The primes of the story

I’m putting this here mostly for reference.

Years ago, I read Geoff Manaugh’s interview with Zachary Mason, who wrote a terrific novel called The Lost Books of the Odyssey. In that interview, Mason sketched out something he called “the primes of the story,” a concept I’ve now refer­enced in my own blogging and writing many times, almost certainly mangling it along the way. (I feel no remorse.)

Here’s Mason’s original pitch for primes (emphasis mine):

It sounds like you're reacting to my preoc­cu­pa­tion with what I might call the primes of the story. There are aspects of the Odyssey that seem essential, and these are few in number, just a handful of images. There’s a man lost at sea, an inter­minable war a long way behind him, and a home that’s infinitely desirable and infi­nitely far away. There's the man-eating ogre in his cave; there are the Sirens with their irre­sistible song; there's the certain misery of Scylla and Charybdis. I feel like these images are respon­sible for the enduring power of the story, and its survival, more than the partic­ular details of, say, dialogue among the suitors, or what have you. [...] I love this idea. Have loved it from the moment I read it.

Primes are the bright, durable images that remain in your memory long after a story’s arbitrary details fade. As an example (and not too much of a spoiler, I hope) I can remember almost nothing about the plot of The Magicians by Lev Grossman, which I tore through back in 2010. But I do carry with me the image of a young wizard, glimpsed from afar, naked, blazing with spellfire, trudging across the whole width of Antarc­tica to get home. (Can such an image actually be found in The Magicians by Lev Grossman? I think so! But who knows?? That’s the beauty of primes. They are the stuff of mutant memory, not book reports.)

To me, the posses­sion of even a single durable prime qualifies a novel (song, painting, comic book, video game) as an unmit­i­gated success. It’s like Michelin stars: most good restau­rants don’t even have one.

December 2014, Berkeley