Review of Jane Alison’s Meander, Spiral, Explode

July 13, 2020 § 6 Comments

meanderBy Debbie Hagan

A few summers back, I sat in a northern Maine fishing lodge watching the sun set as the loons began their mournful cries. Like them, I stood, facing Lake Kennebago, looking for my significant other. He’s asthmatic and accident-prone. He set out hours earlier on the lake in an antique boat with an unpredictable motor. Unlike the loons, I couldn’t call for him…no cell signal here.

Instead of fishing, hunting, or hiking (the activities one is supposed to do here), I’d spent the day hanging around the lodge, watching the male hummingbirds swoop and dive, trying to impress the ladies. When the males grew tired of that, they turned to the nectar, where they warred with one another, each determined to lord over the feeder. I was rereading The Sun Also Rises, following Jake Barnes’ tortuous romance with Lady Brett Ashley, trying desperately to hold onto his lady-love, even though she was clearly slipping away.

Maybe in the dark, standing next to the lake, worrying what I’d do if my husband didn’t return, I considered the battles of life, the need for love, the desperate urge to hold on. Even after I heard the boat motor and saw my husband’s dark shadow cross the water, these emotions churned within me. I wanted to write this…but how? It wasn’t a story really. It didn’t have a beginning, middle, and end.

The next day, I wrote in crots…blips or stand-alone fragments, moving by pure instinct, matching “like” images…sort of like working a jigsaw puzzle.

As I wrote, I felt a distinct undertow pulling me forward. I revised this piece a few times, titled it “Human Heart,” and sent it off to Superstition Review, which published it.

A happy accident? It seems so. I tried several times to replicate this form, this emotion, but my efforts fell flat.

Recently I came across Jane Alison’s Meander, Spiral, Explode: Design and Pattern in Narrative, a book that proposes alternate patterns to storytelling, other than the traditional arc. Alison grew up understanding patterns, particularly how they can be tweaked and morphed. She and her sister, at ages four and seven, were living in Australia when their parents became romantically attached to another couple, who had two daughters, approximately their own ages. The parents decided to swap. Alison’s mother married the other husband, and they stayed in Australia, keeping Alison and her sister. Alison’s father married the other wife and took her and her daughters to the United States. The details about this are in Alison’s memoir, The Sisters of Antipodes,

Here’s the takeaway: life is made up of patterns that are quite malleable. Alison developed sort of radar for patterns, particularly in literature. She first saw it in W.G. Sebald’s novel, The Emigrants:

In the decade since first reading Sebald, I’ve sought power narratives that hint at structures inside them other than an arc, structures that create an inner sensation of traveling toward something and leave a sense of shape behind, so that the stories feel organized—not just slice-of-life.

Alison urges readers to think of stories as organic shapes: waves, wavelets, meanders, spirals, radials, networks, fractals, and tsunamis. “Those patterns from nature have inspired visual artists and architects for centuries,” she writes. “Why wouldn’t they form our narratives, too?”

For examples, she draws upon such writers as Tobias Wolff, Joyce Carol Oates, Jamaica Kincaid, Sandra Cisnero, Raymond Carver, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Marguerite Duras, and Ann Carson. At the very heart of this book is Alison’s close examination of writing excerpts, showing how various writers create internal movement (or pull) by using shape, color, and intrigue.

Just to be clear, this is not a how-to guide. There are no prompts or mini lessons. In fact, I found it to be a tad dense in spots, requiring rereading several sections. That’s not necessarily bad, because, in the end, I found extra effort paid off.

Also, I should also warn you that Alison’s excerpts are mainly fiction (Ann Carson, Jamaica Kincaid,  and Marguerite Duras are exceptions). This didn’t bother me, particularly because the story examples involve universal human issues and life’s complexities—the same topics we’re always exploring in creative nonfiction.

“But what I hope is that thinking about patterns other than the arc will become natural,” Alison writes, “that they’ll imagine visual aspects of narrative as well as temporal, that they’ll discover ways to design, being conscious or playful with possibilities. How can you spread color across a story? Make texture with different kinds of words or sentences or zones of white space? Create repetitions or symmetries to strengthen (or trouble) a sense of movement?”

Once I finished this book, I decided “Human Heart” was a spiral, a story that begins “at a point and moves onward, not extravagant or lackadaisical like a meander, but smooth and steady, spinning around and around that central point or a single axis.”

This pattern worked great for my essay. Instead of motivating the reader with what happens next, I brought the reader inside the experience. The reader is pulled through the story through images…through emotions that grow and lead the reader off to a surprising new place.

Alison asks readers to go outside, look at the patterns in the water…at smoke…at a rainbow. She writes, “What I hope this book now will leave behind: the idea that new patterns like spirals or explosions or vortex streets might open our eyes to other natural shapes underlying our stories, might let us step away from the arc sometimes….”
Debbie Hagan is book reviews editor for Brevity and teaches writing at Massachusetts College of Art and Design. Her writing has appeared in Harvard Review, Hyperallergic, Pleiades, Superstition Review, Brain, Child, and elsewhere. Her essays have appeared in numerous anthologies, including Fearless: Women’s Journeys to Self-Empowerment.






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§ 6 Responses to Review of Jane Alison’s Meander, Spiral, Explode

  • henhouselady says:

    Thank you for this post. I found it very interesting. loved the image o the male humming birds.

  • joellefraser says:

    I love reading about new ways to look at structure. I’m going to get this book–and look for your essay in the SR. Thank you.

  • geodutton says:

    Thanks for your essay, Debby. Alison’s book seemed to have immediate and salutatory results. It captured me too. As an erstwhile research cartographer, I spent a lot of time thinking about patterns in nature (that’s also the title of a book from the 1970s by Peter Stevens that in part inspired her), and developed algorithms for adding fractal detail to lines on digital maps (they tended to be sparse in those days). Then, last year, after reading “Meander, Spiral, Explode” I tried to “fractalize” the novel I was then planning (now close to finished and probably more of a wave than a fractal) and reviewed her book, illustrating some patterns she discussed with geometric objects. If you’re interested, see “Tell Me a Fractal: Spaces that stories can inhabit,” at

  • Michael Lewis says:

    This is just so fascinating. I’m definitely going to pick up Alison’s book and let my mind open to the possibility of structures and patters that are all around me, showing themselves to me this very minute. Thanks so much for this review! Wow.

  • I adored Alison’s book–and now I can’t help myself and diagnose every plot I read accordingly. “Go outside”–yes! Why should the classic arc shape have all the fun!?

  • DoingDewey says:

    As a reader, I found the way this book looked at stories really interesting, but I find that I rarely manage to actually analyze plots in this way when I’m reading. Something to work on!

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