Novel or Novelty Gimmick?

It was sheer coincidence, reading three novels with unconventional structures in quick succession. So uncoventional that one might question if they are even novels. They certainly felt more like essays or biographies or memoirs, but with fictional narrators and characters. You could say it’s a trend, but while two of the novels are recent, one was published in the 1970s. In fact, it might be safe to say that such novels have existed since the beginning of time: 1001 Nights, Tales of Genji, Tristram Shandy, Don Quixote all mess up with our love of clear chronology and neat linear narratives. So why do I feel that perhaps there is more of an appetite for it now, and that some authors and publishers are deliberately jumping on the bandwagon? Is it indeed that, as our attention spans have shortened, as we get inundated with scraps of half-digested and unproven information, we find it difficult to believe in the authoritative author’s voice and unified narrative?

The three books that got me thinking about all this and more are: Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights, Joanna Walsh’s Break.up and John Berger’s G. However, other recent publications also come to mind, such as Jenny Offill’s Dept of Speculation, Heidi Julavits’ The Folding Clock, Rachel Cusk’s recent trilogy (I’ve yet to read Kudos), Lisa Owens’ Not Working  and Maggie Nelson’s Bluets. I’ve loved some of these and not liked the others all that much, so I don’t think it’s a lack of willingness to engage with experimentation. (On the contrary, how often have you heard me complain that the author has an original concept but simply does not go far enough?) When done successfully, you can feel there is an underlying pattern and intent there, even if you are not sure that you understand it. At times, however, the lack of structure or ‘démontage’ of structure feels more like a lazy mess than deliberate experimentation.

The authors of these novels (not all of them describe their work as novels) justify what they do by saying they are ‘lassoing moments that were about to be lost’ (Julavitz) or they are emulating Heraclitus’ river (no matter where you step into the book, it is never the same book – Maggie Nelson). Tokarczuk speaks of the constellation novel, where each person detects their own pattern, based on their past experiences and present sensibilities. Cusk presents the flat, bland heroine who seems to reflect back the thoughts, desires and words of all the people she meets – what I would call the would-be objective anthropological narrator (although we all know that there is no such thing as complete objectivity). Joanna Walsh describes her work as ‘hybrid’, and her ‘novel’ is about the end of an affair (which seems to have existed largely in the narrator’s own mind), a travelogue and lots of internal monologue or attempted dialogue with the absent lover. John Berger’s retelling of the adventures of Giacomo Casanova during a troubled period of history is anything but a conventional biography, going off on substantial tangents and interspersed with secondary characters’ thoughts and back stories. Meanwhile, Jenny Offill argues that the broken structure of her novel reflects the narrator’s broken state of mind, with thoughts randomly coming into her head without too much context. Lisa Owens’s heroine is full of acerbic asides and amusing observations – a fragmented, post-modern Bridget Jones maybe.

I fall for the theoretical explanations of purpose every time, but I have to admit that not all the books are equally adept in the execution. I still think it is far harder to have an overarching theme that plays out through a perfect balance of characters and plot. The danger of fragmentation of course is that the novel becomes a kind of pick’n’mix. Readers will like certain parts and hate (or skip others). Perhaps it is not that different to how I read War and Peace, skipping over most of the battle scenes, unless they featured Napoleon or Prince Andrei? Or does it help if I think of them as poetry, like in the case of Bluets?

Perhaps that is why I enjoy the Spanish or Latin American novels way of storytelling? There are many, many tangential stories in those novels that seem to bear no relationship to the main story and yet you feel that you are progressing, that there is a purpose to the story. Of the books I mention above, I felt that same sense of ‘the author knows where she is going’ with Flights and Bluets, and they are the ones that stayed with me most. And a final point which puzzles me: why are most of these novels written by women in the English-speaking world (which is most certainly not the case in the Spanish-speaking one)?

 

 

 

#6Degrees of Separation: March 2018

It’s time for #6degrees over on Kate’s blog. Start at the same place as other wonderful readers, add six books, and see where you end up! This month’s starting point is Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth, which I read a few years after it came out (while doing my anthropology course). I remember it made me furious at the time – because I saw so much that I knew to be true in it, and it seems to continue to hold true, even after all the balooney about airbrushing and expensive creams have been exposed.

Another book which makes me angry, because I realise how little has changed since it was written is James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native SonI was also fascinated by the differences he notices in the treatment of black people (and how they perceive themselves) in America and in France. There is also a rather sinister chapter set in a remote Swiss mountain village – which I suspect might play out almost identically today. Unless you are rich and throw money around as you go to the spa in Leukerbad, in which case they don’t notice your colour!

The book that spells Switzerland for pretty much all of us who grew up in Europe or saw the animated TV series back in the 1980s(?) is of course Heidi by Johanna Spyri. Full of nostalgia for childhood and for the healthy mountain air and simple life – despite the fact that back then goat herds were probably very poor indeed. It seems to have the opposite thesis to Baldwin’s account: that villagers and simple Alpine folk are much more generous and kind. But Switzerland is full of such contradictions: very rich people who try to appear casual and understated; welcoming to refugees yet very reluctant to integrate them.

My next link is somewhat tenuous – the author’s name is Heidi Julavits: The Folded Clock. It is a fascinating sweep through a woman’s mind, her past and future, her attempts at creativity – it is a strange sort of diary, quite hypnotic. I am fascinated by these recent non-fiction, dream-like, almost poetic sequences, although I don’t quite know what to call them. The cover is just beautiful, and I kept underlining passages of it, even though it didn’t quite hang together for me. A book for dipping into.

A very different diary is featured in the hilarious series by Sue Townsend which began with The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 3/4. Fun though The Diary of a Wimpy Kid is, I believe this English series to be the original and the best. I read them later, when I was quite a bit older than Adrian himself, but I adored his rage against Thatcher and his adolescent pretentiousness (so similar to mine at that age). I haven’t read the last two, but am tempted to look them all up again in the library.

The book was adapted for TV in 1985 and more recently so has the Outlander series based on the books by Diana Gabaldon. Described as historical fiction meets sci-fi meets fantasy meets romance, it is not necessarily my type of book at all, but I have a vague recollection of reading a couple of them in the 1990s and being unable to put them down. I only remember something about the Scottish Highlands and clan wars now.

Books which are definitely my kind of thing and which I cannot put down are crime novels and the most recent one of this type which I’ve read (and which also contains some fantasy elements) is The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton. I’ll be reviewing it shortly on Crime Fiction Lover, but it’s interesting to note that in the US Evelyn will be granted an additional half-death, as the title there will be The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle. Bizarre!

There you go, I’ve tried to include other genres and something for all tastes in my links this month! Look forward to seeing what you’ve come up with.