An Analytic Approach to Locative Narrative: Focusing on Charles Cumming ‘The 21 Steps’

I found one of my old essays on my laptop, about an locative narrative that I found extremely interesting. I thought I would attach my essay as well. But please check out this interactive tale by Charles Cumming, The 21 Steps

With technology expanding at such an expediential rate, it is not a surprise that even fictional stories have advanced along with the trend. I am speaking of new forms of digital narrative, specifically locative narrative, which is digital media applied to real places where something happens and it then produces a real social interaction. With the combination of mobile data communications with global positioning systems (GPS) and mobile computing, authors can assist in the process of creating a story and merging it with digital physical space to give it a whole new genre, with the use of mostly fiction and some non-fiction, it is coalesced into what is known as a locative narrative. This paper will be analyzing Charles Cumming locative narrative entitled The 21 Steps, which is a tale of a man who is dashing through London, England and ends up in Edinburgh, Scotland, on a hunt to find his kidnapped girlfriend. This paper will also discuss the relationship between memory and space as well as story and history throughout the piece.

With the use of Google maps, and narrative bubbles that include quick snippets of information and images, this tale immerses you into the story and you are on the edge of your seat till the end. Locative narratives, such as this one, are immersive because the story is based in a real public space, which requires viewer/reader to rely on their senses, their powers of observation and their engagement with materials concrete reality. There are many different forms of locative narratives, and the prospects are widening all the time. With locative narratives being a fairly new phenomenon there are so many different way to manipulate the original to be something even more unique.

First off, locative narratives can use memory in different ways. For example, instead of showing a friends or family a picture slideshow of a particular trip, one could make their own locative narrative with the photos they took on their journey, and add comment bubbles along the way to make more enjoyable and interesting for the viewer. Secondly, I believe The 21 Steps to be very memorable, because in our photographic world, we remember images more easily than words, and The 21 Steps is something I shall not forget anytime soon.  Lastly, and most importantly, The 21 Steps uses memory similarly to murmur (which I will post on later), another locative narrative. They use real places and give you stories behind these locations. The buildings you see within The 21 Steps are a collection of memories and emotions, and as the city progresses and changes, and as buildings come and go, these memories begin to be neglected,  or kept inside the minds of others, and can be experienced over and over again. What locative media and site-specific practices allow us to do is ascribe meanings to places in innovative ways, so that the streets, neighbourhoods and buildings we move through are not just decontextualized objects but rather sets of meanings, patterns in time, nodes in social/materials networks and places suffused with person experiences and affect. With the emergence of locative narrative people will give new meaning to places around the world they have never been to before. They will be able to learn about historical locations without having the leave the comfort of their own homes.

With the appearance of locative narratives, the terms space and place have had to be revamped to consider this new technology. Space is referred to as geographical space; it is what is contained inside of our planet. Place only exists when someone gives meaning to a specific location. Places are spaces that are valued. In the story The 21 Steps, Cumming uses downtown London, England as the setting for the majority of the first half of the story. We are immersed in different locations, from St. Pancras Train Station, to the National Gallery, and over to Heathrow Airport, which are just some of the locations we travel through on this journey. What The 21 Steps and locative narratives are trying to accomplish is to keep history alive, in this digital space as well as in our minds. Locative narratives are giving functionality to space. They are making it possible to cultivate physical locations, by adding digital information; this in turn allows the places to be “read” in a sense.

With the ability to “read” a physical location, we are able to learn the history about these particular locales, and the stories behind them. Many locative narratives are representations of how people occupy and use urban public space, offering an evocative portrait of the past and current life of the city, its residents and visitors. With the use of locative narrative the author in a sense are preserving historical information. For instance, with the materialization of geo-tagging or photo-tagging, this is the process of adding a digital longitudinal and latitudinal imprint on a photograph. You can search for a specific location on Google maps, and it will display photographs that have been attached to that precise location by other individuals. All these photos and locative narratives saved in the digital realm online are preserving the aesthetics of these locations forever. For example, in The 21 Steps there are images of Sir John Betjeman’s statue in St. Pancras Station and Paulo Uccello’s famous painting of the Battle of San Romano. If there were something to have to Sir John’s statue, it will be forever remembered in The 21 Steps, and this should encourage author to continue with the creation of more locative narratives, as to protect the original images of the beautiful architecture throughout the world.

The plot lines of locative narratives, such as The 21 Steps, are not particularly easy to create. There are many limitations in the construction of the story. Character development and in depth plots are hard to create because of the space available to the author. This creates a problem for the author, because they are trying to captivate their audience, and most authors do so by creating characters that readers can relate to, and this becomes a challenge for authors of locative narratives. Cumming used these parameters in a very interesting way. In chapter 19, the main character Rick Blackwell is trying to escape the police and is forced out a window, and then commences to run along the rooftops. He used the resources he had, and knew what would intrigue the reader, which was very cleaver. Also, in Chapter 12 when Rick comes to after being knocked unconscious the reader can see his location, but Cumming added pin-point locators all over the general area with the words “here?” in each comment box. Trying to give the reader the illusion that he could be anywhere in this general location, but only we know where he really is. Also, in chapter four, when Rick enters the National Gallery, he gives the imagery to assist the reader in recreating the setting in their mind, “It was in the Sainsbury Wing, second floor. Botticelli was in 64, religious iconography in 65” (Cumming). All these features aid in the reader’s imaginative process.

What also facilitates the reader in this locative narrative are the comment bubbles, and the locations of when and where they appear. It gives the reader a sense of how quickly the character is thinking and reacting to the situation. For instance, in chapter six, when Rick is inside the roundabout in London, trying to make his way to Heathrow airport, you can see that he is thinking and reacting suddenly, because the comment bubbles pop up so quickly, and the are indicators are so close together. In this scene, he has just received a call from his girlfriend, and he gets the sense that she is in trouble from their stunted conversation. There are 5 bubbles that pop up in just a tiny roundabout, so you get the sense that he is speaking abruptly, which gives a great sense of urgency in the text.

Another suggestion for The 21 Steps, would be in Chapter four, when Rick jumps on the subway/tube to get to the National Gallery. I believe it would have been more effective and visual pleasing if Cumming would have zoomed out. One of the reasons being, that the subway was moving at a rapid speed and it was hard to see everything as it passed by. I think he kept the frame in the same location because it gave the appeal of speed, while he was whizzing through the city. But I think he could have kept the illusion of speed, with the acceleration of the travel path or blue line, while panning out as the viewer can see the sites and see how far through the city he actually travelled. It would give the viewer something to watch other than a blue line speeding through the map so quickly, as to not be able to see the buildings passing by. It does go on for over a minute, and gets tiresome waiting for the scene to end. And as an additional analysis of this scene, I was displeased in Chapter six when Cumming decided to replace the lifelike satellite view for the unrealistic map view, on the journey to Heathrow airport. I guess he decided that there was a lot of narrative going on in this scene and the satellite map would only be distracting to the reader.

Locative narratives are very immersive and interactive, but there is still so much room to grow in this untapped medium. Locative narratives can be enhanced, by allowing the reader/viewer the opportunity to choose their own storyline. In a story similar to The 21 Steps the author could allow the participant to choose which way to go, and allow them to navigate through their own adventure. This would allow for the maximum participation from the reader, and might make the story that much more enjoyable.

In closing, with the rise of locative narrative, we are now able to see different locations around the globe in many different contexts. We can see the influence as it is seen and experienced as many versions of its self by different individuals. We can preserve history within locative narratives, and keep it alive within the hypertexts. Charles Cumming’s The 21 Steps is an incredible example of a locative narrative, and how the use of GPS and mobile computing can be used to create a story. Locative narratives help contextualize places to the reader, by giving meaning and attaching emotions to different locales on the planet. These locative narratives give you the opportunity to get fully involved in a narrative, and assists in the education of geography and history. One can travel all over the world without leaving the comfort of their home. The 21 Steps shows the relationship between memory and space, as well as story and history, all wrapped up into one great tale. Locative narratives are open to so many new ideas and formations; I cannot wait to see what they will create next.

*I have some more interactive stories I am compiling at the moment, so stay tuned for more!

Enjoy!

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