THE DODECAHEDRON, OR A FRAME FOR FRAMES
By Paul Glennon
The fact that most stories consist of a beginning, a middle, and an end, has always been a source of irritation to authors who like to think outside the box. But how to resist the tyranny of linearity? In The Dodecahedron, Ottawa author Paul Glennon has come up with one intriguing answer. His “Frame for Frames” is “a novel, of sorts”: a concept book where the concept is both everywhere and nowhere. Which requires some explaining.
Luckily Glennon provides an Afterword to help the reader out. The Dodecahedron is a book consisting of twelve stories. It is a “sort” of novel because the stories are related to each other and there is a novel-like unity of themes and structure. But there’s no forward progress toward a set conclusion. And it isn’t a “cycle” of short stories either. Instead, it is a book based not “on the geometry of the circle, but on the geometry of the dodecahedron.”
A circle is two-dimensional whereas a dodecahedron is a three-dimensional shape. So in order to get an idea of what Glennon is doing you have to think of an object floating in space with 12 regular pentagonal faces. Each of these faces is a story. Following a set of rules he describes as “mildly Oulipan,” Glennon insists that each story must refer to each of the five stories adjacent to it. In addition, a dodecahedron has 20 vertices, where three sides meet. At these points each of the three stories that meet share another set of connections (“certain repetitions and recurrences”). As for the order the stories are presented in, that is “somewhat arbitrary.” The method Glennon has chosen is to follow two strips around the top and bottom hemispheres, leaving the top and bottom pentagons until the end. But none of the stories has a privileged position over any of the others.
Is that clear?
Well, no. Not at all. Readers interested in solving the puzzle are recommended to build a model. One assumes Glennon had one sitting on his desk so that he could keep it in front of him while he was putting the book together. You just can’t hold a structure like this together in your head.
In other words, the concept is indisputably there, but also nowhere since it is invisible. The connections, recurrences, and relations are easy to spot, but not the shape of the whole.
At this point one can be forgiven for thinking the whole thing is just a stunt, and too clever by half at that. Maybe it is. But it’s also one of the liveliest, smartest, most original books you’ll ever read.
As befits such a profoundly self-conscious work of postmodern experimentation, it is primarily concerned with the act of storytelling. The frame for frames is an invention of inventions. And necessity is their mother. From “The American Shahrazad” (a sixteenth-century European stranded in the New World who has to keep telling fantastic stories to save from being eaten) to a twentieth-century polygamist creating new identities to save his marriage system from falling apart, to a Kafkaesque prisoner having to make up a pseudo-confession to fool his interrogators, the stories are all about the need to tell stories.
And where does this outpouring of fiction come from? Thin air? That’s part of it. In one of the stories there is reference to an experiment to deprive a computer of sensory input and so “gain insight into how the mind creates something from nothing.” This connects with the “Tenbrian Chronicles,” an account of an eighth-century book-producing abbey on a remote island where “the black winter months deprived the monks of all stimuli.” Much like the computer, the monks begin to hallucinate, have visions, and create alternate realities. They become writers of fiction.
But then there is the artist as plagiarist, the author who has to realize that books are always written out of other books. Deprived of all external stimulation, the mind isn’t left entirely to its own devices. “Stories” exist in the collective unconscious as archetypes (one of these archetypes, the genie of the last untold story, even appears as a narrator). And so all stories incestuously self-replicate, just as elements from these stories mix and mingle. Nor does it end there, as other stories are even dragged in from Glennon’s previous book, the collection of short stories How Did You Sleep?
All of this would remain a dry intellectual puzzle if not for the fact that Glennon can write. Whatever the geometric model they’re using, every author still has to make the reader want to get to the end, if only the end of the sentence. Glennon keeps the book moving with a sure hand despite undercutting the larger narrative process in a tone that can be dry, whimsical, paranoid, absurd, or all of the above.
The Dodecahedron is an experiment, and a fully successful one, “on the subject of perspective.” But it’s a lot more fun than that makes it sound. It’s not so much an exercise in Oulipan restraint as it is a game. A game that Glennon plays very, very well.
Review first published online April 5, 2006.