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  • Impossible Storyworlds—and What to Do with Them
  • Jan Alber (bio)

One of the most interesting things about fictional narratives is that they do not only mimetically reproduce the world as we know it. Many narratives confront us with bizarre storyworlds which are governed by principles that have very little to do with the real world around us. Even though many narrative texts teem with unnatural (i.e., physically or logically impossible) scenarios that take us to the limits of human cognition, narrative theory has not yet done justice to these cases of unnaturalness or the question of how readers can come to terms with them.

In what follows, I define the term unnatural and outline a cognitive model that describes ways in which readers can make sense of unnatural scenarios. Second, I use these reading strategies to discuss examples of unnaturalness in postmodernist narratives.1 Arguing that ideas from cognitive narratology help illuminate [End Page 79] the considerable, sometimes unsettling interpretive difficulties posed by unnatural elements, I use the cognitive-narratological work to clarify how some literary texts not only rely on but also aggressively challenge the mind’s fundamental sense-making capabilities.

What Is Unnatural?

The term unnatural denotes physically impossible scenarios and events, that is, impossible by the known laws governing the physical world, as well as logically impossible ones, that is, impossible by accepted principles of logic (Doležel 1998: 115–16). These dimensions of unnaturalness can be measured by the degree to which they deviate from real-world frames. Arguably, the logically impossible is even stranger and more disconcerting than the physically impossible, and we have to engage in even more extensive cognitive processing to make sense of it. Even though physically impossible scenarios cannot be actualized in the real world, and even though logically impossible elements are “outside the realm of the possible” (165), it is possible to construct them in the world of fiction. A speaking corkscrew would be an example of the former, while the projection of mutually incompatible events would be an example of the latter.

All instances of the unnatural have an estranging effect (Shklovsky 1965), though not all instances of estrangement involve the unnatural. Most of my examples are impossible scenarios at the level of story and achieve their estranging effect by deliberately impeding the constitution of storyworlds. More specifically, they radically deconstruct the anthropomorphic narrator, the traditional human character, or real-world notions of time and space. Other narratives might estrange readers by deploying atypical discourse modes, such as the exuberant language in James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (1939) or the typographical oddities in John Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse (1968). Such stories also transgress real-world frames and urge us to stretch our sense-making strategies to the limit.

How Can We Make Sense of the Unnatural?

Ryan (1991: 51), Fludernik (1996: 43–46), and Herman (2002: 23; 370) argue that narrative comprehension is based on a set of real-world cognitive [End Page 80] frames. For instance, Ryan’s principle of minimal departure predicts that “we project upon [fictional] worlds everything we know about reality, and [. . .] make only the adjustments dictated by the text” (1991: 51). But what happens if individual oddities are so extreme that they impair the constitution of a storyworld and urge us to stretch, distend, or reconceive our basic procedures for making sense of experience? In contrast to Ryan, Pavel suggests that readers do not consistently apply the principle of minimal departure. He argues that when we are confronted with radical oddities, we follow a different principle by anticipating “a maximal departure” from the real world so that “mimetic principles are supplemented with antimimetic expectations” (1986: 93). But what exactly does that mean, and how does the mind cope with such extreme narratives?

I propose five reading strategies that relate in various ways to the principles of minimal and maximal departure, and that help readers naturalize unnatural scenarios. According to Culler, readers attempt to recuperate inexplicable elements of a text by taking recourse to familiar interpretive patterns (1975: 134). Fludernik extends Culler’s notion of naturalization and argues that in the process of narrativization, which is “a reading strategy that naturalizes...


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