Where is Alice, Anyway?
CHAPTER 4..................................................................................................................34 Key world-building rules and narrative strategies applicable to Dreamriders
3.6 Creating multi-stranded or parallel plots
Jean Ricardo called this ‘variable reality’: that is, a supposedly ‘real’ representation is revealed to have been
merely virtual (an illusion, secondary representation or dream) — or vice versa.107 Alice alludes to multi-
stranded or parallel plots in the dream-within-a-dream motif and in relation to the many-doored hallway, but comes back to the primary diegesis at the end. The Matrix also uses clear diegetic levels, whereas Three
Stigmata completely befuddles by suppressing differences between distinct narrative levels. An example of
variable reality is the 1998 film eXistenZ, which begins with a focus group getting ready to play a prototype virtual reality game with the game’s designer, Allegra Geller. The consoles are part biological, part
mechanical, so they could be said to be ‘unreal’, but the film establishes its textual actual world a little way in our future, so readers aren’t driven to question the validity of this ‘reality’.
Before the focus group can begin playing, an attempt is made on Allegra’s life, so she and Ted Pikul, a company representative, flee. Her console is injured, so she must connect with it to check its diagnostics.
People connect to the consoles through a port at the base of their spine.108 As Allegra and Ted’s journey
unfolds they have to play more and more games to fulfil the challenges they face. At some points they disengage from the game(s) to continue fleeing their pursuers.
Its narrative spirals (up and down) through the diegetic levels numerous times. In this way the diegetic levels (game-within-a-game-within-a-game) get confused; the representation of ‘reality’ becomes too unstable for the reader to respond to ‘appropriately’ (each diegetic level looks like each other level); and
readers are encouraged into mistaking nested representations for the ‘primary’ diegesis (‘reality’).109
Different assumptions lead to different conclusions about the ending (and beginning). For example: Scenario 1: If we assume that the initial diegetic level is ‘reality’ then at the end, the film uses the device of a missing end frame. We have simply dropped down to an embedded narrative level without returning to the primary diegesis.
106 Multi-stranded or parallel plots play simultaneously in separate ontological domains, including ‘reality’ and computer- generated ‘virtual worlds’. See Ryan.
107 Jean Ricardou, ‘Réalitiés, variables, varients réelles’ Problèmes du nouveau roman (Paris: Seuil, 1967) 23–43, cited McHale 116. 108 There is a semi-erotic tone to these ports. They are very sensitive and connecting to the console involves penetrating the port/hole with a long phallic extension of the console. According to McHale, The use of erotic, luridly melodramatic or horrifically violent materials is an often-used strategy with these types of texts (e.g. Les Corps conducteurs, 1971; Tryptique; Double
or Nothing; Mantissa, 1982; and throughout William S. Burroughs’ fiction). The function of such materials in recursive structures
is to intensify ontological instability, titillating or horrifying readers so they will resist having to ‘surrender’ the reality of these materials when they are, in the case of recursive structures, dropped down one narrative level. McHale 116.
Scenario 2: If we assume that the diegetic level where the film ends is reality, then, retrospectively, we entered the film somewhere in the middle of the diegetic hierarchy.
Scenarios 3…onwards: We can then go on to make four or five assumptions about which diegetic level we entered the film at, so for each possible beginning (reality, or level 1, or level 2, or level 3, or level 4) there is a different possible end point. No matter how hard readers look for the primary diegesis none can be found because each different beginning point reveals a different end point and vice versa. The film is a multi-level structure that spirals in on itself, so it is impossible to figure out which narrative level (ontology)
is hierarchically superior and which is subordinate.110
The power of this strategy comes from its hesitation to commit to one narrative hierarchy. This challenges the ‘ontological landscape’ of a culture. Such an analysis is useful, according to Thomas Pavel, in
understanding the actual world as a construct of many realities (‘paramount’, ‘peripheral’, ‘marginal’)
because actual world culture ‘involves different domains’ which contains competing meanings.111 These
domains or meanings (or possible worlds) may occupy a single plane; may occupy double spaces
simultaneously (e.g. sacred and profane levels of reality); or may be plural planes, organised into a central
ontology and several peripheral (competing) ontologies (e.g. work, leisure, faith).112 By foregrounding
seemingly marginal ideas, thoughts, non-actual possibilities, norms and ontologies authors re-order these domains and realities. They may place them in conflict with one another or foreground one more than another. By doing this authors displace and rupture the automatic associations of actual world experience, reconfigure mental landscapes and encourage speculation.
110 McHale 120.
111 Pavel, cited McHale 36. 112 McHale 36–38.
Key world-building rules and narrative strategies applicable to Dreamriders
Dreamrider n. a person unable to dream, so to experience dreams he/she must physically enter the Dreaming and attach or hitch-hike onto others’ dreams. To dreamriders, dreams are indistinguishable from Waking Reality.
– DERIVATIVES –dreamriding v. the act of riding another’s dream.
– The Anglo-American Cyclopedia (New York, 1917)113
Dreamriders delves into the dark places, the happy places, the beautiful places and the funny places that
dreams inhabit and that inhabit dreams. It imagines what would happen if dreams became real, if they leapt out from our sleep and danced and sang and cried with us. It is a novel of ideas; it goes to great lengths to articulate those ideas; it holds a mirror up to our dreams, our desires, our passions, our fears, our myths, our realities; and it searches for meanings in the places where there often seems to be no meaning at all. As Ben Okri states in his essay ‘The Human Race is Not Yet Free’: ‘We live inside the dreams of others. We might be imprisoned in them.’114 Dreamriders sets out to test those claims.
Dreamriders explores marginalisation, identity, the search for place and meaning and displacement. In the
beginning the Waking and Dreaming are separate, although connected, states of affairs. When the Waking and the Dreaming leak together, a New Reality (possible world) with both Waking and Dreaming elements is created where norms and assumptions previously logically ‘true’ or ‘false’ are no longer such. No one from the Awake can sleep and the Awake become irrational, paranoid, nervous and neurotic. There is tension between the Awake themselves, and there is fear and mistrust between the Awake and the Dreamers. The two main characters — Lisa and Turtle (both dreamriders) — are separated when the New Reality is created, and must attempt to find one another and to put things ‘back to normal’. Through their journeys they realise that when the Waking and Dreaming are separate states of affairs dreamriders are marginal, but in the New Reality dreamriders have a role to play because what made them marginal before actually makes them the best equipped to deal with the New Reality. It’s more logical for them to exist in the New Reality rather than trying to straddle an existence where the Waking and Dreaming are separate.
113 Reference/homage to Jorge Luis Borges ‘Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’, 27–43 Labyrinths (New York: Penguin 1964). 114 Ben Okri, ‘The Human Race is Not Yet Free’, 49–61 A Way of Being Free (London: Phoenix House, 1997) 53.