On Arrival, Circular Storytelling, and Not Arriving Anywhere

Stories arc. We learned this early.

In the eighth grade, our English teachers drew dramatic white parabolas across their boards to demonstrate narrative build-up, climax, and denouement. Up and down again, segmented to identify discrete moments in the plot of A Tale of Two Cities — that chalky curve frowned across every classroom.

In 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write, playwright Sarah Ruhl cites the arc as the most common narrative shape, dating back to Aristotle at least. She’s writing specifically about theatre here, but her observations are applicable to novels, films, a million modes of narrative art that all tend to default to this comfortable chronological bow. Beginning, middle, end. Ruhl imagines options for breaking the mold: plays that move like wiggly lines, or contain sharp, unexpected drop-offs, without apology. Plays shaped like vases, somehow. She’s sailing along possible narrative slopes, yearning to be surprised.

The quiet Denis Villeneuve-directed Arrival, an alien-encounter movie starring Amy Adams, echoes Ruhl’s musings in unexpected ways. Arrival is a remarkably poetic film, all soft light and wide fields and rippling dreamscapes. It’s about communication on every level: the interpersonal, hopes and fears whispered between plastic folds of a military tarp; the international, translations carefully relayed over secure phone lines; and eventually, nearly impossibly, the intergalactic. And, in its big beating heart, Arrival is fundamentally about stories and structure.

The movie opens on the alien arrival — their ship appears, seemingly overnight, in a field in Montana. The U.S. military plucks Louise, a renowned linguistics specialist played perfectly by Adams, from her cozy university office. She is tasked with learning the alien tongue and asking the creatures what their purpose is on Earth. Whether they have language at all is her first question, although they do emit deep, echoing moans — chilling astral dispatches, revealed first over a flimsy tape recorder.

Louise is a quiet woman in soft clothes. She clenches her jaw while she listens, concentrating. Her breathing is labored when she first enters the alien vessel — an onyx-smooth egg, 1,500 feet high — escorted by a few men with some laughably earthly guns. “HUMAN,” she writes on a dry erase board, holding it up to the visitors. Through the transparent divider that keeps their atmosphere from mixing with ours, they seem to regard her message interestedly, although it’s hard to be sure. They’re squid-like — with seven limbs, an elephant’s rough skin, and without anything we can recognize as eyes. They float to cover distance, suspended in their milky haze. When they’re completely still, they could be ancient, many-rooted trees.

Much to the displeasure of her restless army supervisors, for whom answers can’t come quickly enough, Louise allows the language to unfurl itself slowly, over months. She learns that the creatures — christened “Heptapods,” for their seven legs — communicate meaning not through their eerie vocalizations, but through written language: a series of circular symbols that issue from their limbs like smoke into the air and dissipate, after a moment. Each resembles a coffee ring stain — perfectly, coolly round. Like something absently left on a sleek surface, only to be wiped away.

Human communication, both on the sentence level and at the level of story craft, depends on sequential structure: subject “we,” verb “go,” dependent clause, “to the beach.” Or that forward-moving arc, stretching long through the belly of a Dickins novel. The Heptapod symbols, by contrast, comprise a “non-linear orthography,” which means they have no forward or backward direction. The aliens can use a single circle, with a few peripheral flourishes, to encompass a whole thought or moment — the experience of being at the beach, you and I sharing it. They communicate it all at once, not beginning or ending anywhere, not happening in any particular order or at any particular time.

Part of what’s bugging Sarah Ruhl in her essay about the arc speaks directly to this issue of circles and lines. She’s hoping to shake up the arc, to imagine new story shapes, ones that can accomplish something different. But any human story must begin somewhere and end somewhere else. Everything about the Heptapods, though, is literally or metaphorically round, without end and equally without beginning: their faceless bodies, their elliptical ship, their written ciphers, those spindly ink blots on the air. The creatures seem a suggestion to Ruhl, an answer to a question she only half asked. To be circular is to be unburdened, otherworldly.

It’s fair to wonder what the Heptapods gain by liberating themselves from beginning-middle-end structure — is this really so much better than our human modes of communication? It’s not long into Arrival before we get an answer, through a shadow-explanation of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in linguistics: the Heptapods’ minds work the way their sentences do. Their linguistic circularity reflects their non-linear understanding of time and their hyper-sensitivity to the universe. They are able to perceive events well beyond their own immediate purview and outside what we conceive of as the present moment. It’s the largest logical leap the movie asks us to make — from spherical symbols and soft bodies to rounded mental capacity — but it’s wonderful to go along for the ride. Perhaps these seven-legged creatures, these dreamy voyagers in their hovering black egg, have rectified some basic Earthly problems. I love to imagine them chuckling, not unkindly, at our crude little buildings, our sharp, breakable bones. Our unbending perception of things, and of ourselves.

“Structure implies subtraction or repression,” Ruhl writes in her essay, suggesting that some experiences just can’t fit along the line of a story or a sentence. Perhaps our most experiential, inexpressible, structure-less moments need to be flattened or amputated in order to be clearly conveyed — the instance of ballooning anticipation, say, that meets you at the water’s edge, or the way your legs carry you differently after a loss. How, exactly and completely, can we translate these amorphous experiences into neat white arcs?

In her brilliant memoir The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson asserts that when we place any lived experience into the structured confines of language or storytelling, “all that is unnamable falls away, gets lost, is murdered.” Naming things, of course, requires delineation and categorization: Nelson describes a great human tension between the “evolutionary need to put everything into categories” (what is clearly dangerous? What is definitely food?) and “the need to pay homage to the transitive, the flight, the great soup of being in which we all actually live.” Humans crave organization, taxonomy, a neat rhythm to our chaotic existence. But once we successfully separate the edible from the poisonous, subdividing and labeling everything comes into conflict with the messy wholeness of our real lives. Nelson’s gender nonbinary partner embodies this by rejecting gendered categories, refusing the term “trans” — instead repeating, to each nosy inquirer, “I’m not on my way anywhere.” We must wonder, thinking about Nelson and her partner, what gets lost when each person is expected to fit neatly into a male or a female box? What disappears when we try to cram an experience into a sentence, or a narrative? If every story must contain a clearly delineated beginning, middle, and end, what happens to its shades of in-between?

Arrival’s alien communication doesn’t subtract from experience, or place things overly-neatly into categories, or delete the unnamable, or “ride roughshod over specificity” (Nelson, again), because it is round in shape and content. It is not subdivided or chronologized; it can contain endless shades, immeasurable nuance. The Heptapods can conceive of and communicate infinite stories, broad and nebulous and boundless as galaxies.

We can’t achieve their perfect roundness — we have forward-facing bodies and are shackled to our linearity, the endless march of the clock on the kitchen wall — but we can settle for the next best things. “Perhaps what is inexpressible (what I find mysterious and not able to express),” wrote Ludwig Wittgenstein, a linguist and philosopher who heavily influenced Nelson, “is the background against which whatever I could express has its meaning.” He was not, of course, writing in Heptapod, but he was attempting nonetheless to broaden his horizons.

“I remember moments in the middle,” Louise says in voiceover. When she says this, she’s reflecting perhaps on her months with the creatures, or perhaps on her whole life — and we know, in the terrific dark of the theater, that her elevated moments have emerged from Nelson’s inexpressible, unnamable soup. Because she has come in contact with the creatures, Louise has learned to embrace the rounded blur. She’s leaning away from the poles. She’s de-emphasizing restrictive edges and extremes.

Perhaps we, too, can elevate the middle — we can stop plotting only sharp, discrete events on a timeline. We can relax our subdividing and labeling, accept instead that some things cannot or should not be classified. Not everything needs a place within a structure, including us; perhaps we can become more comfortable with not always belonging, not always being on our way somewhere. We can take a more holistic approach to the universe — even though we travel through it not in eggs, but in cars — and maybe the stories we tell can look less like arcs, and more like coffee rings.

Arrival isn’t flashy or loud the way another alien-encounter movie might be; the spaceship doesn’t beep or thunder, and the aliens drift like ghosts, or like somethings from the soundless deep. The human characters learn to temper their desires to act rashly, move too jarringly, or fire weapons off like comets in the night. This is the stuff of moderation, communication, and translation. This, too, is the in-between. I tend to think it’s better there.

The aliens are, interestingly, mortal. It’s tempting to think otherwise, given how separate they are from our sense of time and endings, but they have distinct expiration dates as we do. Late in the movie, once our characters are quite comfortable shifting between the alien language and English, one of the creatures uses a symbol that Louise translates not to mean “dead,” but “in death process.” That’s a linguistic subtlety emblematic of the whole matter: they conceive of the end not as an end at all, but as a perpetuation of the life process, more of the same. A continuing story. A closed circle.