"Writers have proposed other shapes or patterns for narrative, too. Italo Calvino says that in Invisible Cities he was thinking of a crystal’s shape and “built up a many-faceted structure in which each brief text is close to the others in a series that does not imply logical sequence or a hierarchy, but a network in which one can follow multiple routes and draw multiple, ramified conclusions.” Gottfried Benn spoke of an orange-shaped narrative, in which segments radiate from or lean toward a central pith. Ross Chambers coined the (terrible) term loiterature for narratives that can be labyrinthine, digressing extravagantly. And Joseph Frank launched much of this discussion with “The Idea of Spatial Form,” where he describes a kind of fiction in which juxtaposition or association replaces temporal order, sense not arising from linearity but from puzzle-like compositions or networks.
I was looking for ways to create forward motion in narrative that didn’t rely on the linear arc when I happened upon W. G. Sebald, twenty years ago. In The Emigrants, he seemed to work with patterns that yielded connections and meaning, rather than anything linear. Since then, I’ve sought powerful narratives with structures other than an arc, structures that create an inner sensation of traveling toward something and leave a sense of shape behind—not just slice-of-life. I dissected some of the most effective, unusual narratives to see what they had in common, and what I found: shapes recurring in these texts coincide with core patterns in nature"