There’s a story my mother likes to tell—probably to demonstrate that I’ve been pedantic from a very young age. She says that when I first saw the 1987 movie, Roxanne*, when I was about 10, I asked her if the movie was Cyrano de Bergerac. To this day, I have no idea where I first learned about Cyrano de Bergerac. At any rate, I’ve been seeing connections between stories for almost twenty-four years**. I have always been a bookworm. And a pedant. I have made my peace with this.
This bit of autobiography also shows that I’ve always been practicing comparative literature. And, lately, I have been reading a lot of books that—at first blush—don’t have much in common with each other. Earlier this year, I saw parallels between The Reader, by Bernhard Schlink, and Alias Grace, by Margaret Atwood. Now it’s Yann Martel’s The Life of Pi and The Girl in the Road, by Monica Byrne.
Even more serendipitous, I recently read an article Rachel Cordasco wrote an article for Book Riot about reading books in chronological order so that readers could see how books referenced previous literature. (We have no evidence of this, but there was probably some Greek critic saying that Homer was derivative.)
Reading chronological might help other readers spot references and parallels, but apart from not being practical for most readers***, I don’t think it’s enough to prime a reader to see all the strands that connect disparate stories. The more I read, the more I see the written world as an infinitely tangled web. The connecting strands are rarely intentional. (Most of them probably are unintentional.) It’s almost as if there’s a big meta-narrative forming out of literature.
Let me explain with an example. The link I see between The Life of Pi and The Girl in the Road is the question that unreliable narrators force readers to confront, but with a twist. Rather than asking whether or not to believe none, some, or all of what an unreliable tells us, these two books, I think, ask why we should make a deliberate choice between literal truth and narrative truth. These books also ask whether it’s possible to believe both truths at the same time. (I think it’s possible, by the way.) I chose to read The Girl in the Road because the reviews were excellent and the plot synopses I saw hooked my interest. I was stunned to find that it asked the same question The Life of Pi asks at its conclusion. It was serendipity. It was also the appearance of a new strand in the story web.
Seeing all these connections between stories is making me really want to write official literary criticism again.
* Still one of my favorite movies.
** Yeah, you can do the math.
*** I don’t know about other readers, but I tend to read what I’m in the mood for most of the time and try to bounce around through different genres.