Under the Map

When your prime material is Greek mythology, you quickly face a choice. In most cases, if you want a linear story or character background, it falls on you to pick which elements to keep and which to throw away. This is because Greek mythology has no canon: there are the Iliad or the Works and Days, but although they had an immense influence on later works, they are not considered founding texts (as the Bible can be) but testimonies of a given time. All around them remains a multitude of well-documented, complementary or contradictory traditions. Moreover, the mythology as told by Homer and Hesiod presents mostly homogeneous gods and goddesses, for needs of coherence, whereas many of them were actually local deities agglomerated under a single figure. (1)
But I didn’t want to choose. I decided quite early I would embrace this absence of canon, since I’m interested in Greek religion precisely for the idea of gods as representations: it makes sense that they would go through multiple transformations and identifications. Consequently, my characters were going to inherit several pasts, often parallels and sometimes insersecting. Definitely non-linear. Easy right? Leaving aside the fact that I was fooling myself since a writer’s work is nothing but endless choices, I had no idea how to do this.

My first clue was the novel Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. It’s the story of an apocalypse and the consequent reorganization of humanity during and immediately after the disaster. The narrative constantly goes back and forth between three or four characters and a span of about fifty years, from twenty-three years before the catastrophe to twenty years after, and it all intersects on a single object: an eponymous comic book. This movement unbinds the narrative from the traditional beginning-middle-end, because there are several beginnings, several middles, and the end is another beginning and another middle. I loved this novel with all my heart, not only for the story it tells, but also for the way it tells it and how it so gently breaks free from the usual storytelling constraints. Later, I discovered with delight that same magic at work in The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi, where the intersection point is Vivek’s death. Interestingly, both books took their title from their narrative intersection. (2)
Mandel and Emezi showed me that it was possible to wander from linear storytelling in a meaningful way. Thus I knew that it could work, and how it could look.

My second clue was found in The Writer’s Map: An Atlas of Imaginary Lands, a collaborative work directed by Huw Lewis-Jones. It’s a beautiful book where a bunch of authors, writers, illustrators discuss the relationship between maps and stories. While everything was fascinating and mind-blowing, that quote stayed with me: it’s from Robert Macfarlane’s chapter, ‘Off the Grid’.

Broadly speaking, we might say there are two types of map: the grid-map and the story-map. A grid-map places an abstract geometric meshwork upon a space, a meshwork within which any item or individual can be co-ordinated. The invention of the grid-map, which occurred more or less coevally with the rise of modern science in the sixteenth century, introduced a whole new power to cartography. The power of such maps is that they make it possible for any individual or object to be located within an abstract totality of space. Their danger is that they so reduce the world to data that they record space independent of being. Everything can be located, fixed, plotted and tracked. Everything can be grid-locked.
Story-maps, by contrast, represent a place as it is perceived by an individual or by a culture moving through it. They are records of specific journeys, rather than describing a space within which innumerable journeys might take place. They are organized around the passage of the traveller, and their perimeters are the perimeters of the sight or experience of that traveller. Event and location are not fully distinguished, for they are often of the same substance.

I tend to treat the most important places of my stories as characters. But I had not connected places to gods until I stumbled upon that idea of story-maps. Macfarlane describes the story-map in the way I see a place I’m familiar with, but also the way I see a god: a conglomeration of personal ideas about a thing. As the writer Helen Oyeyemi beautifully puts it:

I look at maps and stuff and none of the places seem real. I think that’s what happens when you don’t belong to a country, though – lines are just lines, and letters are just letters and you can’t touch the meaning behind them the way you can when you’re home and you look at a map and you see, instead of a place name, a stretch of road or an orchard or an ice-cream parlour around the corner. You know. (3)

Connecting places to gods made perfect sense for the work I was trying to do. A ground is a surface which rarely produces a solitary or one-way thing: unless controlled, vegetation quickly goes wild. But the ground can also be considered as the present moment, in the sense that it is the most recent layer on top of multiple geological layers (and perhaps artificial surfaces like roads, foundations, etc.). It’s the same for gods if you tilt the ground, and make it chronological instead of geographical. Unless you are Homer trying to keep a dozen gods in line, the god’s present moment is not a one-way thing either: similar cults can be seen at multiple places at the same time, with local variations. And they all come from very complex chronological layers (traditions).

Finally, my third clue came from philosophy. At the beginning of A Thousand Plateaus, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari introduce the concept of rhizome. It is taken from the eponymous subterranean stem, and roughly translates as ramifications emerging from multiple and connected sources. The rhizome therefore does not allow dualism, and is linked to ideas of connection, profusion, and excess. (4)

Any point in a rhizome can be connected with any other, and must be. […] A rhizome can be broken, shattered at any point, it resumes along this line or the other and along other lines. We don’t get ants over with, because they constitute an animal rhizome of which the greater part can be destroyed without it ceasing to reconstitute itself.

In my mind, that is what happens underground: under the map and before the present moment. Deleuze and Guattari opportunely compare the rhizome with the map:

The map is open, it is connectable in all its dimensions, […] likely to get constant modification. […] This is perhaps one of the most important characteristics of the rhizome, to always have multiple entries; the burrow in this sense is an animal rhizome, and sometimes includes a clear distinction between the convergence line as a corridor for movement, and the strata for stock or habitation (cf. the muskrat).

With rhizomatic diagrams, I could start to materialize a memory that would include the parallel and intersecting traditions, or pasts, surrounding my characters. I drew a bunch of maps too, even built a tiny mockup. These ideas of maps and rhizome, that can feel very abstract at first, led me to concrete explorations that immensely helped me to understand how I could make non-linearity work for my characters and, ultimately, for my story.

This meets on something that utterly fascinates me: a different way of grasping the construction of characters and story. I’m very interested in storytelling which, instead of racing straight ahead, allows itself to stray from the path, towards feelings, or concepts, geography… anything that makes sense within the story. It may entail a kind of slowness, but that does not necessarily mean boredom: Station Eleven and The Death of Vivek Oji are anything but boring. They are profound, tender, and strong.
That is what interests and challenges me right now in my writing. With exploration comes an emotional depth, the way you learn to love a place by exploring or inhabiting it. And soon, you look at a story and you see, instead of a character name, a hidden tattoo or a former lover or a cup of tea. You know.

(1) I took that from a book about Greek religion but I can’t remember which one.

(2) Disclaimer: this is my own personal interpretation. I didn’t read anything from the authors about that, so I don’t know if they thought about it that way. But it was interesting and striking enough for me to talk about it.

(3) This dialogue is from The Opposite House by Helen Oyeyemi, an extraordinary novel about cultural displacement and many other things.

(4) The excerpts from A Thousand Plateaus are my own translation from French. Apologies if it makes it more complicated.