Liu Zixian is a graduate of the University of Glasgow with a Master’s degree in Children’s Literature and Literacies. His primary research interests focus on material culture in children’s literature, ergodic literature, visual texts in monochrome, as well as cognitive and evolutionary approaches to children’s literature. He is a pro-active MOOC learner and has accomplished more than thirty online courses, including five specialised courses on neuroscience.
The aim of my master’s dissertation was to explore the embodiment of the fictive memory system. The fictive memory system is the faculty of the fictional mind invented by the fiction and mediated by the real reader through which the literary content functions as a vehicle for forming and developing the intersubjective connection between the mind of the real reader and the mind of the fictional character. In other words, the textually constructed memories become available and approachable to the actual mind.
My research was concerned primarily with the following questions:
(1) What are the key factors involved in forming the intersubjective experience shared between the real reader and the character in the fiction, that is, constructing the fictive memory system?
(2) How might a real reader perceive and synthesise the discourse presented in the fiction by means of the fictive memory system?
My research sets out to explore and expand upon Brian Selznick’s intention to use pictorial narrative techniques to construct the fictive memory system throughout his latest book The Marvels (2015). The Marvels is divided into three sections: the first section in pictures titled ‘1766’, the second section in prose titled ‘1990’, and a final pictorial section. Set in London, the first section uses wordless pencil drawings to depict the life stories of a legendary theatrical family, the Marvels, and ends in 1900 with a mysterious prospect of the descendent Leontes Marvel. The second section, however, recounts how the protagonist, Joseph Jervis, tries to figure out the mystery of Leontes, as well as his possible relationship to the Marvels. Two craftily parallel stories, separated by 90 years in time, heighten the work’s suspense. The third section depicts the life of Joshep as a grown-up.
Selznick indicated that the first section in his book was intended to fabricate the memories of the Marvels family for the readerly remembrance (Logue 2015), and therefore, my discussion centres prominently on how the pictures in the first section can serve as a mediator to foreground the prose in the second section. The readerly remembrance brings about a kind of empathetic conjunct attention when a real reader switches from the first section to the second section in order to make sense of the Marvel family story alongside the protagonist’s quest for understanding his connection to the Marvels in the second section. Such conjunct attention shared by the real reader and the character then lends itself to the mental functioning of the fictive memory system that can give the pictorial memories some verisimilitude for the readerly perception.
As a result of the mental functioning of remembrance, collective memory—that is, the intersubjective experience linking the actual mind with the fictional mind—appears as a constituent part of the discourse in this book, as well as an important cognitive mechanism underlying the readerly aesthetic response. The understanding of collective memory is at least twofold. In one sense, collective memory is a kind of fictitious episodic memory (Ridley 2016), which refers to the acquired knowledge and readerly understanding of the events happened between 1766 and 1900. Consequently, the first section functions as the fictive memories about the Marvel family history which correspond to the protagonist’s knowledge and understanding of his possible relationship to the Marvels. The formation of collective memory in the readerly mind relies upon the temporal structure that bridges the gap between the two scenarios separated by 90 years, which then articulates a readerly assumption about the possible relationship between the protagonist and the Marvels as a means to interpret the connections between the two sections.
In another sense, the nature of the collectiveness is mind socialisation (Bogdan 2000). Collective memory is transported between the actual mind and the fictional mind, in which case the protagonist’s assumption (this is, that he might be a distant relative of the Marvels) might convince the reader. The reader then might be engrossed in the mystery of Leontes as the protagonist did, and therefore, the riveting account of Leontes’ destiny might motivate the active readerly involvement in the second section - together with the protagonist’s investigation into his own family history. Such involvement lays the basis for the embodiment of the fictional mind through the actual mind. The protagonist’s confusion and concern about the Marvels and Leontes might be reflected in the reader’s own confusion and concern about the gap between 1900 and 1990 while reading the second section. Meanwhile, the reader might be able to impersonate the protagonist with reference to their mutual confusions and concerns of the mystery of Leontes.
A secondary purpose of this dissertation was to provide an alternative approach to visual literature research. Thus, I proposed cognitive surface reading as the theoretical lens to examine The Marvels. Surface reading, coined by Best and Marcus (2009), suggests that literary criticism should focus on the ‘evident, perceptible, apprehensible’ attributes of literary texts which are able to articulate the meaning in depth (ibid.: 9). Building on Best and Marcus’ proposition, I develop a cognitive account of surface reading that includes four rationales:
(1) Cognitive surface as an embodiment of mental states and processes through language;
(2) Cognitive surface as a cognitively latent, sensorily manifest and semantically continuous layer;
(3) Cognitive surface as a projection of the actual mind in the presence of the fictional mind;
(4) Cognitive surface as the mnemonic device.
Due to the brevity of the master’s dissertation, my examination of The Marvels addressed the primary surface that a reader might encounter in the first place, including the dust jacket, the section headings, the page break between the pictures and the prose, as well as the first pictorial section as a metafictive portfolio or a kind of artefact. The above four aspects were considered as the conjunction of pictorial narrative techniques which helped the presumption that the legendary theatrical family’s stories might be viewed as an unknown family history to foreground the protagonist’s identity as a hint. These features co-affect the readerly knowledge and understanding of the first section as the fictive memories play an important role in projecting the actual mind into the protagonist’s mind, and in internalising the fictional mind by means of impersonation.
According to the plot in prose, the first section is a pencil sketching portfolio supposedly invented by the protagonist’s uncle and his husband. In this sense, those pictures should be viewed as an embodied cultural artefact in form, and as a metafictive narrative device in function. The use of metafiction blurs the boundaries between fictionality and reality (Nikolajeva and Scott 2001), while the visualised, externalised format gives metafiction some verisimilitude and authenticity of the quality of fictionality. Such blurriness serves as the first key factor to facilitate the intersubjective connection between the actual mind and the fictional mind.
The jacket seems to invent a binary opposition between a sense of fantasy maritime adventure and a sense of low-mimetic story, which, again, blurs the boundaries between fictionality and reality for strengthening a sense of suspense and mystery. A motto ‘You either see it or you don’t’ written on the cover might bear a striking resemblance to the suspenseful plotting of the two stories which left a 90-year gap. The grammatical and psychological subject ‘you’ is vague but somehow evident since it could refer to either the reader or the protagonist who is depicted on the back part of the jacket (or both). The psychological predicate ‘either see it or don’t see it’ implies the ways of readings (Vygotsky 1997)—it is possible to assume that this is an invitation for the active readerly participation in the storytelling in order to make sense of the suspenseful plotting of the Marvel family story, especially Leontes’ unknown destiny (Nikolajeva 2005).
From a readerly perspective, a key resolution to the mystery of the Marvels - and Leontes in particular-, was to understand the actual relationship between the Marvels and the protagonist, and further to figure out what might had happened between 1900 and 1990. The nominal title might refer to the collective characters (i.e. the Marvels family) (Nikolajeva and Scott 2001), in which case the book title also hints at the understanding of its characterisation as the key resolution to clarify the confused connection between the two sections in content, together with the bewildering relationship between the pictures and the prose in form. To a degree, the reader might be expected to help the protagonist understand his ‘family history’, or otherwise clarify the falsehood.
|Figure 1 Dust Jacket of The Marvels|
Chronological Section Headings and Blank Double-Page Spread
The section headings and the page break function as the basic temporal and spatial structures of The Marvels. The chronological sequence implied by ‘1766’ and ‘1990’ affects the way in which the relationship between the pictures and the prose—as well as the connection between the Marvels and the protagonist—might be explained. The timeline of events also implies that the pictures serve as the memories of the Marvels, in which case the reader might use them as a mnemonic tool to engage in the second section in prose. It is noteworthy that the first section ends in 1900, and therefore, there is a 90-year gap to be filled. The blank double-page spread visualises the gap which then acts as an invitation for the reader to work out why it exists, and how such gap - one of the important causal factors for storytelling - might affect the ‘1990’ scenario (Nikolajeva and Scott 2001). Therefore, the highly complex organisation of such temporality and spatiality embodied by the section headings and section break lends itself to a thematic focus on the confused relationship between the Marvels and the protagonist.
Figure 2 Screenshot of The Marvels Animation (1) Source: http://www.themarvelsthebook.com/about_book.htm
Figure 3 Screenshot of The Marvels Animation (2) Source: http://www.themarvelsthebook.com/about_book.htm
The above analysis demonstrates that the mental functioning of the fictive memory system—that is, collective memory in the case of this research—arises from the mutual concern formed by the reader and the protagonist, and it is mediated through the pictorial narrative techniques alongside literary devices. The Marvels includes multiple layers of cognitive literary surfaces manifested in the form of its material and physical features. Nevertheless, my master’s dissertation revealed the primary layer and some of the interesting effects associated with the pictures. It is worth further research that explores the prose and the detailed features inside the pictures.
Best, S. and Marcus, S. (2009) ‘Surface reading: An introduction.’ Representations, 108 (1): 1-21.
Bogdan, R. J. (2000) Minding Minds: Evolving a Reflexive Mind by Interpreting Others. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
Logue, C. (2015) ‘Brian Selznick: The cinematic storyteller talks about the act of visual narration.’ Scholastic Teacher, 125 (1): 52.
Nikolajeva, M. (2005) Aesthetic Approaches to Children’s Literature: An Introduction. Lanham, Maryland: The Scarecrow Press.
Nikolajeva, M. and Scott, C. (2001) How Picturebooks Work. New York: Routledge.
Ridley, R. (2016) Peter Pan and the Mind of J. M. Barrie: An Exploration of Cognition and Consciousness. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
Selznick, B. (2015) The Marvels. New York: Scholastic Press.
Vygotsky, L. S. (1997) Thought and Language. Trans. A. Kozulin. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.