The Cereal Narrative

A cereal narrative: Just as the milk fills the bowl, the doorbell rings. The milk slowly warms up and the Honey Bunches of Oats turns soggy. Swelling and disintegrating, the cereal becomes a kind of brownish mush that yellows over and sours, attracting flies. Late one night, the kitchen window opens slowly, scattering the flies. (To be continued.)

I began my cereal narrative as a joke, but it may help me analyze what a serial narrative is. Any narrative must have characters or agents moving through a series of events. Characters do not have to be people, or even animals, as Philip K. Dick’s “The Short Happy Life of the Brown Oxford” shows, but there must be agents that perform actions or have things happen to them and the narrative must follow these key agents. If there are not events happening over time, I don’t think it can be called a narrative.

I meant to avoid characters in the story above and make insects and inanimate objects the agents of the installment: the milk, the doorbell, the bowl of cereal, the flies, the window, but I have included at least three possibly-human characters: the person who poured the milk, the one who rang the bell and whoever opened the window. We might also include the narrator and the imagined reader as being parts of the story as well, since someone must describe the agents and events to someone who presumably does not know the story.

Besides characters, it is important that actions happen over time (although these events don’t have to be consecutive or chronological). In “Introduction to the Structural Analysis of the Narrative,” Barthes describes “sequences” as being a set of connected events. If someone answers a phone, we expect them to say “Hello.” Usually, a conversation takes place and the person hangs up, although instead of a conversation, there may be the sounds of a fax machine or a dial tone. Serial narratives love to interrupt sequences, leaving the resolution of the sequence pending so that readers are drawn into the story. In my installment, when the milk was poured into the bowl, we expect someone to eat the cereal. Since this sequence was interrupted, I have created suspense. Why was the cereal left uneaten on the table? The final sequence was also interrupted by the end of the installment: “the kitchen window opens slowly.” And?

InĀ S/Z, Barthes describes a different kind of structuralist analysis, one element being the hermeneutic code. Certain elements of a narrative create questions, doubts, mysteries that the reader wishes to have answered. In my installment: Who poured the bowl of cereal? Who rang the bell? Why didn’t the first person come back to finish the cereal? Who opened the window? Why the window and not the door? All (or most?) narratives employ the element of suspense to keep readers reading, many chapter breaks happen not between scenes but in the middle of a sequence, “He raised the knife over his head.” But serial narratives extend the suspense by halting the narrative over a period of non-narrative time, a time until the next installment comes out or until another writer picks up the story, since a narrative may be continued by others and perhaps all narratives are part of a grand narrative, the story of stories.

“Captain Crunch climbed into the window and saw the sour bowl of cereal and the flies and began laughing loud and hard, until brown, sugary tears rolled down his cheeks. The cereal killer had struck again!”

Written for Narrative Theory: The Serial Narrative, taught by Sarah Hackenberg.

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