Ryan O’Neill’s The Weight of a Human Heart (2012) explores the themes of life, genocide, relationships, and the human condition over twenty-one short stories that take place in Rwanda, Australia, and China. Whilst storytelling in mainstream literature has a strong focus on language, poetic prose, and a consistent narrative structure, experimental fiction today continues to question such definitions of what a short story can entail and become. O’Neill’s short stories, for example, challenge traditional literary conventions through visual experimentation whilst also exploring how multimodal storytelling can encourage further interaction with its readers within a postmodern society.
Visual experimentation in The Weight of a Human Heart continues to expand the parameters of the short story format. Whilst visuals depicted in multimodal stories are ‘by no means a recent literary innovation’ – see the illustrative texts of the Victorian era, children’s books of the late 1800s, or the Christian iconography in medieval texts – the incorporation of tables, graphs, photographs, and even musical notation in The Weight of a Human Heart help us to understand how visuals can tell a story or enhance a story’s meaning in newer contexts (Bray et al. 2012:423). As Hilary Chute states, exploring the ‘spaces in between word and image’ can offer a ‘rich and relevant visual-verbal syntax’ (Bray et al. 2012:10), thus the boundaries between art and literature begin to dissipate and blur, bringing forth stories that are interconnected to the human condition and all facets of reality.
The short story, ‘Figures in a Marriage’, for example, follows the downfall of Helen and Ray’s marriage through drawings, flowcharts, tables, and graphs, which complement and enhance the words they accompany. O’Neill has simplified what many would consider a rather complicated life trajectory by presenting the reader with only the key dates and facts about these protagonists’ lives, including time of birth, what books are on their nightstands, orgasm frequency, recent Google searches, and even penis length. The data allows the reader to imagine all the nuances of the situation that they have not been given, promoting active reading. As Alison Gibbons (2012:425) suggests, these visuals engage with ‘modes of representation’ by conveying the themes of love, deceit, and anxiety throughout the story. For example, the doodles found in Helen’s diary are accompanied by a textual paragraph of ‘psychological analysis’. This analysis begins with the sentence, ‘The doodles are grouped on the right side of the page, which indicate that the subject is feeling anxious or harried’ (O’Neill 2012:143). Although never explicitly mentioned, the subtle drawings accompanied by the text suggest that Helen has visited a therapist. A critical life moment that initiates the turning point and triggers the collapse of the relationship. Compared to mainstream and genre fiction today, where meanings can get lost in overly wordy or prosaic text, O’Neill’s approach in conveying visceral, everyday emotions visually, rather than textually, is not only refreshing but encourages readers to search harder for meaning within his stories, dropping hints to various actions that may not be as obvious upon the first read.
The format of ‘Figures in a Marriage’ is similar to Patrik Ourednick’s 2005 novel Europeana, a historical text told through facts, stats, and scientific achievements. As Tomasula (2012:444) suggests, these fact-based stories ‘progress not by cause and effect but by allowing its network of data points and facts to link.’ By eliminating first-person narration and reducing prose, O’Neill maps out a relationship in the most straightforward sense, allowing readers the opportunity to create their own conclusions about Helen and Ray’s emotional turmoil, whilst also drawing attention to society’s dependence on statistical data and how this can or can’t predict a human’s life. Through visual experimentation, O’Neill continues to expand upon and search for new possibilities, limitations, and forms of storytelling that are unpredictable and continue to make us question ways of conveying the human condition through literature. As Tomasula states, ‘a very different view of the world emerges’ (2012:444). Whilst mainstream literature represses the sorts of questions that literature should be asking, such as ‘What is literature, and what could it be?’ Experimental literature, according to Bray et al. (2012:1) ‘unrepresses these fundamental questions and in doing so it lays everything open to challenge, reconceptualization, and reconfiguration’. Thus, visual experimentation aligned, or which replaces text, promotes new insights into the current literary climate and sociomaterial context by formulating innovative ideas and directions for conventional modes of storytelling to continue for future generations.
Multimodality in O’Neill’s The Weight of a Human Heart creates an interactive engagement with readers. Unlike traditional narratives which ‘tell’ the story to the reader, postmodern texts have paved the way for self-reflexive and actively conscious narration which can captivate a reader’s attention and encourage them to derive meaning from the stories, without reliance from the author (Ward 2011:5). As Gibbons states, multimodal revisions of texts have led to a revaluation of the codex because ‘the process of reading becomes foregrounded and the physical act of engaging with the book is heightened’ (Bray et al. 2012:421). Revising standard literary rules by replacing text with visuals, altering typography, and creating a sub-story in the footnotes, excites a reader’s experience and further engages them into the act of reading.
English is a Foreign Language’ once again showcases the decline of a marriage, this time through the first-person narration of John, an English teacher, and his Hungarian wife Julia. O’Neill plays with the structure of the text, via the inclusion of phonetic script, interactive word searches, and Q&A elements, that ask the reader to join in. The story is innovative in that it draws readers in, perhaps unwillingly, to witness John’s downfall by engaging with his overbearing obsession for the English language. O’Neill’s incorporation of rhetorical questions and word searches force readers to become a part of the ‘game’ that is John and Julia’s marriage as these are the very elements that makeup John’s everyday life – English tests, examinations, teacher-student Q&A’s, wordplays, etc. As Tomasula argues, it is impossible today to ignore the ‘lived experiences’ around us and how they contribute to the stories we create.
Hence the connection of these ‘lived experiences’ in John’s life are integral to showcase; without them the story would be unrealistic. After all, teaching is his life, it is so ingrained into his being.
Furthermore, the readers find themselves a part of John’s English class where they essentially become his pupils and must sit and listen to his interpretation of the events that unfolded during his wife’s affair. John is conscious that the reader knows everything about him, he is even embarrassed by this, demonstrated by his attempt to make humour during the ‘Language Focus: Predications using “Will” and “Going To” exercise, which he asks the readers to complete (O’Neill 2012:35). In a separate exercise, John goes further to ask his readers/pupils to ‘look up any unfamiliar words in the dictionary’ when studying the vocabulary list listed on the page; a way for them to understand what words best describe his ninth year of marriage (O’Neill 2012:36). Such words as ‘chore’, ‘ennui’, and ‘missionary’ represent the complicatedness of John and Julia’s married life through an active reader participation. O’Neill revises child word games and literary exercises to create a short story that not only emphasises John’s obsession with the English language and his childish emotional state regarding his marriage but remodels a cliché story about an affair into one that has substance, interactivity, and life, re-engaging a new generation of readers.
Paying homage to the English language, Ryan O’Neill’s The Weight of a Human Heart revises traditional literary conventions by engaging with multimodal elements. His use of visual experimentation in the form of graphs, tables, photographs, and illustrations, demonstrates the interconnectedness of art and text within everyday life and promotes new ways of conveying meaning in stories. In a late postmodern society, where readily available information is a click away, authors are finding innovative ways to keep readers actively present within the worlds they create on the page. O’Neill’s stories interact with readers by addressing them directly and incorporating word games and puzzles to ensure they have a role to play in his stories. Moving away from the authoritarian, omniscient narration that constituted traditional forms of literature, The Weight of a Human Heart ultimately gives readers the choice to interact with new modes of storytelling.
Bray J, Gibbons A and McHale B (eds) (2012) The Routledge Companion to Experimental Literature, Routledge, London, UK.
Gibbons A (2012) ‘Multimodal Literature and Experimentation’, in Bray J, Gibbons A and McHale B (eds) The Routledge Companion to Experimental Literature, Routledge, London, UK.
O’Neill R (2012) The Weight of a Human Heart, Black Inc, Melbourne, Aus.
Tomasula S (2012) ‘Information Design, Emergent Culture, and Experimental Form in the Novel’, in Bray J, Gibbons A and McHale B (eds) The Routledge Companion to Experimental Literature, Routledge, London, UK.
Ward G (2011) Discover postmodernism, Hodder Education, London, UK.
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