“Stories unbound”: freedom from shackles or dangerous anarchy?

The theme of last year’s Melbourne Writers Festival was “Stories Unbound”. I didn’t get to much of the festival and so I didn’t really get to see how this idea played out, though I have just now come across the Stories Unbound website, which looks intriguing. At the time the organisers were inviting people to write on the idea of “Stories Unbound”, for some kind of prize, I don’t remember what. I did draft something, but never got around to sending it in. So now I’m recycling!

Frankly, the idea of an unbound story fills me with anxiety. Without the stitching and glue, without the pages safely bound within their covers, it is so easy to let the text block slip and fall to the floor, pages scattering!

Trying to discern some meaning from such a muddle may suit the likes of David Bowie, who reportedly would write songs by taking random words, mixing them around and then rendering them grammatical. However, let’s take a moment to consider the results of such a scheme: Jean Genie “ate all your razors while pulling the waiters” and furthermore talked “bout monroe while walking on snow white”.

Unbound, a story has no structure. Freedom from structure may be beguiling to anarchists, snow white sniffers and Terence Malick fans, but I would argue that structure is beauty and that a craving for structure is embedded in our DNA. We’ll impose structure, even when there is none (cf Terence Malick). Human beings are meaning machines. Indeed, many scientists believe that dreams are just a series of random images being processed by our subconscious and that our brain just can’t help itself making up a story about them – it makes them grammatical.

When we’re awake, though, we need more concrete guidance. There’s a reason we’re attracted to Mandlebrot patterns and images of mushroom clouds or space shuttle exhaust trails – these are images with a perceptible beginning and end, a structure! A potential story! Who puts pictures of random spaghetti coils on their wall? Nobody worth mentioning here and ruining my argument, that’s who. There is no story in spaghetti*.

However, all this doesn’t mean you can’t have fun with the binding. Western-style books typically have a front and back cover and a series of pages to be read consecutively in between. But there is by no means one style of binding. (Though many are not particularly commercially viable, owing to their complexity). There are Japanese accordion-style books, complex folding arrangements, pop-ups, scrolls. The concept of a “virtual” binding opens up even more structural possibilities. Today, a story is bound by a plastic case, a touch-sensitive glass screen and a secret network of wires, cables and receivers. The bound story can now include music, sound, images. The possibilities are endless.

*Unless the spaghetti is western

Dangerously unbound bits of paper