This article tracks the evolution of the concept “event” through several iterations in narrative theory, from the compact, nugget-like verbal object favored in structuralist accounts, through the expanded multipart schema adapted from cognitive studies, to a more recent dynamic conception that treats events less like things than systems. Contemporary cognitive approaches allow the recognition of events as subject to change over the course of reading and beyond, allowing a more capacious analysis than simply identifying ambiguity. In an analysis of core examples of unnatural narrative (types most generally accepted as unnatural), the “event-as-system” concept is shown to be versatile in dealing with complex, problematic event types, including cases where events are posited and then negated, or proposed and then continuously revised— cases that problematize notions of the event and of eventfulness. The article uses as case studies Samuel Beckett’s novel Molloy, Brian Singer’s film The Usual Suspects, Robert Coover’s short story “The Babysitter,” and Shelley Jackson’s novel Half Life and argues that a more effective approach to such texts, via the event-as-system model, will not only better illuminate how they work but also allow a more radical reexamination of the category “event” itself than unnatural narratology has yet undertaken. The article concludes by sketching out the trajectories for such a larger project.
Event: From Object to Schema to System
Christopher D. Kilgore holds an MFA in creative writing (fiction) from Saint Mary’s College of California and a PhD in English from the University of Tennessee. He has published on narrative theory, graphic novels, and interdisciplinary writing instruction. He currently serves as writing resource coordinator for the School of Social Work, and teaches for the English Department, at the University of Texas at Arlington.
Dan Irving is a doctoral candidate at Stony Brook University. His research focuses on readers’ experiences of low-narrativity texts in contemporary literature and culture. He has published work on cognitive-oriented narrative theory in Frontiers of Narrative Studies, CounterText, and Enthymema.