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