Carly Cappielli’s award-winning novella Listurbia, a story told in lists, opens with a list of “common cognitive biases” along with their definitions: Pareidolia, The von Restorff effect, The Semmelwies reflex, The Peltzman effect, Parkinson’s law of triviality, Travis Syndrome, and The Zeigarnik effect. Cappielli takes some license with the definition of this final effect, making list writing one of its symptoms:
The Zeigarnik effect: a psychological phenomenon whereby the unconscious mind continuously reminds the conscious mind about incomplete or interrupted tasks. The effect often results in anxiety and distraction, and leads to the endless creation of lists in a futile attempt to convince the unconscious mind that order has been restored.
Little do we readers suspect, upon reading this curious definition, that in the many lists that follow, we will see the Zeigarnik effect in action in the page/list-turning story of Listurbia’s narrator–and even experience the d[l]isturbing Zeigarnik effect ourselves.
This list-driven narrative naturally intrigued the Listology team, and the author was kind enough to answer some of our questions about her own attraction to list-centric storytelling.
- Listology: What gave you the idea for this novella? It seems like it must be grounded in an abiding love of and curiosity about lists.
CC: My initial interest was actually in formal constraints – such as those made famous by the Oulipo – and how the challenge of writing under constraint stimulates our creativity and enables us to write in ways we would not otherwise have imagined. I studied the Oulipo as part of my Master of Research at Western Sydney University and wrote a short story in the form of lists for one of my assessments. I was trying to think of a formal constraint that would be a bit different to what had been done before, and I just had this idea that telling a story through lists could be an interesting challenge. (I remember my initial idea was to tell the story of a relationship through shopping lists: what he buys for their first date, versus what she buys, that kind of thing!) Writing this short story, I just fell in love with the list form – in particular the way it allows one to play with gaps and omissions – so when it was time to write my major work I decided to extend the idea even further. This major work became Listurbia.
- Listology: In the novella, list-writing appears to function as a coping mechanism for mental illness even as the essential disconnectedness of a list works to represent mental illness as a state of fragmentation. Listurbia suggests that this fragmentation applies to memory as well and to the lists that are supposed to aid it. How did the list form help you explore the issues of memory and mental illness? What about lists helped you create your narrator in a way that other literary forms would not allow?
CC: I feel that not only memory, but also identity is, in fact, always fragmentary, to a greater or lesser extent, and it is really the degree of fragmentation (among other things) that determines whether a person might be considered – or consider themselves – mentally unhealthy. As lists are themselves essentially fragmentary, writing in the list form allowed me to play with this idea, building characters and the story bit by bit, often with large gaps left for the reader to negotiate. In the process of developing the narrator, I also discovered that one other benefit of writing in the list form – particularly when the lists are presented as first-person creations – is that it allows intimate access to the narrator’s innermost thoughts. Writing in lists, these thoughts need not be related to the action of the story – they are not required to advance the plot in any way, although at times perhaps they do – but rather to the building of characters and their world. I’m not sure if there is any other literary form that would have allowed my narrator the freedom to discuss so many aspects of their identity in such detail.
- Listology: We really enjoyed the locked wooden chest full of souvenirs and many, many lists written by the narrator in her childhood. It’s like a mise en abyme, a personal history in the form of lists that is inside a fictional memoir in the form of lists. As someone who lives in and by lists, the narrator would understandably have kept such a trove of lists, but what does her having forgotten about them suggest about the power of lists to aid memory?
CC: Thank you! I’m glad you enjoyed this part of the novella – it was a lot of fun to write! The link between lists and memory is an interesting one, and I think lists are often used as a support or even substitute for memory (or remembering), so that once a list is written, the mind no longer needs to remember. This is particularly the case with practical lists, such as shopping lists or to-do lists, but perhaps it is a psychological effect of list-writing in general. I think the connection between lists and time is also interesting, since lists are usually only accurate and relevant for a limited period of time, after which they become historical relics, providing insights into the experience of living in a particular place at a specific point in history.
- Listology: One of the lists in that chest is a list listed as “A list dated 14 December 1996: Forgotten Things (with no items listed).” The novella tucks a good deal of humor into its many lists, reminding readers that lists are also fun. Why though? How is the list form an instrument of play?
CC: I have put a lot of thought into this since I started writing Listurbia, and I’m not entirely sure I know the answer! There just seems to be something about lists that people want to engage with. You need only think of the popularity of Top Ten lists, countdowns, and the like to recognize that there is something special about lists – as the Listology team certainly know! I’m not sure whether this connection is innate or cultural, but it is undeniable that there is a particular enjoyment to be found in reading lists. I also think that lists invite humor because they function as games of association, and playing with mental associations and expectations is a key ingredient of humor in general. With lists, the game is to find items that meet the title category or criteria, but when the items of the list are unexpected, or when they relate to the category in unusual or revealing ways, the result can be highly emotional – humorous or sad, depending on the nature of the items and their association.
- Listology: The narrator’s writing of lists for a living seems poignant, considering how popular lists are in magazines, journals, and blogs. Do you consider them to be filler for popular culture, or is there something more to be said about mastering what most people consider a mundane form of writing and about a character being able to make a livelihood from it?
CC: My answer would be that both can be true, depending on how closely the lists in question follow the unspoken rule of these kinds of lists: that they must be true, accurate and original. This is because the inherent value of pop culture lists lies in their ability to identify and analyze elements of a shared culture and arrange this data into a defined set, in a way that provides some kind of new understanding or appreciation, or that provokes discussion and debate. Lists that do this effectively provide valuable insights into popular culture and provide a snapshot of the way a group of people think and feel at a very specific point in history. However, many of the lists we actually encounter on a daily basis are weak imitations: poorly researched and partly – or sometimes fully! – stolen from other lists. With these lists, yes, I believe it would be fair to call them merely filler for popular culture.
- Listology: Compared to a narrative written in full sentences, one written in lists asks a reader to read between lists and between the lines of lists. In writing Listurbia, were there ways you gauged how much to trust readers to do that successfully and when to help them along?
CC: For the most part, this came down to writer’s intuition, so hopefully I got it right! As I wrote the original version of Listurbia as part of my Master of Research, I also had the unique privilege of a captive audience of amazing supervisors (Dr Chris Andrews and Dr James Gourley of Western Sydney University) who read each section as I wrote them and helped me gauge whether I was providing enough information for readers along the way. As most of the movement of the narrative actually occurs between the lists, I also tried to convey as much narrative information as possible in the titles of the lists, which was a wonderful game of often (overly) complicated nominalization!
- Listology: The lists in Listurbia that record just one side of a conversation were an especially interesting case of readers being invited to read between the lines, in this case to imagine what the other person in the conversation says. Do you consider lists in general to be one-sided conversations?
CC: In a way, I do consider lists to be one-sided conversations – at least, within the context of a novella like Listurbia. Many of the lists in the text could be considered the narrator’s monologue on a particular topic, and I feel they often read this way. However, as part of a novella, these lists are also written for other people to read (as opposed to lists you might write for yourself) and respond to. Sometimes this response might only be for the reader to agree or disagree with the list, but I believe the magic of lists lies in the way they invite people to rewrite them from their own perspective – adding and removing items according to their own experience and beliefs. So, in a way, lists are also conversations between multiple speakers, they just might not all hear each other!
- Listology: In your acknowledgments, you mention Joe Brainard’s I Remember as a source of inspiration for Listurbia. What was it about that book that especially captured your imagination? Were you already a list-maker yourself at that time?
CC: I love so many things about Joe Brainard’s I Remember, but I guess the element that inspired me the most was the beauty of its simplicity and specificity. Reading Brainard’s book, I understood that a list of general or broad items would probably not be the most interesting or evocative type of list to read: the items in the list need to be specific and personal, the way that Brainard’s are. Brainard’s work also taught me the power of juxtaposition within lists, and how – particularly when these lists are highly personal – the movement from one item to the next can be a story in itself and can trigger a range of emotional responses. Beyond that, Brainard’s work demonstrates a deceptively simple and effective process for generating lists, so much so that the list titled, “Things I remember about growing up in the Western Suburbs of Sydney in the 1980s” (inspired by Brainard’s technique) was one of the first lists I wrote for the project that became Listurbia.
 Identified by Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik (1901-1988), the Zeigarnik effect is the “tendency to remember an interrupted task more than a completed task.” See Richard L. Gregory, The Oxford Companion to the Mind (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), s.v. “ Zeigarnik effect.”
 Find a description of Oulipo at the Poetry Foundation: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/learn/glossary-terms/oulipo.
 For a discussion of a work along these lines, see Eva von Contzen’s Listology post, “More than Numbers: The Storytelling of Bank Statements On Namwali Serpell’s Short Story ‘Account.’”