The Future of the Novel

April 27, 2011 § 4 Comments

I usually don’t read a lot of new fiction. There are so many classics still to be devoured, recommendations from friends and family to peruse, and so many new titles every year that it seems easier to let time be the sifter of what’s good and what disappears quietly into the library’s discarded pile.

But I have read and thoroughly enjoyed the novel that won last week’s Pulitzer Prize for fiction, Jennifer Egan’s novel, A Visit From the Goon Squad. Centered around two characters and the changing music industry over the last 40 years, the novel jumps back and forth through time, each chapter about a different person who is loosely connected to one of the main characters. The nonlinear plot jumps space too, from New York to San Francisco to Africa.

Egan explains more in this interview with Jeffrey Brown. (It’s an 8 min video, but worth the watch. She’s quite self-aware and articulate of her writing process.)

I like Egan’s reasoning for this sort of structure, that when we hear a song, “music cuts through time like nothing else.” So a novel about music shouldn’t be too concerned with chronology. Similarly, our thought-lives are hardly ever linear; memories, present tasks, and future daydreams and plans frequently overlap. I think James Joyce’s Ulysses ultimately revealed this same idea: our stream-of-conscious moves us in and out of time, not straight through it. One could make the argument that our perception of reality is never truly linear.

The loose narrative structure–every chapter a short story in itself–reminded me of another favorite novel, Adverbs by Daniel Handler (more famously known by his pen name Lemony Snicket, the author of the wry Series of Unfortunate Events). Adverbs is a novel about love, each chapter titled something like immediately, judgmentally, or artfully, which describes that particular love story. The same characters keep popping up, first in their own story, then as a minor character in someone else’s story. It’s the literary version of a concept album:

“It is not the diamonds or the birds, the people or the potatoes; it is not any of the nouns. The miracle is the adverbs, the way things are done. It is the way love gets done despite every catastrophe.” -Daniel Handler, Adverbs

It’s an interesting structure in both books and a trend I’d love to see more of in future novels. In our increasingly connected world, I’m intrigued by the idea that one’s story is told as much through other characters’ interactions and perception of that person than the person’s own thoughts and experiences. To truly understand a character, we observe her in different periods of life or see him through the eyes of someone else. It’d be an exchange of the almost visceral connection between reader and character for the more objective role of a sideline observer, but with my generation’s hip cynicism and shortened attention span, this could just be the future of the novel.

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§ 4 Responses to The Future of the Novel

  • Thanks for this, Abi. Both of these books are now on my summer reading list!

  • Marcia says:

    Thanks, Abi! Have you read Tim Winton? His book of short stories, The Turning, has this structure of characters entering in and out of each other’s stories. Gives so much more insight into the characters than when they inhabit just one.

  • Jason says:

    I enjoyed Egan’s interview on Studio 360. The creative process questions were my favorite part of the discussion.

    Have you read any novels retelling a story from another character’s perspective? Orson Scott Card did that for his Ender Series. I liked the idea but not the book.

  • Marcia – I haven’t read Tim Winton yet, but I will add him to my list!

    Jason – I can’t think of a series like that other than the Ender series right now. But I always enjoy retellings of fairy tales/myths/popular stories, especially when taken from an unexpected perspective.

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