drama Jan Alber Copyrighted material relationship between postmodernism and science fiction. McHale (1992a. mining science fiction for its raw materials” (1987. My aim is to model diachronic and synchronic approaches to the unnatural in one literary tradition with a view to laying the groundwork for further. and standard anthropomorphic limitations of knowledge and ability are universal qualities. As far as the relationship between the unnatural in postmodernism and impossibilities in non-postmodernist narratives is concerned. I try to explain the estranging effects of the former by arguing that postmodernist fiction transfers to otherwise realist contexts impossible scenarios or events that are common in certain well-known literary genres. 65). In contrast to the magical worlds of Breton lais and romances about King Arthur. the exaggerated worlds of satires. In addition I conceive of this as a pilot study.

The essays in Postmodernism across the Ages (Readings and Schaber 1993). rather an ideal category—or better still. Other critics conceptualize postmodernism differently. just as every period would have its own mannerism. without which they could not be felt. that is. 66) puts forward the same view: “I believe that postmodernism is not a trend to be chronologically defined. characters. thus creating the estranging effects and feelings of disorientation that are so typical of postmodernism. for example. what is odd or strange in the case of the unnatural in postmodernism is the manifestation of physically. a Kunstwollen. Umberto Eco (1983. it is a style or type of writing that correlates with a high degree of unnaturalness and. Introduction 13 Buy the book . At the same time. as an ideal category or atemporal way of operating that leads to different modes during the course of literary history. logically. postmodernist narratives fuse conventionalized impossibilities from earlier texts with realist contexts. a way of operating. Postmodernism is just one specific manifestation of the unnatural. times. I do not define postmodernism but rather the unnatural. Hence one might argue that what postmodernist narratives do is to blend our actual-world encyclopedia with the encyclopedias of certain well-known genres by using the impossible narrators. the representation of impossibilities. And it is important to note that these effects crucially depend upon our real-world knowledge.Copyrighted material Unnatural Narrative Impossible Worlds in Fiction and Drama Jan Alber speculations of science-fiction novels. or humanly impossible elements within otherwise realist frameworks. or spaces of the latter in the context of otherwise realist narratives—and this merging of encyclopedias creates the estranging effects of many of the self-reflexive metafictions of postmodernism. in addition. We could say that every period has its own postmodernism.10 In a nutshell I aim to reconceptualize postmodernism as an intertextual endeavor that is connected to the history of literature through manifestations of the unnatural. relates back to already conventionalized impossibilities in established genres. but.” By contrast. consider postmodernism to be an atemporal mode or way of thinking that surfaces in different periods.

Defining the term unnatural: This study restricts the use of the term unnatural to physically. I mean representations that contravene the presuppositions of nonfictional narratives. To my mind. Richardson puts too much emphasis on the potential effects of the unnatural on the reader. which. shock. and other scholars working in this domain. He also distinguishes between the antimimetic (that is. I have a narrower notion 14 Concepts of the Unnatural Buy the book .” and “anomalous” phenomena as well as strictly speaking “impossible” ones. By antimimetic. for him. In Richardson’s (2015) usage. playful kind of representation is at work” (5). Richardson defines unnatural narratives as follows: “An unnatural narrative is one that contains significant antimimetic events. and (4) my development of a diachronic perspective on the unnatural. These differences include (1) how I define the term unnatural. and not just catalog. From one perspective. violate mimetic conventions and the practices of realism. logically. 5) himself notes that he discusses “odd. (3) my emphasis on the need to interpret. My own definition of the “unnatural” is based on textual features rather than readerly effects. beast fables. and defy the conventions of existing. whether surprise. or the wry smile that acknowledges that a different. and humanly impossible scenarios and events (regardless of whether we find them estranging or not). this study also differs from some of the approaches that are being put forward in the context of unnatural narratology. Maria Mäkelä. the “unnatural” correlates with innovative antimimetic qualities and Viktor Shklovsky’s notion of defamiliarization. Richardson (2002.Unnatural Narrative Impossible Worlds in Fiction and Drama Jan Alber Copyrighted material This study is a contribution to the field of unnatural narratology. and so forth). 2006. or frames. (2) my use of cognitive approaches to narrative.11 and it owes a great deal to Brian Richardson. settings. Henrik Skov Nielsen. in comparison with Richardson’s approach. 1. on the other hand. is not unnatural. the properly unnatural) and the nonmimetic (in fairy tales. established genres” (2015. Stefan Iversen. 57.” “unusual. the difference between the antimimetic and the nonmimetic has to do with “the degree of unexpectedness that the text produces. characters. unnatural literature. However. whose work I value very much. science fiction. For Richardson. 3).

which by contrast I discuss at great length in this study. would not qualify as being unnatural because there is no clash between the rules of the storyworld and these jumps: metalepses are clearly possible in the represented world and they happen all the time. He ties the notion of the unnatural to narratives that “present the reader with clashes between the rules governing a storyworld and scenarios or events producing or taking place inside this storyworld—clashes that defy easy explanations” (Alber. who advocates a text-internal perspective and focuses on clashes within storyworlds. Since Richardson bases his definition of the unnatural on the innovative and defamiliarizing. I restrict the use of the term unnatural to representations of the impossible and do not deal with the merely odd. Another problem I have with Iversen’s definition (in addition to the exclusion of conventionalized instances of the unnatural) is that he restricts his definition to narratives that “posit a mimetic world and then intentionally break the rules” (Kilgore 2014. see also Iversen 2013). such as Franz Kafka’s (1915) Die Verwandlung (The Metamorphosis) or mashup novels like Seth Grahame-Smith’s (2009) Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Adam Bertocci’s (2010) Two Gentlemen of Lebowski: A Most Excellent Comedie and Tragical Romance. These three narratives present their readers with rather obvious clashes between the rules of the represented worlds and certain surprising events (such as Gregor Samsa’s transformation into an insect or the presence of zombies in a realist storyworld). I follow cognitive narratologists and possible-worlds theorists who argue that we approach narrative fiction on the basis of our real-world knowledge. 103. In contrast to Iversen. Stefan Iversen’s (2013) definition also leaves out the unnatural in well-known genres. 636n5). he excludes conventionalized instances of the unnatural. or unusual. The many metalepses in Japser Fforde’s postmodernist novels about Thursday Next. however. 2013. From another perspective. I measure the unnatural against the foil of cognitive frames and scripts Introduction 15 Buy the book . strange.Copyrighted material Unnatural Narrative Impossible Worlds in Fiction and Drama Jan Alber of the unnatural. Iversen. From my vantage point Iversen’s definition captures only a very limited number of narrative texts. on the other hand. et al. I have a wider notion of the unnatural.

 . . for example. oral narratives are far less conventional than is still often assumed. An oral narrative does not go from the beginning to the middle to the end of the story. and human impossibilities. From her perspective the term unnatural is virtually identical with 16 Concepts of the Unnatural Buy the book . In contrast to Nielsen. then it comes back to the main thrust of the narrative. It goes in great swoops. Salman Rushdie (1985. logical. As discourse analysts such as Elinor Ochs and Lisa Capps (2001) have shown. Richard Bauman (2005. oral narratives of personal experience. it every so often reiterates something that happened earlier to remind you. I would therefore not draw a distinction between “natural” (oral) narratives and unnatural (written) ones. and then takes you off again. and these segments can occur in both oral (or “natural”) and written narratives. and unnatural segments that involve impossibilities that are “non-actualizable” (Ronen 1994.Unnatural Narrative Impossible Worlds in Fiction and Drama Jan Alber Copyrighted material derived from our being in the world and define the unnatural in terms of physical. Furthermore oral narratives can also contain impossible scenarios or events. I distinguish between natural (or real-world) segments that are. “in which the circumstances of the narrated event are stretched by degrees to the point that they challenge or exceed the limits of credibility” (my italics).12 Maria Mäkelä (2013a) advocates a wide notion of the unnatural. who argues that the unnatural “deviates from the paradigm of natural. analyzes tall tales. at least in principle. . From my perspective this way of defining the unnatural slightly distorts the actual makeup of oral narratives. spontaneously occurring everyday storytelling as described by William Labov (1972). actualizable.e. it goes in spirals or loops. 279. So it’s a very bizarre and pyrotechnical shape. 7) also points out that his novel Midnight’s Children (1981) is based on the model of oral narrative because it is not linear. 51). that is..” that is. see also 2013. sometimes summarizes itself. 70–71). 582). i. Another definition of the unnatural is provided by Henrik Skov Nielsen (2010. it frequently digresses off into something that the story-teller appears just to have thought of. oral narratives.

physical.Copyrighted material Unnatural Narrative Impossible Worlds in Fiction and Drama Jan Alber the literary or fictional: “We don’t have to resort to avant-garde literature to notice that the unnaturalness—or the peculiarly literary type of cognitive challenge—is always already there in textual representations of consciousness” (133). or constructedness. but they may also represent the unnatural. In other words. Represented impossibilities are created by human authors and should therefore be approached from the vantage point of our (human) world. Cognitive approaches to narrative: Many unnatural narratologists are opposed to exploring the unnatural from the vantage point of cognitive narratology. I am careful not to monumentalize the unnatural by leaving it completely outside the bounds of the comprehensible. proposes that ideas from cognitive narratology. especially insofar as such an approach tends to explain unnatural narratives through ordinary cognition or familiar experiences. logical. on the other hand. While Richardson. that is. frame theory. artificiality. However. involves a certain degree of literariness. I refuse to see the unnatural as something transcendental that we poor mortals cannot even begin to make sense of. This study. This definition too is not one that I can easily agree with because it replaces the concept of literariness (which involves artificiality and constructedness) with the idea of unnaturalness. or human impossibilities. and Iversen are suspicious of normalizing or domesticating the unnatural through the application of cognitive parameters. and possible-worlds theory may help illuminate the considerable and often unsettling interpretive difficulties posed by unnatural elements. argues that cognitive theorists “often seek to explain away unusual features of antimimetic texts by finding some unusual cognitive condition that could account for a character’s otherwise inexplicable behavior” (2015. these qualities are not unnatural per se. which is primarily modeled on natural cognitive parameters. Nielsen. for example. 2. Richardson. Mäkelä is right in arguing that realist fiction. Richardson. and Iversen are wary of a cognitive approach to the unnatural. 167).13 Furthermore a cognitive perspective makes sense because there Introduction 17 Buy the book . Fictional texts can be based on the natural and reproduce real-world parameters. For me the unnatural is a subcategory of (but not identical with) the fictional. Nielsen.

2002. Represented impossibilities say something about us and the world we live in.” From his perspective “we need to recognize the anti-mimetic as such.. and I attempt to determine the 18 Concepts of the Unnatural Buy the book . 2015). 2011. 2006. at the very least. and resist impulses to deny its protean essence and unexpected effects” (33). subject to doubt” (92). 132).Unnatural Narrative Impossible Worlds in Fiction and Drama Jan Alber Copyrighted material is nothing beyond our cognitive architecture that we could potentially use to engage with the unnatural. 145) asserts that she “would not construe ‘the reader’ as a mere sense-making machine but as someone who might just as well opt for the improbable and the indeterminate.15 In contrast to some unnatural narrative theorists. Nielsen also argues that the unnatural “cue[s] the reader to interpret in ways that differ from the interpretation of real-world acts of narration and of conversational storytelling” (91). Similarly H. Richardson 2000. 448) or remain “in a state of bafflement” (2009. e.” Nielsen (2013) offers what he calls “unnaturalizing reading strategies. the reader “can trust as authoritative and reliable what would in real life be impossible. For instance. implausible or. Richardson (2011. I agree with Nielsen’s argument that readers have to accept the fact that fictional narratives can represent impossibilities. although Richardson highlights many strange or disconcerting aspects of unnatural narratives. The role of interpretations and close readings: Some theorists of the unnatural have refrained from offering interpretations of literary texts featuring unnatural elements. Porter Abbott proposes that some literary texts force readers to abandon efforts at interpretation and to instead “rest in that peculiar combination of anxiety and wonder” (2008b. I try to put the narratological toolbox to interpretative use vis-à-vis narratives that feature unnatural elements. and a crucial aspect of this polysemy can be the unnatural construction of recalcitrant texts. but I believe that he here brackets out the interesting question of what these impossibilities mean or why narratives represent them in the first place. he does not devote the same attention to the question of what the unnatural might mean or communicate to us (see.g.” He writes that in unnatural narratives. 33) seeks to “respect the polysemy of literary creations. 3.14 while Mäkelä (2013b.

and avant-garde narratives. 4. 108) calls the oscillation or interference between the bodily “presence effects” and the mind-oriented “meaning effects” of aesthetic experience (in this case the aesthetic experience of the unnatural). Generally speaking. it does not offer what Meir Sternberg (1982. my approach is informed by “an increasing awareness of the cultural embeddedness of narrative” (Bal 2009. thus neglecting the workings of the unnatural in earlier narratives. Therefore it is important to investigate the various functions of represented impossibilities across literary history. Developing a diachronic perspective on the unnatural: So far. Given the variability of context. that is. 223). modernist. postmodernist. Furthermore my approach is designed to accept and discuss the fundamental unnaturalness of certain phenomena and to then address their potential effects. 112) calls a “package deal. However. meaning effects concern the rationalizing movements of the human mind.and twenty-first-century) literature. late modernist. unnatural narratologists have primarily focused on contemporary (twentieth. I seek to develop an inventory of unnatural properties in fictional narratives. On the one hand. 243–44) has shown. my own work has a decidedly diachronic focus that includes a comprehensive Introduction 19 Buy the book . As Ansgar Nünning (2003.16 By contrast. While presence effects touch our bodies and evoke certain emotional responses. I am interested in “the functions and positions of texts of different backgrounds. My approach thus tries to do justice to what Hans-Ulrich Gumbrecht (2004. but on the other hand.Copyrighted material Unnatural Narrative Impossible Worlds in Fiction and Drama Jan Alber potential points of the unnatural. genres. 225). Like Mieke Bal. I deal with reading strategies that are designed to demonstrate what one can do with or how one might potentially approach projected impossibilities. I assume that there is no intrinsic link between certain forms and specific functions (112). and historical periods” (x). even though my postclassical study of the unnatural seeks to combine narratological analyses with interpretation. it is typical of postclassical narratology in general to use the tools of narrative theory in order to generate interpretations. the same narrative feature may of course serve as means to different effects (see also Yacobi 2001.” Like Sternberg.

1992a) and Werner Wolf (1993) discussed the range of techniques used in postmodernist and anti-illusionist narrative texts. Exploring antecedents of the impossibilities found in postmodernist narratives. real-world parameters on their own do not help in the process of coming to terms with the represented impossibility. Furthermore. say. Already in 1921 he used the term ostranenie to highlight fiction’s ability to “make strange” (12). Rather we have to create new frames (such as that of the speaking breast) and explore their implications. Cognitive theorists such as Monika Fludernik. The cognitive narratologists and possible-worlds theorists mentioned earlier are aware of the fact that narratives may contradict real-world parameters. and Lisa Zunshine argue that when we try to make sense of narrative texts. even before the currency of the term unnatural. Manfred Jahn. critics such as Brian McHale (1987. I position my study in the broader context of mind. and they are constituted by what I call the unnatural: when we are confronted with.17 While McHale lists a substantial number of metafictional 20 Concepts of the Unnatural Buy the book .oriented approaches and possible-worlds theory. I would not equate my notion of the unnatural with his concept of defamiliarization). David Herman. which plays an important role in my analyses of the workings of the unnatural in postmodernism— though not in my discussion of impossibilities in earlier narratives. as discussed previously. Hence my goal is to enrich cognitive approaches to narrative by discussing extremely challenging cases and showing how tools from cognitive narratology help make them more readable. we use more or less the same cognitive parameters that we also use in order to make sense of the real world. Marie-Laure Ryan. I investigate the development of the unnatural beginning with the Old English epic. I see my own work as a continuation of their efforts to explain the cognitive processes through which readers make sense of difficult texts. One of the points that I make in this study is that this claim is correct but there are also limits to it. a speaking breast.Unnatural Narrative Impossible Worlds in Fiction and Drama Jan Alber Copyrighted material account of the history of the unnatural in English-language literature. The Russian formalist Viktor Shklovsky ([1921] 1965) is another important source of inspiration (even though.

18 Moreover this study responds to poststructuralist critiques of narratology for logocentrism and for displaying a “geometrical imaginary” (Currie 2011. which presents a history of the unnatural. makes Gibson’s rather imprecise “monstrous deformations” operational. or perhaps rather an archaeology.” Gibson also points out that. beast fables. 259) proposes to “register . . historically speaking. of the unnatural in English literature. logical. children’s stories. and plays. This study combines these analyses of impossibilities in established genres by providing a bird’s-eye view. I focus on postmodernist prose and dramatic texts because of how the unnatural proliferates in such narratives. elements of monstrous deformation and explore their implications. modernist novels.” My concept of the unnatural. even though my major focus is on postmodernism. short stories. and human impossibilities. certain romances. extends Gibson’s observation by probing the connection between earlier and conventionalized impossibilities. they have to represent Introduction 21 Buy the book . and science fiction). and the impossible in postmodernism. “monstrous forms have stalked through our fiction” (258). . Furthermore. In addition I build on prior analyses of impossibilities in earlier narratives (such as epics. In other words. on the one hand. Rather than completely deconstructing narratology’s constitutive binary oppositions. on the other hand. omniscient narration. Andrew Gibson (1996. Wolf’s study provides an exhaustive discussion of anti-illusionist techniques that is supposed to cover all anti-illusionist writing. The second part of this study. fantasy narratives.Copyrighted material Unnatural Narrative Impossible Worlds in Fiction and Drama Jan Alber strategies. Whatever their provenance. all the selected literary texts contain unnatural scenarios and events. which denotes physical. Gibson 1996). I set up a new model that complements classical structuralist narratology and connects with it through a cognitive framework. not only the specific kind of anti-illusionism in postmodernist texts. My study comprises British and American novels. all of which are designed to foreground the inventedness of the narrative discourse. I also look at the development of the unnatural from the Old English epic to the science-fiction novel. even as my reading strategies provide concrete ways of exploring “their implications. eighteenth-century circulation novels and other satires.

The chapters in part 2 detail the unnatural phenomena with which I am concerned even as I show how those phenomena can be negotiated by means of the reading strategies outlined in chapter 1. ostranenie (Viktor Shklovsky). I also propose nine navigational tools. My discussion of these older (or more traditional) narratives is of course adapted to the unnatural issue at hand. Johnson-Laird). This study is structured as follows: in chapter 1 I provide definitions of the terms unnatural and natural. metafiction (Patricia Waugh). and spaces in both postmodernist and nonpostmodernist narratives. which are designed to generate provisional explanations of the unnatural. and I relate these reading strategies to Tzvetan Todorov’s discussion of hesitation as a response to the genuine fantastic and Hans-Ulrich Gumbrecht’s distinction between “meaning effects” and “presence effects. or human impossibilities in order to be integrated into my corpus. temporalities. The chapters of this study offer readings of the unnatural in different contexts (namely the not yet conventionalized unnatural of postmodernism and the already conventionalized unnatural in historical genres). fictionality (Dorrit Cohn and Kendall L. impossible narrators and storytelling scenarios.” Part 2 moves on to an extensive discussion of unnatural narrative features. and anti-illusionism (Werner Wolf ). narrativehood and narrativity (David Herman). while also shedding new light on postmodernism by demonstrating how this type of writing relates back to certain established genres. In part 2 the individual chapters begin with a discussion of postmodernist types of unnaturalness and the reading strategies through which we tend to deal with these works. that is. N.Unnatural Narrative Impossible Worlds in Fiction and Drama Jan Alber Copyrighted material physical. It is not my goal to offer comprehensive readings of these complicated and much discussed works. 22 Concepts of the Unnatural Buy the book . and then analyze occurrences of the same unnatural feature in older narratives and the interpretations they invite. mental models (P. Walton). I discuss the unnatural by relating it to concepts such as realism (Alan Palmer and Monika Fludernik). logical. mimesis (Plato and Aristotle). characters.

The unnatural is. not the only driving force that exists—but it is one that has hitherto been neglected. the radicalization of the fictional through the impossible. of course. that is. Introduction 23 Buy the book . and I relate my redescription to other approaches to postmodernism. Rather I show that different modes of the unnatural have influenced the development of literary history in significant ways.Copyrighted material Unnatural Narrative Impossible Worlds in Fiction and Drama Jan Alber In the conclusion I elaborate on the larger purposes or points of the unnatural. I do not present a teleological model that sees postmodernist narratives as the crowning (unnatural) achievement or end point of the history of literature. In addition I redescribe postmodernism on the basis of the argument that postmodernist narratives recycle already conventionalized impossibilities from well-known genres.