The Puzzle of the Written Word - Pacific Standard

The Puzzle of the Written Word

In his new book, A Muse & A Maze: Writing as Puzzle, Mystery, and Magic, Peter Turchi explains the riddling experience of literature.
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(Photo: pagedooley/Flickr)

(Photo: pagedooley/Flickr)

“Around 1760,” Peter Turchi writes in his new book, “a London engraver and cartographer carefully affixed one of his maps to a thin sheet of mahogany and, using a fine-bladed saw, proceeded to cut it to pieces.” John Spilsbury was trying to cut an educational map for children, but his jigsaw did more. Jigsaw puzzle sales boomed during the Great Depression, when they were, according to Turchi, “the Angry Birds of their day,” and they continue to sell well even today.

Turchi’s A Muse & A Maze: Writing as Puzzle, Mystery, and Magic delivers dozens of such histories, quickly tracing the popularity of everything from Sudoku to acrostics. Turchi’s book, though, is more than history: It’s an argument about narrative and those who create it. “Every piece of writing is a kind of puzzle,” Turchi writes near the beginning of A Muse & A Maze, and then near the end: “All writers are puzzle makers.”

"Is Toni Morrison’s Beloved a ghost story? Is Wuthering Heights a romance novel? Is Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses a western? ... Outside of publishers’ sales meetings, when is it necessary or useful to attach labels to books?"

While his earlier book Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer put forward an argument about the similarities between literature and cartography, this one productively interrogates the relationship between puzzles and literature. According to Turchi, puzzles are “closed systems” that satisfy us because they are solvable. “Puzzles,” he notes, “focus our attention on a select body of knowledge and a single task,” and solving them allows us to feel victorious. The pleasure we feel when we complete a crossword puzzle on the morning train resembles the satisfaction we enjoy when we solve a more complicated problem in our work or personal relationships.

The science of puzzles is mixed, with recent studies dampening earlier claims that puzzles can boost intelligence or slow memory loss, but Turchi argues puzzle solving can serve as a kind of rehearsal or simulation of life in a way that’s quite similar to literature. “A poem or novel or story,” Turchi writes, “reflects a real-world situation, character, problem, or idea in a way that allows us to consider it, and perhaps even understand it, differently.” For both authors and audience, writing can be like puzzle solving: Writers solving puzzles as they create and readers solving puzzles as they consume. So while crosswords might not prevent Alzheimer’s, they could improve your writing.

There are old arguments about narrative and pleasure, and Turchi considers aesthetic play, but to that he adds a discussion of flow taken from theories of game design. Literature ultimately thrives on complexity, though, so while “there may be puzzles within the story, elements of plot or character or imagery or meaning that require the reader’s active participation ... the story as a whole is not a problem with a solution.” The degree to which a work of literature is solvable might be a reflection of its genre, though Turchi rejects the otiose vocabulary of our current discussion of literary genre.

In a footnote I’d like to see appended to every article on Y.A. and every other B.S. genre browbeating, Turchi writes: “Is Toni Morrison’s Beloved a ghost story? Is Wuthering Heights a romance novel? Is Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses a western? ... Outside of publishers’ sales meetings, when is it necessary or useful to attach labels to books?”

The book enacts the very "tension between puzzle and mystery" that Turchi seeks to understand.

He means, of course, that there are more useful ways of talking about literature and how we experience it than just the marketing term that appears above the book’s barcode. “Rather than attacking books we don’t feel are worth our time, worrying about whether we appreciate the ‘right’ books, or being embarrassed by books we enjoy,” Turchi suggests that we consider “which books interest and engage us, and what aspects or elements of that work—however diverse it may be—might inform our own.”

Such consideration fills Turchi’s A Muse & A Maze. He moves delightfully between the work of Alice Munro and Orson Welles, John Le Carre and Emily Dickinson, Benjamin Franklin and Bruce Springsteen. In the margins and throughout the text are also actual puzzles, tangrams, and acrostics, for instance, whose solutions appear in the book’s endnotes. The book enacts the very “tension between puzzle and mystery” that Turchi seeks to understand.

Turchi suggests that both this book and his previous books on maps “invite writers to think differently about what we do,” but he realizes they also speak to the experience of readers. A Muse & A Maze isn’t a textbook, but a kind of sourcebook: puzzling and playful, an assembly of sources and texts that invites readers to find the meaning they’re searching for.

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