Notes from New Sodom

... rantings, ravings and ramblings of strange fiction writer, THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!!

Monday, April 14, 2014

Scruffians! Deluxe Edition

"... a prism of queer sexuality, youthful rebellion, and rage against authority, in this thrilling, funny, and moving collection."
Publishers Weekly, starred review

"... a wickedly entertaining collection of short fiction fantastical and queer in nature—full of “scruffians and scamps and sodomites,” with some pirates and fairies besides. These stories range from comedic romps to lyrical and meditative explorations on the nature of meaning-making, while Duncan’s engaging and clever voice resonates throughout as a strong thread connecting the various different sorts of pieces."
Brit Mandelo, Tor.com

Are you prepared to enter acclaimed author Hal Duncan's world of scruffians and scamps and sodomites? Beware, for it is filled with the gay pirate gods of Love and Death, immortal scoundrels, and young men who find themselves forced to become villains. But who amongst us does not adore a gamin antihero? These fantastical tales from the fringes of an imaginative realm of supernatural fairies and human fey will captivate the reader. Light a smoke, raise a cup of whisky, and seek a careful spot to cruise the Scruffians!

$16 USD / £12 GBP.


 




***THE DELUXE EDITION***

Two hundred and twenty five pages, full colour, with forty full colour photographs throughout to illustrate and complement the stories, one of which is an extra, not included in the trade edition. Cloth-bound hardback with a wraparound dustjacket. Signed in the spit and venom of yours truly. (Or, of course, other bodily fluids... no, let's not go there.)

US customers should order via Lethe Press where you can get a copy for $50, domestic shipping included. Autographed bookplates available on request.

For UK customers who want a signed copy of the deluxe edition in all its sordid sodomitic glory, we'll be able to cut down on the extortionate international shipping fees. At the conversion rates, it looks like a UK price of £40 is about right, postage and packing included.

If you're in the EU and keen for a copy, don't fear. Drop me an email, and I'll happily price out the extra postage for you.

To order, make a payment via Paypal using the button below or in the sidebar to the left. Be sure Paypal gets your shipping address, or drop me an email at hal AT halduncan DOT com with the details.


Rhapsody



"Rhapsody, though it is Duncan’s first long-form critical work, is a strong and elegant—and sometimes wickedly crass—project, complexly argued and incisive while also managing to remain eminently readable and engaging."
Brit Mandelo, Tor.com

"Hal Duncan's Rhapsody is a quicksilver journey through the aesthetic consciousness of one of our most passionate and insightful masters of the form. This book will rightly take its place with Disch's The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of as a seminal critical text of speculative fiction."
Will Ludwigsen, author of In Search of and Others

Acclaimed author and critic Hal Duncan turns his analytic eye towards the development and current state of speculative fiction in American and English writing in the pages of Rhapsody. Duncan's trademark wry humor and suffer-no-fools approach to critiquing the genre will make this book more than a resource for students of the field--anyone who enjoys reading tales of the fantastical and strange can find Duncan's insight worthwhile to read again and again.

$25 USD / £15 GBP.


 

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Caledonia Dreamin' Review

Caledonia Dreamin' is a unique and well edited anthology of strange fiction of Scottish descent. It's a daring and original glimpse into Scotland, the Scots language and Scottish culture. Each story is based on or inspired by a Scots word.

It was truly a pleasure to read this anthology, because I don't remember reading anything similar ever before. There have been plenty of anthologies about different themes, but this is the first time that I remember reading an anthology that contains stories based on by Scots words.

Clearly it is the week of reviews here in New Sodom.

Also... Damn, if only I'd had a novel coming out right now, it would totally be like ONE OF ALL THE THINGS! IMMA MAKE ONE OF ALL THE THINGS! IMMA MAKE A SHORT STORY COLLECTION! IMMA MAKE A NON-FICTION BOOK! IMMA MAKE AN ANTHOLOGY! IMMA MAKE... and so on.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Review for Rhapsody

Hal Duncan, in Rhapsody: Notes on Strange Fictions, turns a critical eye to the genre of SF—considering not just the turf wars and definitional spats, but also the deeper functions and facilities of the “strange fiction” mode in literature. Employing sardonic and often cutting analysis delivered within convincing theoretical frames, Duncan deposes various received-wisdom ideas about the genre and offers in their place a well-reasoned, thorough conceptualization of what it is we’re talking about when we talk about SF.

Rhapsody, though it is Duncan’s first long-form critical work, is a strong and elegant—and sometimes wickedly crass—project, complexly argued and incisive while also managing to remain eminently readable and engaging.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Sodom

Sing of the angels of Moloch
     vomiting word infernal
     snake-jaws dislocated
     wrenched as backs arched in purgation
     spasms of napalm fire-hose
     hurled forth to incinerate fair citizens of my
Sodom the abomination in steel eyes
     of a clockwork Tetragrammaton
     gazing down from hypoxian Himalayan perch
     in onyx vaulted heaven a-spatter
     with starlight of seraphim
     hung on meathooks
Sodom the stain of blood clay brownstone
     city subway ploughed by firstborn fratricide
     outcast in cornfield dreams
     stumbling scarred as I
     from the car accident death of pride
     stumbling scarecrow with a sickle
Sodom the throne of Og archaic Titan
     miscegenation of cherub jism and ape cunt
     keelhauled under the ark
     half-drowned helplessly witnessing
     drunken incest from afar
     under a new aeon's rainbow
Sodom the crystal skulled nous implicate
     in grains of a skyscraper sandcastle
     kicked to four winds in Babel
     echoing inside with every
     forked tongue lie to be silkspun
     from now to the end of human resources
Sodom the abomination the abomination
     of desolation
     in the valley of saline flats
     fixed in vision so frostbitten and surgical
     even Abraham meek to slit his firstborn's throat
     haggled mercy at dawn
Sodom the murderous inhospitable kirk
     where I was fourteen
     in my royal blue Hitlerjugend uniform
     of a Boys' Brigade Lance Corporal
     as the mob battered Sunday School doors
     to rape exquisite strangers
Sodom the market of muscle
     spurning virgin daughters pimped
     and so piety lashed with tabloid tongue
     the wrath of hysteria
     HIV the MAD of a cold war on fuckery
     and nuclear winter everafter
Sodom the San Fran Seventies
     Golden Gate vaporised in neolithic Nagasaki
     saunas all swallowed into dead sea
     boiling tears to coke-rock white
     cracked down to crumble
     cut with stain-scouring detergent
Sodom the city we fled
     as teenage slaves of Lot
     her holy whores and eunuchs of the heart
     sworn to Astarte and Baal
     all tomorrow's beloveds deserted
     to a hospice holocaust of salt and sarcoma
Sodom the home I was led from
     bound in blindfold law
     gavelled in witch's parliament
     to save my arse from phantoms of pillared perversion
     forever and ever amen to Section 28
     amen to the TV tombstone
Sodom the home I was whipped from
     iron gag clamping tongue
     not to question the scourging
     of schoolbooks and sanctuary
     not to debate with teachers in the temple
     afraid of guillotine sacking
Sodom the devastated!
     Sodom the destitute!
     Sodom the handful household
     of errand boys clutching harps
     as the 80s dragged us onward into exile
     speechless at the melted plastic blitzkrieg of identity
Sodom the beautiful!
     Sodom the glorious!
     Sodom the sacred!
     Sodom the city of breath in flesh socketed in flesh!
     Sodom the idyll I lament laid waste before
     my broken voice could join its beaded choir!
Sodom the cursed the reviled fornicating
     faghag diva of scarlet and purple bosom
     who cradled cocksucker lambs
     in black sheepskin afghans
     who loved scapegoats
     in kidskin leather jeans
Sodom my Sodom
     where now shall your kindred shelter?
     Where shall we little big spoons
     awake canoodling lips to neckfuzz
     now Mother Sodom is gone?
          Where?
               Where?
          Into oblivion!
               Sodom is gone!
Sodom my Sodom
     where now shall we be native sons?
     What tents and suburbs of marching tribes
     will not disown feral archers of desire
     to the housing schemes of
     Irvine Paisley Wishaw and Canaan?
Sodom my Sodom
     where now will spectacled runts in peacock motley
     freewheel Raleigh Choppers downhill
     hurtling crash into puberty and
     thrown ragged to the pit of fear
     be tended by brothers?
Weep for our Sodom
     you cuckoo queer hatchlings
     fostered in bowers of Egyptian reed
     fledglings ever aflurry from fire or Pharoah
     forty years migrating
     and with no milk and honey homeland promised
Weep for our Sodom
     my nameless nation of slaves to slaves
     who slipped Akhenaton's thrall
     to call our city into iniquity
     rank us with mildew rot and insect shellfish
     monstrosity! unclean! unclean!
Weep for our Sodom
     you deviant diaspora to be born
     blank of heritage erased in assimilation
     to be rebirthed each generation
     in the furious keen brows of a prepubescent
     shepherd winding slingshot truth
Weep for our Sodom
     and strum her psalms to every Saul
     anointed king or agent of Empire
     hurling javelins or epistles
     while his son breathes deep
     the scent of your t-shirt and semen on his skin
Sing how there could be no Salem before Sodom
     no assalaamu alaikumu
     until a multitude of horny youths
     ululated gifts of profanity
     strange peaches for guests to unwrap
     from palm frond hallelujahs
How the gang-rape mob was an orgiastic dance
     for soldiers for glories of stallion sweat
     we yearned to yearn to crave
     peeling helm and armour
     down to socks and jocks
     their cocks to be anointed with spit
How we only pounded the doors of a schoolyard gatehouse
     suddenly airtight in agitprop
     a Moebius wall of labyrinth State
     where bull-headed beauties
     of athletic grace
     tried us with certainty of scorn
How we only stole a glance not even a kiss
     in changing rooms of furtive erections
     torments of showering myrmidons
     we prayed oblivious outside
     our Sodom of reveries
     where ephebes rutted indiscriminate
How we only grabbed a chance
     from angels cruising our park but
     were led to bleak October to
     pistol-whipping hilltop murder
     echoing excuses of panic in defence
     of crucifixion and cigarette burns
How we demanded nothing
     but offered everything in silent Mass
     fallen breathless from summer to our knees
     before buff idols with dirty Adidas boots
     ready to share our bread bed body bliss
     and destination
How we tore up crumpled and tossed our child selves
     into furnaces crying
     Moloch! Melech!
          King of the gods!
          God of the kings!
     a soul tax exacted for seed swallowed in passion
     but all of us was never enough
How we were cursed to history
     speared on standards
          burnt at the games
     lynched from the rafters
          shot in the parks
     gassed in the bathhouses until
     broken to see the stones stakes pyres gallows woods and
How the concentration camp was
     constructed cold in every swimming pool shower
     we bit into apples crunching
     juice almond-flavoured with cyanide
     and died and rotted a year
     and wholly howled howled
How wholly fucked we were
     how fucked the fuckless and feckless brethren
     scattered to the corners
     of our blank-walled bedrooms
     with no secret language of handkerchiefs
     for the orphans of nowhere
How we had only guttural native tongues
     of a new town housing scheme
          foreign as our families
          thick and dry as
     talking adolescent lusts
     we swallowed he and him
     in a pronoun game no homo ever won
How we lived each tick-tock of almost confession
     a thousand repeats
     a thousand futures crushed in a trial's heartbeat
     and every outcome a murder
     of the schoolboy mirrored
     in the gaze of friends
How we lied to live in death
     not to smash a painted ceramic citizen
     of Ayrshire or Arizona
     not to sledgehammer idol innocence
     and rise from eggshell ruin
          afire as phoenix
          where ego was
               now id
How I never ached for your shrug
     never cursed off armour and wrestled
     monstrous idiocy to my own naked defeat
     never bit my lips to blurt revelation
     not to a sun god leonine and alien
     hunting beyond
How eight million minutes were a blink
     just a razor edge of months
          slicing passions open
     sibling war still undissolved
     so I never turned my head to alliance
          never dared it
     so you died to a stranger
How a score of summers--more--have burned away
     but still verse will not loose me
     to name your shadow
     not to mewl at light's cheap echo
     mocked in photograph's painting
     imaged in dreams unremembered
How I cannot sully your name in this song of Sodom and self
     but flail my brother
          my brother
          and you and I
     in vain a failure of words to thresh words
     to undo the thwart of lie I lived
     till your hospital end
How I thrash in a straitjacket soul
     that I never strode my ceremony of assumption
     wearing feathers of your puzzled smile
     a prodigal released from choir of kin
     to explore alterity
     and never can but must
How I have to come out to you my brother
     proclaim in shreds
     that I have fucked and been fucked
     in the Sodom of angels
     in a footballer's Hilton room
     or the bed of a bone doctor with a cock curved outward
How I have to be known to you my brother
     conjure a gulf of nightly decades
     in this rite of song
     echoing down deep to your silhouette
     the truth untold in sham of a mitzvah
     one quarter century overdue
How I have to be known to you my brother
     without a grave to kneel at
     or a ghost to listen
     or gates out of senility to an orchard
     mirage of trees we climbed apart
     in some wide snapshot of infant holiday
How I have to be known to you my brother
     without the unicorns and apples
     pretence of eternal Heaven
     or elsewise June
               in 1988
               in Kilwinning
     in the Zion daze of dog days
     before the knock on the door
How I have to be known to you my brother
     and cannot
               not now
               not ever
     cannot ever be known
     by the zeroed pin prick outline erased
     the never was
               nor is
               nor will be
     no way and no how
How? how my brother
     how can I conjure Sodom's boom from dust
     without the blank slate clean page fresh loam
     story's end rolling away forever
     coffined with your corpse
     into the crematorium's gullet?
How?
     how?
     answer me
     how?
     how?
     reveal it
Sing to me nothing
     hollowed singularity of timeless death
     without a moted eye or bloated tongue
     in silent answer to all pleas
     mute oracle of absurd inspiring
     trumpet nothing through me as a horn
Sing to and through me nothing
     to salve with nothing's scentless liniment
     dissolved always already in absentia
     you uninstanced speck of slaughter's void
     to seed in the nullity of past
     the potency of future
Sing for my brother nothing
     as you crooned to his dead brain
     engulfing every chant and cheer
     consuming memory to a dot clicked off
     and I will echo your whitespace
     of a beat skipped forever
Sing!

And for you my brother who is nothing I will sing
     And for all
          who are nothing
          I will sing
     And for all Sodom
          every Sodom every son and brother
     every daughter every father every mother
          I will sing
And I will roar the city from a grain of salt
     in every village of the Empire
     flying flags of rainbows or Olympic rings
     for queers in Russia
     stripped and lipsticked
     drinking Facebook shame of fascist piss
And I will rest my head as faggot Judas on your breast
     beloved nothing
               abolitionist of sacrifice
     alone of all the painted gods
     embracing nothing as a gift
     and gifting nothing in response
     who seals existence in a kiss
And I will carry quietude in every breath
     to frame a word a phrase a song a life
     to speak of the hollows where we built a den
     one strutting cockerel of Arcadia
     one cuckoo out of Sodom
     straight and queer
And I will go with the seed of silence as a stone
     to lay upon a monument unbuilt
     and build memorium upon the rock
     and under it you will be there
     as nothing
     foundation of a Sodom for us all
And I will go wild from our home
     as we have ever flown we sons of Sodom
     ever estranged as pilgrim libertines
     treked to salt shores of the dead
     gazing past baptisms
     the memory of nothing at our backs
And I will go before you into Galilee
I will go before you out of Ethiopia's ark
     into the crescent and the caverns
I will go before you out of Ur of the Chaldees into Canaan
     out of Canaan into the world
I will go before you into Glasgow and London
     Paris, Berlin and Helsinki
     and New York New York
     carving eternal wake I swear
I will go before you into my twenties
     and thirties
     and forties
     ever glancing back
          at where you stand
I will go before you into grief's abyss
     the raw murder of aeons
     falling fire bright in a city of endless angst
     crying for a dead faggot's dead madhouse muse
     made of words words words
          hell made of nothing
          and so dissolving
I will live ever leaving and returning
     ripping time to the thirteenth day
          to summer sun and the car
               the curb
I will enshrine in you all who've gone before
     and all now who are nothing yet
     the unsparked multitudes of butterflies
I will envision all mobs of you and I to come
     and call them you
     call to them you
          and drum
And I will go before you into Sodom.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Caledonia Dreamin' Review

The anthology, edited by Hal Duncan and Chris Kelso and published by Eibonvale Press in December 2013, is a well-crafted collection of seventeen stories that all have been written on the basis of a single Scottish word. The Scottish language and culture is the dominant frame of this book, but it has a broad range of themes and plots and travel across all the speculative genres. The characters in these stories deal with issues like a sudden urge to bathe in the muddy water, the complaining dead mother, the hungry newborn child, the yearning for knowledge, the fear of turning into an animal, a longing for the homeland, or not wanting to go home but to keep wandering. These tales are weird, terrifying, dark, beautiful, disturbing and funny. It was quite a thought-provoking read. Some of these stories are amongst the best stories I have read for quite a while and I recommend the book for not only the lovers of Scotland, the Scots language or linguistics in general, but for all fans of the weird and unexplainable, or people who enjoys plain good writing.

Great review for Caledonia Dreamin' from The Future Fire Reviews. Watch this spot for news of a belated launch/promo event in the Dick Institute in Kilmarnock, early April. Details forthcoming.

Song of the Stancer

I strike a stance to this or that,
a stance of recognition struck
in every disposition to
wild object of desire or dread,

in guts of all disgust or wrath,
in scrunch of balls and shivered spine,
in thrall of eyes or open heart,
first posture of the stancer's art.

In every stance I strike a stance
that this I recognise as this,
as any target of my yen
is fancied object in my ken.

*

I strike a stance to this and that
and that and this, a sweep of things
encompassed in my stance to all:
that they are items in a box.

Around karass or granfaloon,
I hurl the fancy of corral,
to recognise a wider this,
this cluster of specific things;

but in this crafting, as Cornell,
this cluster of specific things,
I line a paper bird, a spring,
a rubber ball or pipe of clay.

*

In stancing cluster, this I say,
and only this: that these are bound.
In such a stance there's no denial
that all things are exceptions, each

an object in and of itself,
each in its lineaments a quirk;
and so begins the stance to sing
--no, dance--the haecceity of things,

No quiddity in cluster yet,
no hollowing to empty frame
of ghosted form, Platonic class,
each object in its essence one.

*

But now to this or that I stance
my role as son or steersman--strange
as it is to fit to yield, I
yield to your yen for guiding hand,

as in a waltz or tango's verve,
we stance a partnership of peers
that conjures power out of yen,
casts me as master and as slave.

Artist or audience, I stance,
but mind the crux: We each are each,
in every moment we commune
ever in service as we steer.

*

Still, as a child I stanced my yield,
and parents stanced in proxy roles,
and everywhere were stances struck
in recognition of their sway.

In recognition of your say
so too might they, if we were twined
in marriage, hear you speak for me,
beloved proxy of my will.

With you our union's interface,
they'd stance to you as you were me;
For chatteled wife no more, I'd note,
but me they'd stance as I were thee.

*

Fancy you had a hundred loves,
each in a union of all yen,
and you this cluster's proxy voice,
shop steward of the workers bound.

Fancy us each in union just,
that each may be proxy now or then,
that any may stand for this karass,
in any instance one for all.

So in this clustered throng of quirks,
when any speaks it is one voice;
the cluster sings in each refrain
if we but stance it to be so.

*

Now let us open up our sweep
to fancy each quirk from the karass
called forth into a stranger role,
each instance proxy, summoned voice,

stepped out to meet a stance from all
that for a masque it shall be dressed,
that in a game it shall be masked
to stand as proxy for a thing.

Fancy yourself in purple robes,
called forth to take an object's place,
a proxy in a whirling dance.
That song from the karass? A name.

*

Stumbling, the quirk steps out as name,
but is no name, is just a word,
and is no word, is just a sound
which, with no quiddity, is just this,

until in the ballroom of the nous
proxy by proxy, now we stance,
by echoes of the quirks we choose
and shadows left in the karass,

a template for the quirk to fit
for sound to be a word, a name,
a stance on how and what we'll stance,
to play the proxy in each dance.

*

And if our stance may play this game,
each quirk the instance of a name
eclipsing tone of yen or surl
to carve the blank phonetic frame,

if we can set a sound as word,
each instance echo in our nous
imagined sans haecceity
as iteration of one thing,

then now the quiddity of things
is born and every name a class,
and we have conjured out of quirks
an archetype as new karass.

*

Call forth a daily quirk to sing
in sunrise of Adonis. Weave
the dental D, the nasal N
with vowels to the sibbilant S,

and we shall say we've made a name,
for all each instance is unique,
and with each quirk made of a kind,
with archetype of name defined,

now we may stance all objects thus
and set this word adonis as
a proxy object in the dance
for all within a yen's karass.

*

But still in whim we stance a whim,
a fleeting fancy, a conceit
that for the dance we'll drape a fool
and for a little while he'll rule.

And as we whirl him in our nous,
this instanced song of a karass,
though we pretend some essence set,
we have not made of him a sign.

There is no meaning stored in name
and carried round with every step.
As if caprice's fleeting dance
has flesh beyond the flesh we stance.

*

There is no sign but only this
pretence of quiddity in quirks,
the phantom essence of a word
sustained in flesh sustaining stance.

This superstition of the sign
as abstract thing, Platonic form
in substance fictive as the soul,
is essence passing as a dream.

From this day on the sign is dead.
The sign is dead; long live the stance
to spring, to ball, to paper bird,
to song, flesh's fancy of a word.

Friday, March 14, 2014

First Review of Scruffians!

Scruffians! by Hal Duncan, releasing in early April from Lethe Press, is a wickedly entertaining collection of short fiction fantastical and queer in nature—full of “scruffians and scamps and sodomites,” with some pirates and fairies besides. These stories range from comedic romps to lyrical and meditative explorations on the nature of meaning-making, while Duncan’s engaging and clever voice resonates throughout as a strong thread connecting the various different sorts of pieces...

Over at Tor.com, Brit Mandelo has some great things to say about Scruffians!, which is out rather soon now, come to think of it!

Friday, February 21, 2014

On Narrative Dynamics

In my critiques for Writers Workshop, when it comes to dealing with general plot structure, I tend to find Todorov's theory of narrative equilibrium a good touchstone. I try not to sideswipe a client with his name and lay down a whole whack of literary theory on them, but I do find it useful as an inroad to dealing with problems of a botched narrative trigger and fuzzy, or even absent, core conflict in a novel that's trying to be a conventional thriller, say. But where Todorov sets out five stages in his model of narrative equilibrium--

equilibrium as an initial stage;
disruption of that equilibrium by some event;
recognition of that disruption by some agent;
reaction seeking to counteract that disruption;
restitution of equilibrium, but in a new form.

--what interests me is not the notion of stages at all, but rather the fact that this is ultimately a model of dynamics rather than structure. It resonates with Clute's talk of narrative grammars of Fantasy, SF and Horror, in which I think we can see the alethic and boulomaic quirk (chimera and novum, monstrum and numina,) as the disruption leading, as a result of the priming of the worldscape by other quirks written into the backstory, to the interplay of recognition and reaction Clute calls Thinning and Thickening for Fantasy and Horror, and the middle ground I'd label Twisting in strange fictions of a less morally-loaded worldscape. In the past however, I've said I think Todorov's model mixes states and the actions that transition us between them. I've suggested a revised model that seeks to draw out the distinction:

Balance (a state of equilibrium)
  • The action of an agency upon the world, entailing:
  • The reaction of the world to this activity (disruption as a process)
Discord (disruption as a state)
  • The action of the world upon the protagonist, entailing:
  • The reaction of the protagonist to this activity (recognition as a process)
Conflict (recognition as a state)
  • The action of the protagonist upon the world (reaction), entailing:
  • The reaction of world to this activity (resolution as a process)
Harmony

But still, this is a bit structural for my liking, and a tad reductionist. I had a chat with a friend way back in which he lamented being taught Todorov's theory, in an English class at university, as a model that fits all narrative, universally applicable. And it just isn't, he said. I agreed. In any episode in a serial mode of narrative--I think of the 1970s TV series Monkey--it's quite possible that what's restored at the end is the exact same state as at the start. And that's just the beginning of where one might argue with a crude universalist application of the notion of narrative equilibrium. Still, even as I agreed, part of me niggled at the sense of an underlying dynamics that is, I think, the very substance of narrative. So, I find myself returning to it, to try and get at the root of what really interests me here.

I'll start then by abstracting that model above to something I'd say is pretty undeniable. Paring away the context of fiction, stripping the specifics, actually what we find is a simple (to the point of banal, maybe) model of any sort of event of action and reaction, taking place in some context between two objects, their interaction mediated by that context:

Start state
  • Action by object 1
  • Effect of action on context
Impact
  • Action on object 2
  • Effect of action on object 2
Comeback
  • Reaction by object 2
  • Effect of reaction on context
End State

There's nothing, I think, remotely controversial about that, nothing arguable as an unwarranted assumption about How Things Work. Taking everything down to first principles like so, the result is so schematic as to be, I'd say, uninteresting. Meh. Whatever. It's so reduced that it doesn't really say anything useful. But it is perhaps a good basis for a reconstruction of the dynamics of an event in narrative, if we now re-introduce Todorov's disruption as object 1, an agency as object 2, with the fictive worldscape as context. I'm a firm believer in using nice simple non-Latinate nouns to label elements in a model, so let's throw some in to try and encapsulate the different transitional actions. And I'll make two small but important tweaks on the start and end states: opening them to a range; letting the latter loop back to the former:

Harmony/Pressure/Turmoil
  • Breach: irruption of disruption;
  • Ripple: disruption of worldscape;
Discord
  • Jag: disruption of sensation;
  • Heed: evaluation of disruption;
Conflict
  • Maneuver: reaction of agency;
  • Outcome: reaction of worldscape;
Goto Harmony or Pressure or Turmoil.

Contrary to Todorov, we need not consider the startpoint equilibrium. Backstory often premises a worldscape's balance already taxed to breaking point or outright turbulent. One need only point to the opening scroll of Star Wars to see a story open with equilibrium already in ruins. If the breach is an irruption of disruption, this is not to say that other such disruptions are not in action, priming the worldscape with chronic and/or chaotic stresses. I'll hazard, in fact, that a cogent analysis of most narratives requires a grasp of how the worldscape is primed and/or fractured by such stresses at the story's start. C.f. the miasma that is in action upon the house of Atreus at the start of the Oresteia. The oldest story we have on record begins with Uruk out of whack because of Gilgamesh's wayward rule.

The opening up of potential inroads makes for an obvious answer to an obvious question? What if the outcome of the maneuver doesn't resolve things, if it doesn't achieve harmony? Well, then we must expect another breach born out of the pressure or turmoil, another iteration of the dynamics. We can expect a narrative to loop until harmony is achieved. It might, unexpectedly, carry on after that resolution, but the outroad is obvious enough that we tend to view a narrative as malformed if it loops through the cycle to an outcome that sorts out the jag of the breach decisively and then trundles on through action that now feels immaterial.

A basic anecdotal narrative--a joke, say--might stick to this simple dynamic. An Englishman, Scotsman, Irishman joke loops in three iterations. The firing squad joke sets up a base state of all three captives in North Africa, deserters from the French Foreign Legion, awaiting execution. Each selection by the sergeant gives a breach, rippling into the execution of the orders, putting each in the jag of being blindfolded, which they obviously heed. Through the three incidents, each carries out a simple maneuver, shouting a warning of an invented disaster, the outcome in the first two a distraction allowing them to escape, the opposite outcome in the third resolving the incident conflict with a twist--because instead of "Earthquake!" or "Flood!" the Irishman shouts "Fire!" Doh.

The threefold structure gives us a rudimentary escalation of metatextual conflict by resolving the first incident utterly with the simple maneuver and entering into an obvious repeat. Thing is, this is an exercise of first level agency--by which I mean, I'm hereby defining first level agency by the execution of a maneuver in this basic dynamics; we'll come to higher levels in a minute--and first level agency is basically "So what?" stuff. A maneuver that simply achieves the desired outcome is pointless narrative, insignificant; so the two iterations create a conflict of imports in the audience, between the expectation that the maneuver/outcome pattern will be applied again and the pointlessness of doing so in narrative terms given a foregone conclusion. The twist resolves that by trumping the foregone conclusion with an application of the maneuver/outcome pattern that has the opposite outcome.

In an abstract sense, if we want to think in terms of structure, we can see the Spur, Turn, Crunch architecture here in terms of the game being played with audience expectations, with audience as subject to that dynamics in place of a protagonist. The first iteration spurs a reckoning of the principle. The second iteration offers a turn by reapplying it and, by doing so, confounding expectations of a narrative complexifying beyond the first-level agency of an easy repeatable maneuver. The third crashes the assumption of repeatability into the reality of a legitimate variant of the maneuver which backfires, the punchline a crunch for the audience themself.

It's hardly a grand insight to unpack the simple joke like this, but it's revealing in so far as we're resituating the play of tensions in the audience. As an episode constructed of three incidents, this narrative has in its own right neither an exterior nor interior core conflict to resolve. The core conflict engaged as we scale up from incident to episode is outside the text, a wholly abstract clash of audience stances to the text. We might see in this then a potential for abstract narrative, for fiction which, contrary to the assumption that This Is How Narrative Works, eschews the engagement of exterior and interior core conflict as an agon binding incidents into an episode of story.

But now, let's step beyond that simple paradigm of narrative dynamics. When I say that it's only first-level agency being exercised here, in the maneuver, what do I mean? Well, here's a revision of the model that takes us into second-level agency:

Operational Balance/Pressure/Turmoil
  • Breach: irruption of disruption;
  • Ripple: disruption of worldscape;
Operational Discord
  • Jag: disruption of sensation;
  • Heed: evaluation of disruption;
Operational Conflict
  • Maneuver: reaction of agency;
  • Outcome: reaction of worldscape;
Goto Harmony or Pressure or Turmoil OR:
Tactical Balance/Pressure/Turmoil
  • Breach: irruption of disruption;
  • Ripple: disruption of worldscape;
Tactical Discord
  • Snag: disruption of sensation;
  • Savvy: evaluation of disruption;
Tactical Conflict
  • Gambit: reaction of agency;
  • Outcome: reaction of worldscape;
Goto Harmony or Pressure or Turmoil.

The story of the Three Billy Goats Gruff offers a comparable framework to the joke. The base state has all three intent on getting across a bridge to the greener pastures on the other side, the worldscape primed with a troll under that bridge who eats anyone trying to cross. In three iterations, we get a similar pattern: the breach of an attempt to cross; the ripple of hooves which trip-trap on the wood, which draws out the troll, who blocks the path; the jag of the threat of being eaten, taken heed of and answered with a maneuver. Again, the maneuver is repeated twice, in an exercise of first-level agency, both the Little Billy Goat Gruff and the Middle Billy Goat Gruff directing the troll to eat the meatier goat coming after. Again, the outcome is the one desired.

There's a difference here though (beyond the fact that each breach is an action by one of the three, rather than another agency acting upon them.) With each iteration, the situation is being changed, the reserve of meatier goats dropping, so with the second incident, the maneuver is played out. Again we can see a conflict of imports in the audience, between the grasp of the maneuver/outcome pattern as solution and the grasp that this solution's no longer viable. Here though this is not just a metatextual conflict; it's an exterior conflict for the Big Billy Goat Gruff in the text itself, the core conflict emerging in the turn of the second iteration. As the Big Billy Goat Gruff sets out (breach) trip-trapping across the bridge (ripple,) the exclusion of the maneuver means the troll in his path presents not just a jag but a snag. So, the Big Billy Goat Gruff has to level up.

The Big Billy Goat Gruff must not just heed the jag so he can maneuver in response. He must savvy the snag and make a move based on that savvy. Where the maneuver comes of simply heeding the operational logic, the established operational logic has been rendered unworkable, has to be revised. In the revision of operational logic required, his problem becomes tactical. What turns a jag to a snag, I mean, is when it pricks also any sense of security in established operations. What makes it savvy rather than heed is that it must heed the operational logic itself as much as (or as part of) the jag. What makes his move a gambit rather than a maneuver is that we have operational logic applied to operational logic, the formation of a new tactic because the standing tactic can't be applied. A maneuver can be taken from the playbook. A gambit is by definition a suppositional revision of the playbook.

So the Big Billy Goat Gruff ups his game to second level agency when he savvies the snag, heeds the jag of a tactical problem--an established operational solution made defunct. In the moment he squares up to the troll, he becomes a primal protagonist, engaging the agon in the transition from operational to tactical conflict. Suddenly this isn't just another incident we're dealing with, but as a whole an episode, born from the core conflict with the troll as antagonist. Not just obstacle but antagonist, because the problem is not how to get past him; the problem is what happens when you run out of Billy Goats Gruff? What happens when you scale up beyond the incident, to where no one can maneuver their way by the obstacle any more?

The transition is marked indeed, in this example, by a division of the gambit into two discrete moves: the new move made as an alternative to the unworkable maneuver--the Billy Goat Gruff simply charging at the troll, poking his eyes out with his horns, crushing him to bits, body and bones, and tossing him out into the river; but also, before this, the action of resolving on this move as a move in its own right--the Billy Goat Gruff squaring up to the troll and announcing his pointy-horned, big-bollocked intent. This is the moment in which story in the traditional sense is born, the ascension of a character to second-level agency.

Well, come along! I've got two spears,
And I'll poke your eyeballs out at your ears;
I've got besides two curling-stones,
And I'll crush you to bits, body and bones.

A peripeteia of anagnorisis, this is the classic End of Act One crunch, the moment of lock-in, by circumstance or choice, in which the character's savvy of a snag is laid bare. The tactical nature of the discord acknowledged, the narrative announces that it's tactical conflict from here. The agon is engaged.

In this simplest of stories, there is only that single act, of course. The Big Billy Goat Gruff's gambit is a resounding success, resolving the conflict in a short and sweet showdown, then and there, with no moves on the antagonist's part, only the outcome, itemised in gory detail and with much gusto. We can carry on however, to identify a third-level agency in ascension from tactical to strategic conflict, from snag to snarl, (the sense of entanglement in failed tactics,) from savvy to nous, (heeding the failure of tactical logic,) from gambit to growth (the formation of a new strategy for the formation of tactics.)

It's not hard to extend this leveling-up of the dynamics, I mean, to step the agency up again, and find in this new level the complement of the End of Act One crunch, the moment of rallying, reappraisal, re-engagement that is the End of Act Two crunch in a Three Act Structure:

Operational Balance/Pressure/Turmoil
  • Breach: irruption of disruption;
  • Ripple: disruption of worldscape;
Operational Discord
  • Jag: disruption of sensation;
  • Heed: evaluation of disruption;
Operational Conflict
  • Maneuver: reaction of agency;
  • Outcome: reaction of worldscape;
Goto Harmony or Pressure or Turmoil OR:
Tactical Balance/Pressure/Turmoil
  • Breach: irruption of disruption;
  • Ripple: disruption of worldscape;
Tactical Discord
  • Snag: disruption of sensation;
  • Savvy: evaluation of disruption;
Tactical Conflict
  • Gambit: reaction of agency;
  • Outcome: reaction of worldscape;
Goto Harmony or Pressure or Turmoil OR:
Strategic Balance/Pressure/Turmoil
  • Breach: irruption of disruption;
  • Ripple: disruption of worldscape;
Strategic Discord
  • Snarl: disruption of sensation;
  • Nous: evaluation of disruption;
Tactical Conflict
  • Growth: reaction of agency;
  • Outcome: reaction of worldscape;
Goto Harmony or Pressure or Turmoil.

This is not a structural model of narrative though, to be clear. What we're modelling here is narrative dynamics, the states of the worldscape and the transitions between them, the processes of interaction that are the substance of narrative beneath any plot structure projected onto it. The ascension of a protagonist to third-level agency is not the Plot Point 2 of a Hollywood screenplay. The latter is a benchmark positioning in an architectural template at which that dynamics should be in effect. Where "The Three Billy Goats Gruff" gives us two maneuvers and a gambit which resolves the story immediately, it's clear from the Three Act Structure that a narrative need not be resolved by the gambit. Likewise, while the Three Act Structure takes one peripeteia of growth to achieve the resolution, it's perfectly possible for a narrative's dynamics to flow on through more iterations. I will even hazard a fourth-level agency in ascension from strategy to policy.

(A side note: Lest the stratification of the model be taken as a rigid structuring, I'll suggest that where I've been talking of ascension by level, one might perhaps better view the process as one of deepening, of intensification, with the operational, tactical, strategic and policy distinctions a nominal scale applied to a continuity of increasing engagement. That's to say, beyond a simple story like "The Three Billy Goats Gruff," the sense of a phase transition that makes a move read as gambit rather than maneuver, or as growth rather than gambit, will be a subjective reckoning of the evaluation conjured in the reading, and an effective conjuring of heed, savvy and nous should be nuanced as the reality it's rendering. One might well see the Little Billy Goat Gruff as also exerting second-level agency, his move a cunning gambit, not so obvious at all. We might take the gambit as the baseline and identify the maneuver as a relatively lower-agency move--as where the Middle Billy Goat Gruff is simply copying the gambit.)

An example offers itself in Aeschylus's Prometheus Bound. In a first iteration, we get the breach of Might and Violence entering, the ripple of Hephaestos hammering Prometheus's chains, the jag of those chafing irons, the heed that leads to monologue as maneuver, Prometheus's lament of his woes, calling to the ocean waves, the Oceanids who come. In the next iteration, their entry the breach, their challenge is the ripple, and the snag comes clear: he cannot plead mercy in the maneuver they urge, will not. He responds instead with the same big-bollocked second-level agency as the Big Billy Goat Gruff, in an explicit claim of such indeed:

He who stands free with an untrammelled foot
Is quick to counsel and exhort a friend
In trouble. But all these things I know well.
Of my free will, my own free will, I erred,
And freely do I here acknowledge it.

Prometheus speaks with a Billy Goat Gruff's big balls. And his big-horned attack on the powers that put him here follows in a promise to prophecy of things to come. Enter Oceanus as new breach, to jag with a pity that Prometheus dismisses. Through each incident as iteration of the dynamics, we see Prometheus confronted, challenged with a troll to vanquish; for all that these trolls offer solace, the core conflict that is emerging, as the incidents scale up to episode, is the retention of agency while bound. For all their sympathy, they bring in antagonistic forces in their disruption.

The antagonistic drive of each disruption is a pressure to surrender, to submit, indeed, and so the story does not just feature him leveling up in agency; it is about him leveling up in agency.

To the Oceanids, in the next key iteration, he reveals the profoundly tactical nature of his gambit of resistance: he knows a secret of how Zeus will get what's coming to him. To Io, he reveals more to his gambit of waiting: he knows that after all her torment of wanderings, one of her descendants, thirteen generations down the line--Herakles--will release him. He reveals the nature of that secret indeed: he knows of a union that will undo philandering Zeus, a maiden whose child will be greater than its father. With not just savvy but nous, his revelation is not just a gambit but growth. He ascends to third-level agency, his actions strategic.

No surprise that this moment of rallying agency, of a Prometheus with pitying visitors for his eagles leveling up to an iron will forged in the crucible, has the outcome of bringing on the final showdown, the arrival of Hermes as breach, to lay clear the snarl of his situation with an ultimatum, a last chance: This, then, is all thine answer: thou'lt not / One syllable of what our Father asks? But the Chorus make it clear what this entails, even as they urge it: For he enjoins thee to let self-will go / And follow after prudent counsels. Him / Harken; for error in the wise is shame. And Prometheus, bound, roars back with all the power of fourth-level agency, his stance no mere maneuver, no simple tactical gambit, and not just strategic, but rather an action rendered of principle in this moment, made a policy:

These are stale tidings I foreknew;
Therefore, since suffering is the due
A foe must pay his foes,
Let curled lightnings clasp and clash
And close upon my limbs: loud crash
The thunder, and fierce throes
Of savage winds convulse calm air:
The embowelled blast earth's roots uptear
And toss beyond its bars,
The rough surge, till the roaring deep
In one devouring deluge sweep
The pathway of the stars
Finally, let him fling my form
Down whirling gulfs, the central storm
Of being; let me lie
Plunged in the black Tartarean gloom;
Yet-yet-his sentence shall not doom
This deathless self to die!

And there can be only one outcome here, because what he acts upon in the world is himself, resolving all conflict into the harmony of awe. It is not a new equilibrium he establishes in any sense of peace, tranquility. Pressure and turmoil remain. In the awe is every ounce of terror and pity Aristotle would write about. But his response is beyond even growth; it is epiphany.

So, I'll leave you with this model of narrative dynamics, and with Aeschylus's Prometheus as a potent emblem of the agency at the heart of it, with Todorov's equilibrium turned inside out maybe, no longer focused on an ideal harmony with the protagonist the subject of a formal structure of stages aimed at restoring sterile order, albeit in a new form. No, narrative exists for the dynamics, exists to celebrate the agency that drives it.

He is the paragon of agency, Prometheus, and he is bound into every narrative, at some level or other, from the simplest fairytale of Three Billy Goats Gruff--from the most basic joke even--to the most sophisticated novel cycling through the process, up and down the levels--or in and out the depths of engagement--in the most intricate riverrun of breaches, ripples, jags and snags and snarls, gambits, growth and epiphany, driving onward for resolution not to fit some structural template of architected stages but because it is the nature of narrative to roar and crash, its shape emerging in the substantiation of a simple but inexhaustibly profuse dynamics of agency always already bound within its worldscape, but always already, in itself, unbound.