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)?