Book Thoughts

My Name is Red: Narrative Structure and Thematic Resonance

My Name is Red ends with a little twist which isn’t particularly important to the plot, but is immensely satisfying: the entire book is written by Orhan, the child of Shekure, who has access to all of her letters and heard the story from Shekure. No doubt a Borges-inspired novel, it achieves an interesting effect by placing this detail at the very end. Throughout the story, the many narrators seem to reflect the book’s focus on collective storytelling, but this twist at the end reframes it and overlays the structure of the book exactly onto the practice of the miniaturists: a single artist, reconstructing an old story and whose flaws will be taken as the form for whoever attempts to retell it further.

Structure too often gets used as a stalking horse for the question of how plot-driven a story is. Debates about whether to use more or less structure proliferate in this context, but every story has structure. The better questions are whether the structure is orderly, disorderly, whether it efficiently lines up events in service of a plot or if it’s more chaotic, jumbled, and so on. The goal of a given story’s structure changes depending on the goal of the work itself, and so too do the questions asked of it. When the goal is a tight, plot-driven thriller, the question very much is whether it’s efficient and raises and lowers tension in accordance with genre expectations. But in My Name is Red the goal is to explore the theme of collective storytelling, so it requires its structure to resonate with that. 

Multiple narrators tell the story in snippets. Each of their viewpoints is necessarily incomplete, and there’s no particular order that they go in. Compared to a conventional mystery, which would also begin with a murder, it proceeds much more loosely. We jump into the viewpoint of a drawing of a dog before we get a passage from the murderer. Black and Shekure are featured most heavily, Enishte gets plenty of time in the first half of the book, and Osman gets a lot in the latter. Pressure to solve the murder doesn’t even come until more than halfway through the book, after pressure on Black to solve a second murder has already been applied. It would be tempting to call this a less-structured approach, but to do so is to ignore that Pamuk is clearly being intentional about emphasis within his story. It’s structured to throw the murder mystery into the background because the mystery is only a focus of the plot, not the story. 

The emphasis of the story is on collective storytelling and the fear of a break in the chain of retelling stories. The many characters and their varied degrees of focus on this problem demonstrate a feature of such a tradition: even when telling the same story, everyone will have different points of emphasis. And with the addition of Orhan-as-author as a metafictive element, we get another: retellings of retellings morph and change as much as the countless retellings Master Osman examined in the Sultan’s treasury changed bit by bit as new artists and storytellers reproduced it, even with their devotion to maintaining consistency with the methods of the old masters.

There’s no need to think of narrative structure as just the set of instructions people use to make tightly plotted stories. In creating more artful narratives, an attempt to abandon structure will be fruitless. Whether the writer intends one or not, every narrative has a structure because every narrative has a sequence of events (even if that sequence is aggressively nonlinear). Ignoring it will only result in a structure that is discordant with the goal of the story. But then, a structure which clashes with the story could be the point also. Better that it be done intentionally, with open eyes.