Inciting incident, rising action, climax, denouement: these are terms that might make anyone with an advanced degree in literature roll their eyes. Freytag’s Pyramid, a basic diagram for plot structure that resembles a lopsided triangle, has been drawn on so many middle school chalkboards that it is easy to sneer at. Surely we have moved beyond such simplistic ways of telling stories. Yet a large portion of contemporary fiction follows a version of this model, for the simple reason that it works, providing narrative tension and emotional payoff.
Two recent novels demonstrate the promises and the hazards of throwing conventional structure to the wind. Neither Romane Bladou’s Atlantique Nord (North Atlantic) nor Daniel Grenier’s Héroïnes et tombeaux (Heroines and tombs) could be accurately described as experimental. They have identifiable characters and plausible settings. But both reach for cohesion through resonance rather than causality, with parallels between people and situations taking the place of a linear plot.
Atlantique Nord is currently a finalist for the Prix des Rendez-vous du premier roman, an awards program in which book clubs from across Quebec crown a best first novel. Bladou herself is a visual artist originally from France, and her debut is a kind of tetraptych, with four discrete parts that comment on one another’s themes. The first section revolves around Camille, a young Québécoise whose ennui leads her to the Bonavista Peninsula, in Newfoundland: “She cannot go any further, and that’s a good enough reason to stay.” On the Scottish isle of Mull, young William observes the fracturing of his parents’ relationship in the second section. The third shifts to Iceland, where Lou, a specialist in lumpfish, mourns his vanished brother. In the final segment, Bladou allows for some overlap between storylines. In Brittany, Célia debates what to do after high school; she turns out to be the younger sister of the girlfriend whom Lou has abandoned in favour of solitude.
The novel is invested above all in imagery, with poems that appear between the segments to stylize the migration of lumpfish in “our Atlantic house.” By privileging the natural habitat of a species over artificial nation-states, Bladou explores how far-flung locations remain linked by the omnipresence of salt water, wind, tides, and cliffs. From the first sentence —“Camille found refuge on a slippery crag”— she foregrounds the strange salvation sought in these seemingly hostile locations. Near the end, another character, seeking answers to human questions through an immersion in nature, observes that “there are landscapes that we use as a grey slate for our emotions.”
The appeal of this four-part structure for a new writer is obvious: Bladou is freed from the need to sustain a plot for more than sixty pages, providing portraits instead. At times, though, readers are torn away from characters just as they begin to develop. William’s section reaches an effective conclusion, but Camille is paused in mid‑flight. She starts a relationship, aware that in the past she has changed too much for men, but the narrative moves on before we learn if this time will be different. The final two parts are more satisfying because they mirror each other, demonstrating the dissolution of a couple from the side of the man who takes off as well as from the perspective of the woman who is left behind. Nonetheless, there is a touch too much teen angst here in the form of Célia’s disenchantment, as her self-reflexive commentary on clichés does not prevent her from being one.
Where Bladou deals in sketches, Grenier commits to layers. His intertwined narratives jostle for pre-eminence and threaten to swallow one another, at times rather literally in a book haunted by cannibals. Héroïnes et tombeaux follows the journalist Alexandra as she investigates the fate of Ambrose Bierce, an American writer who vanished in 1913 when he decided to join the Mexican Revolution. Alexandra has reason to suspect he ended up in the inland port of Uruguaiana, Brazil, where eventually she secures a manuscript, titled “Report on Cannibals,” that he may have written. She is also haunted by other disappearances, including that of Helen Klaben, a real person who was stranded in the Yukon after a plane crash and survived to write a memoir, Hey, I’m Alive! The fictional Françoise, a young Québécoise with whom Alexandra once traipsed across North America, went missing after a hike to Klaben’s crash site. These accounts act as cautionary tales about being consumed by stories, as obsessions interfere with more basic survival instincts.
Grenier is on his third novel, after having been shortlisted for a Governor General’s Award for his 2015 debut, L’année la plus longue (The Longest Year). His work as a translator demonstrates his commitment to diversifying Quebec’s literary culture; a white francophone himself, he has translated writers like Dimitri Nasrallah, Anita Anand, and Sigal Samuel, who depict Lebanese, South Asian, and Jewish Montrealers respectively. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that Grenier’s own novel reflects on the politics of representation. Bierce’s lost manuscript describes his encounters with Brazil’s literary and artistic avant-garde in the 1920s, notably Oswald de Andrade, author of the famed “Cannibalist Manifesto.” A series of provocative aphorisms, this document from 1928 takes the ritual cannibalism of the Amazonian Tupi as a starting point for how Brazilians should relate to European culture. Andrade thus reframes the Portuguese colonizers as “refugees from a civilization we are eating.”
In what may be a fit of paranoia, Grenier’s Bierce literalizes the metaphor, convincing himself that these artists are actually consuming human flesh. But he also questions Andrade’s appropriation of Tupi culture: “Don’t you find that there is a form of condescension, even arrogance, toward Amazonian Indigenous peoples that really practised cannibalism?” Andrade replies that Bierce is projecting based on his experience in the American West, arguing that he “will never understand Brazil” and should return to the North, where people prefer clear answers over mystery. To complicate matters further, Héroïnes et tombeaux is a partial rewrite of Ernesto Sabato’s Sobre heroes y tumbas (On Heroes and Tombs). Bierce’s manuscript echoes “Report on the Blind,” a portion of that Argentine classic, in which one Fernando Vidal Olmos insists that society is run by a conspiracy of blind men who want to murder him. In Grenier’s book, Vidal Olmos reappears to mingle with historical figures. The lines between homage and appropriation, symbol and action, fiction and reality blur. Among Bierce, de Andrade, Grenier, and Sabato, it’s not clear who is threatening to devour whom.
The framing narrative adds even more layers, as Grenier takes Samantha, a secondary figure from his own novel Françoise en dernier (Françoise last of all), and reveals that her real name is Alexandra, in reference to one of Sabato’s characters. Alexandra’s obsession with Bierce is filial; she is introduced to the writer’s work by her absent father, who offers to bankroll her increasingly perilous investigation. In a subtle feminist shift, she realizes that “the destiny of Françoise Mercier was as important as that of Ambrose Bierce” and tries to understand her friend’s fate as well.
The whole affair is doused in metafictional reflections. At one point, Alexandra realizes she is in danger of thinking like a writer instead of a journalist. She has “almost passed the point of no return in creating links between events that have nothing to do with each other.” This is, of course, precisely the reading strategy that Héroïnes et tombeaux demands. But is Grenier asking for too much? How many threads from how many literary traditions should any one reader be expected to follow? Like Sabato’s work, this novel tends toward meditation over action. It ends ambiguously, during what may be the COVID‑19 pandemic or a zombie apocalypse. Grenier is admirably ambitious, as he links the writers and wildernesses of North and South America in order to stage a hemispheric imaginary. Yet the connections he makes are so tangled that his story trips over them.
The frustrating elements of these books show the wisdom in the old triangle, where events follow logically from one another and climaxes are expected to yield clarity. Abandoning this march toward a summit does allow Grenier and Bladou to wander more widely across geographies and intertexts, however. Even if these journeys end without a strong sense of arrival, there’s exhilaration in abandoning the map.
Amanda Perry teaches literature at Concordia University and Champlain College Saint-Lambert.