Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Glennon's Dodecahedron

The Dodecahedron: or, a Frame for Frames / Paul Glennon
Erin, ON: Porcupine's Quill Press, c2005
224 p.

A suitable book with which to begin a new year full of bookish talk and reviews, The Dodecahedron is all about books, text, and the elusive nature of written truth. It is a collection of twelve stories which, while not linked in a traditional manner, do refer to one another as narratives. It begins with a tale of a young boy who literally eats his father's library page by page to keep it from an unnamed but menacing SS style of police force. There are stories of a monastery up in the edges of the Arctic Circle who spend the months of dark dreaming and the months of daylight creating manuscripts filled with their dreams and visions of alternate history. And there are many other creative and fascinating characters and situations -- a collector of messages in bottles, a polygamist, a lost Arctic explorer, and many others. One thing I did notice however, is that the stories are all very male, with men as the main characters and quite a masculine feel to the text. And perhaps the style of the narrative is also quite male, in that there are arbitrary limits set which shape the structure of the book -- this is something I think male authors find more appealing, generally.

Glennon set his own limits on his "novel of sorts" by following Oulipian principles (OuLiPo is a group of mostly French authors who create literature based on arbitrary constraints of their own making). Glennon explains these principles in the book’s afterword:

Each chapter was to be as self-contained and whole as any short story. As in a story cycle, each story would cast a new light on the ones that preceded it, and promote a novel-like unity of themes. What I did not want to write was a cyclical book, in which the final story is the final word, a story with more authority than all others, one that casts a sort of judgment on the rest ... I envisioned a book in which each of the twelve chapters or stories represented a face of the dodecahedron ... In A Frame for Frames these sides represent a relationship to an adjacent story…Each story must refer to or be referred to by each of the five stories adjacent to it.

I'm not sure about all the literary principles, but Glennon certainly succeeded in making each story equally authoritative. Even after reading them all and then going back to a couple of them for a second look, it is never hinted anywhere that one or any of the stories is the final authority on what to believe about all these linked narratives. It's a wonderful read for that reason, even if I did have favourites --and not so favourites -- among the stories. But, because it is so self-consciously literary, with the dense interrelated stories spiraling off into mind-bending directions at times, I did have to read it quite slowly. One story, put it down and think, then another the next day.

It was an intriguing read, certainly, and one a bookish reader may enjoy.

Paul Glennon, born in England but resident in Ottawa since 1975, has been published in Descant, Matrix, Canadian Fiction Magazine, and the Blue Penny Quarterly. He has an MA from the University of Ottawa and currently works in the software industry. He also has a young adult series on the go.


  1. I loved this book but though it was nominated for a GG, so few people seem to have read it!

    If you don't mind though, I'd like you to expand on the "And perhaps the style of the narrative is also quite male, in that there are arbitrary limits set which shape the structure of the book -- this is something I think male authors find more appealing, generally" comment. Not that I disagree necessarily, but I'm curious as to what you're basing that on. It's a very interesting comment!

  2. Actually, John, I was hoping some of my readers might share their opinions. I wavered on including that statement, as it sounds kind of broad -- I guess what I mean is that I find a lot of the writers who do things like "OuLiPo", and set artificial constraints on their writing, seem to be male. I don't know if that is because it is a way of making a writing project into a game of sorts, which men may be more inclined to do, or because women already have so many constraints they don't need to make any more up. Or, it could be a North American thing -- perhaps women in France are also fascinated by these kinds of arbitrary limits. Anyhow, it is just my impression and I haven't done any statistical analysis on it!

  3. Oh yay, glad to read your post on this as I'm planning to read it later this year with the Wolves group. It sounds fantastic!

    Re: the gender imbalance, there indeed were/are female members of the Oulipo group (Wikipedia has a list), although the most famous members have been male. There are certainly female writers working within constraints, though - take Anne Carson's recent Nox poem, in which each left-hand page was a dictionary definition of a word from a Catullus poem, and each right-hand page was a piece of text/image/correspondence from Carson herself. Similarly, Jamaica Kincaid, Veronique Tadjo and Sophie Calle all have pieces that involve telling the same story over and over again with slight differences, reminiscent of Raymond Queneau's Exercises in Style.

    And I mean, "constraints" - what does that really mean? All poets, when you think about it, are working with a constrained framework, particularly those who write established verse forms rather than free verse. And certainly there are plenty of female poets. :-)

  4. Emily - thanks for your great addition to this topic...I hadn't thought about poetry specifically & you are of course right, poetry is really all about working within form. Regarding fiction, I appreciate your examples -- I was a bit lazy and didn't do my research before making such a sweeping gender-based statement!

    I suppose I was just thinking of the preponderance of male writers in such 'groups' as OuLiPo when I wrote this post. As you say, many women do use structures of some kind - I'm even thinking of Diane Schoemperlen, who I love, as an example.

    My feeling was, though, that fiction based on arbitrary rules that must be held to above all may be more appealing to male writers.

  5. Just wanted to write a thank you for your kind review of The Dodecahedron. Glad to hear you enjoyed it.

    Happy New Year!

    Caleigh the intern at the Porcupine's Quill

  6. Interesting comments. When I think of examples, I guess I come up with more male authors/poets as well.


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