Narrative Complexity and the Case of Pfitz: An Update for the ‘Systems Novel’


  • Toon Staes University of Antwerp / University of Tartu



complexity theory, narrative theory, systems novel, Andrew Crumey, literature and science


Recent narrative studies of complexity theory have shown that so-called ‘emergent complexity’ does not accommodate to narrative form. Complexity theory is an interdisciplinary field of study that researches how large-scale phenomena emerge from simple components without the guidance of a plan or a controlling agent. Emergence happens by chance, through decentralised interactions at lower levels. Its lack of clear causal chains makes the process difficult to conceptualise in narrative so this article turns to a fictional narrative to demonstrate how complexity theory has trickled down into contemporary literature: the historical novel Pfitz (1995) by Scottish novelist and theoretical physicist Andrew Crumey. While there have been a spate of publications on complex narratives in film studies, literature studies has lagged behind. As a counter, the article revives Tom LeClair’s notion of the systems novel (1987, 1989) as one useful model for thinking about narrative complexity in prose fiction. I first turn to LeClair’s definition of the systems novel and bring it up to date with recent discussions of complexity theory, then turn to Crumey’s novel to illustrate how Pfitz imitates the logic of complex systems through its looping structure, its interconnectedness, and its thematic insistence on chance and necessity.


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