Oct 172016


Fiction is a construction that arranges space and has a structure that defines spatial relationships. As such it is a kind of architecture, but its structure, especially in our more challenging, more exploratory fictions cannot be pictured as the simple pyramid Freytag gave us years ago. Matteo Pericoli, architect, author, and illustrator, has students explore these relationships and make them visible in models they build in his Laboratory of Literary Architecture, a workshop he has taught around the world. As he says:

In any real architectural project, there are ideas that need to be designed and conveyed, a supporting structure, sequences of spaces, surprises and suspensions, hierarchies of space and function, and so on. In creative writing, many of the challenges seem to be similar. For example, how should different strands of narrative be intertwined? How can chronology be rearranged in a plot sequence? How is tension expressed? What do certain narrative sequences and omissions convey or mean? How do characters connect?

And he cites Alice Munro, from her Selected Stories:

A story is not like a road to follow … it’s more like a house. You go inside and stay there for a while, wandering back and forth and settling where you like and discovering how the room and corridors relate to each other, how the world outside is altered by being viewed from these windows. And you, the visitor, the reader, are altered as well by being in this enclosed space, whether it is ample and easy or full of crooked turns, or sparsely or opulently furnished. You can go back again and again, and the house, the story, always contains more than you saw the last time. It also has a sturdy sense of itself of being built out of its own necessity, not just to shelter or beguile you.

Above, Katherine Treppendahl’s model of Joyce’s Ulysses.

This model represents my interpretation of the structural relationships within James Joyce’s Ulysses. While the novel occurs over the course of just one day, the text is lengthy, rich and exhaustive. The central story is that of salesman wandering Dublin. But revolving around and within that story are thousands of others—both internal stories developed within the novel and allusions to stories external to the text. The primary external text is, of course, Homer’s Odyssey, and the chapters and characters in Joyce’s novel reflect scenes and characters from Homer’s story. I developed an architectural language for translating multiple aspects of the structure of the novel. This language takes into account the progression from realism to abstraction in the text, the shifting roles of and intersections between key characters, the passage of time, the interior stylistic parallels, and the reader’s journey through the text.

Her full analysis of the model is extensive and can be found at her site here.


W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, by Joss Lake in collaboration with Stephanie Jones.

The structure is a tall and narrow space, reflecting both the vast scope of the book as well as the intimacy of the reading experience. An uneven path is suspended along metal supports, and gradually rises and falls across the entire length of the structure. The path’s shape is dictated by the fragmented and surprising nature of the narrative, in which the novel leaps from subject to subject through unconventional avenues, such as the documentary playing in the narrator’s hotel room … The darkness of the tall and narrow space is broken by clusters of light bulbs. The constellations of lights are not comforting; they too are disconcerting … These light bulbs are the core of the novel, the details that Sebald, and his narrator, use to recover the past.


Amy Hempel’s essentially plotless story “The Harvest” derives its motion and containment elsewhere. Ytav Bouhsira, Barbara Clinton, Silvia Jost, Eithne Reynolds created this solution.

The different planes of understanding cause discomfort for the reader. So compelling was the story that reading it was likened to being on a fast train and unable to get off.

We developed models to better reflect our understanding of what the structure of the story would look like and to give the story its spatial form. What emerged were models with airy layers, corners and angles. Through discussion, we realized that we were more comfortable with a form that shows that the author tries by different planes to adjust the story again and again.

While our structure is layered, these layers to not overlap. Rather than giving the reader more information, they show a different attempt of place-making. They have connection and are built one upon the other. There are no pillars or stairs that hold the building together. The space and the structure are the same.

What makes our building inhabitable is that the ground and roof are speaking the same material language. They create a system that allows the narrative to work. The different layers connect with the roof at just one single point–which reflects the moment in the narration where the author talks to us directly in the text and disrupts the narration.

The models are interesting in their own right and take on a life of their own. They could serve as starting points for other fictions.

All text from his site, all pictures © Matteo Pericoli, with his generous permission. More pictures of these models and other models can be found there. Matteo also, along with Giuseppe Franco, has begun a series of Literary Architecture projects in The Paris Review Daily that can be found here.

I had to try my own, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.


The first thought is to make a winding corridor into density and darkness. But really the stalled trip up the river only provides an intensification of what we see in glimpses at the beginning. The plot does not develop anything we haven’t seen before and resolves nothing. It is not a novel of action, but of Marlow’s discovery and perception.

My model, like the novel, rests on water. Marlow tells his story while on the Thames waiting for the tide, makes his trip on a river, and the novel ends with the narrator’s gaze on “the tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth.” Instead of a plot line my model takes its structure from a rational grid of streets the color of blood. Rising from the grid a crystalline city, or a section of one. The novel shows us almost nothing of Africa or its people. What we most see instead, and what I show, is the western imposition and exploitation. As Marlow tells us, “All Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz,” and it was the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs who commissioned him to write the report on which he later scrawled “Exterminate all the brutes!”


“The meaning of an episode,” the narrator tells us of Marlow’s story, “was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze.” Marlow’s encounter with Kurtz throws “a kind of light on everything about me—and into my thoughts.” My model captures this glow in reflected lights, but instead of the sought transcendence we have transparency of motive. There is no green in the model. I rejected Conrad’s notion that darkness was inherent in nature. We largely see nature in the novel as an obstruction or source for plunder. The darkness in the heart of Africa comes from ourselves, our contradictions, our corrupt projections.

Gary Garvin

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