The primes of the story

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 sometime in 2010. But I do carry with me the image of a young wizard naked, glimpsed from afar, 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

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