Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Parallel Lines: The Geometry of Story

 You'd not given much thought to parallel lines until you were forced to define what the term meant, then prove the lines were truly parallel. This came about in the eleventh grade, when you were introduced to geometry and an aspect of yourself you'd had some experience with but had not defined to your satisfaction.

By the time you'd reached grade eleven, the habit was already in place: If a question were raised by a teacher or, for that matter, any adult in authority, you'd volunteer an answer to that question, whether you had a rehearsed answer in mind or not. This is a euphemistic way of saying you were alert to answering questions, whether you knew their answer or not.

There is one more confessional detail at work here: Your answer might have been invented on the spot. It might have had a significant degree of accuracy, a modicum of it, or none at all. Much as you enjoyed having the right answer at hand or being able to make an intelligent guess at the answer, you also enjoyed being able to have your answer, however much it varied from the actual answer, taken as though it were accurate.

Back then, as well as now, the word "lie" as in untruth, did not enter the equation, rather the word fabrication, sometimes used as a euphemism for telling one or more lies, was your pole star, if not the teacher/adult to whom you were venturing your answer.

You did not at the time have the strength of sense that such fabrications were versions of play or build-up to what has become your career path choices. You were more interested in seeing to what degree your impromptu answers were challenged.

By the time you were confronted with the matter of parallel lines, your answer. which was you speaking spontaneously, posited parallel lines as two lines that were always the same distance apart. The teacher nodded acceptance, but added her observation that your answer, while right, was only an average answer, leaving room for greater accuracy. 

To that effect, you added, these lines, by their nature, would never meet. The teacher said your answer bumped you up to a C+, meaning there were still other qualities or conditions to be observed. With a wink,the teacher allowed that for the sake of geometry and mathematics, parallel lines meet in infinity.

You think of that teacher to this day--Ms. Krantz, she was--when you observe in fiction-writing classes that in geometry,parallel lines meet in infinity, but in stories, they meet in the last act, or in the reader's mind.  Much as it troubles you to use such absolute words as always and never, you offer the observation that a narrative without parallel lines is never a story; some thematic or cultural base must always be present in order to transform the narrative, which, however engaging and sublime, into a story, which has as a major constituent the sense of dimension and at least a sense of parallel development.

Often--note, often, not always--a story will appear to be lacking the parallel line, a classic example being Edgar Allen Poe's famed short story, "A Cask of Amontillado," in which so many of the requisite dramatic elements are placed with such adroitness. The narrator tells us in so many words that he has reached the breaking point when being teased and ranked on by the snobbish Fortunato, who has gone too far when insulting the narrator's family.

From this point, pun intended, the construction is brick-and-mortar. The reader sees the narrator in the process of successful orchestration of his revenge, even to the point of paying off on an earlier iteration of his family motto in Latin with the valedictory In pace, requiescat. But where, the reader might ask, are the parallel lines? If the reader will like, the parallel line is in the reader's head: Surely this is not the first time the narrator has dined out on this story. Surely he has told it before, many times, making him the doppelganger of the snob on whom he sought revenge.

For all the difficulties geometry gave you--you had to take it three times before it made sense--you extracted from it the ability to design the typographical layout of books, and the understanding  that story not only required at least two parallel lines, it required your awareness of how, when, and where these parallel lines meet.

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