Feb 13, 2013

Stories that Eat their own Tail

     Sunday's post about the retelling of stories got me thinking about a handful of stories that are actually about the retelling of stories, specifically Jorge Luis Borges’ “The Circular Ruins,” and John Barth’s “Lost in the Funhouse.” (And the essays that always seem to accompany them in anthologies: Borges’ “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” and Barth’s “The Literature of Exhaustion,” respectively. Neither of these pieces are narratives, though, and they have both been analyzed many times by people much smarter than yours truly, so I won’t be talking about them.)
     I’m also going to save my discussion of Borges and Barth for a later time, when I have a better idea of the scope and focus of this blog. Instead, I would like to talk about a peculiar speculative/science fiction trope that descends from stories like “The Circular Ruins,” the character-trapped-in-an-infinite-loop story.

     There are two basic varieties of the infinite loop story: those in which the hero gets out, and those in which she doesn’t. The former is, for my tastes, the least interesting. I’m thinking of movies like Source Code, Run Lola Run, and Groundhog Day, or any number of episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation (“Cause and Effect” and “Time Squared,” for those of you with Netflix and two hours to kill). In these stories, the loop is a problem to be overcome, and to do so the protagonist(s) goes through a series of steps that looks something like this:

     Enter loop à become aware of loop à discover nature of loop à find way out of loop.

     This structure requires three full iterations of the loop, with a possible montage of partial iterations to give a sense of narrative time. The trick with these stories is extensive use of rhyming action to indicate progress and provide a feeling of momentum. Thus, we see Bill Murray learning to play the piano, or Jake Gyllenhall getting slightly closer to diffusing the bomb on each return trip. Eventually, the loop is annihilated, either because the protagonist achieves some arbitrary spiritual insight and the Universe decides to let her out (Groundhog Day, Run Lola Run) or because of the discovery of some equally arbitrary technical gewgaw (Source Code, Star Trek). To be fair, time loops are not real-world problems, so we should not expect real-world solutions. Regardless, the loopy-ness of the loop isn’t all that important; it’s just there for our hero to get out of. There’s little difference, narratively speaking, between Captain Picard entering his time loop, and Timmy falling down a well (or R. Kelly getting trapped in a closet.) They go in, they get stuck, they get out, they move on.

     In the second type of loop story, our hero does not escape, and usually doesn’t become aware of her predicament until the end, if ever. We can see this in a small subgenre of horror stories in which the afterlife, usually Hell, is depicted as an endlessly repeating scenario. Neil Gaiman’s “Other People,” for example, tells the story of a man who walks into a room inhabited by a demon. Over the course of a thousand years, the demon tortures the man for the sins of his life, and in the process disfigures him beyond recognition. The man then finds himself alone in the room. He sees his previous self walk in, and he repeats the demon’s first line of dialogue. That line, “Time is fluid in here,” is a bit on-the-nose for me, but I appreciate that, as with Borges, the point of recursion is a moment of epiphany for both the protagonist and the reader. Similarly, Stephen King’s “That Feeling, You Can Only Say What It Is in French,” is about a woman experiencing an overpowering and unpleasant sense of déjà vu during a car ride from the airport with her husband. This being an afterlife story, we are treated to a reflection on her past sins, as well as a surprisingly economical portrait of her unhappy marriage.  The experience is painful only in its banality. The car ride ends when the debris from a plane crash begins to rain down on them, at which point the woman wakes up sitting next to her husband in the plane, experiences even more déjà vu, and is killed in the crash. (And then, of course, ends up back in the car.)  What I like about the King story is that, rather than being about the repetition of torture, it presents repetition as torture. It also takes place in a series of overlapping dreams, which nicely echoes the structure of “The Circular Ruins.”

     Ultimately, what I prefer about the inescapable-style loop story is that it uses the idea of recursion to complicate the narrative rather than resolve it, and in doing so forces us to have a tiny little face-to-face with something that makes us uncomfortable. I’ll admit it’s not much, and it’s certainly not Borges, but it’s something. 


  1. I think that's the reason I enjoy Memento so much; while not as much a loop as some of the Star Trek episodes, only at the 'end' of the film do you realize he is in a loop at all.

  2. Memento is one of those movies that I'm afraid to re-watch. I remember really liking it when I was 18, but I'm nervous that it won't hold up.

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