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|The Rise of the Fragmented Novel
(An Essay in 26 Fragments)
by Ted Gioia
Mainstream literary fiction is falling to pieces.
This may not be a bad thing.
The fragmented novel has been a mainstay of the literary
world for the last century. But a new type of fragmentation
has come to the forefront in 21st century novels such as
Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad (2010),
David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas (2004), Roberto Bolaño's
2666 (2004), Ian McEwan's Atonement (2001), Geraldine
Brooks's The People of the Book (2008), Hari Kunzru's
Gods Without Men (2102), T.C. Boyle’s When the
Killing’s Done (2011), David Foster Wallace's The Pale
King (2011), Zadie Smith's NW (2102), Audrey Niffenegger's
The Time Travelers Wife (2003), and other recent works.
Instead of relying on fragmentation as a means of
disjunction and dissolution, as many experimental
novelists had done in the past—Julio Cortázar, William
Burroughs, J.G. Ballard, Gilbert Sorrentino, etc.—the
new fragmented novel is holistic and coalescent. It
resists disunity, even as it appears to embody it.
Michael David Lukas, trying to come to grips with this
same tendency, has noted the
emergence of a new type
of fiction distinguished by
its "multiplicity of voices."
"A strange literary beast has
reemerged," he writes, " a
hybrid of the short story and
traditional novel. This newly
reinvigorated genre — let’s
call it the polyphonic novel."
The comparison with musical polyphony is fitting because,
as with the counterpoint, the voices in these recent novels
are made to fit together with a virtuosity akin to that
demonstrated by the great contrapuntal composers.
Instead of "messy cacophony" these novels delight with
their complicated coherence.
Yet Lukas focuses on only one aspect of this new literary
trend. These novels do not simply delight us with their
contrasting voices. They also send us through an enjoyable
labyrinth. The books he describes are filled with sharp
turns and apparent dead ends, yet we always reach our
final destination. Their authors are not just displaying
virtuosity in creating a range of voices, but also showing
off their ingenuity in building coherent narratives out of
starkly juxtaposed bits and pieces.
Or, put differently, previous attempts to create fragmented
novels tended to emphasize content over form. The current
tendency in the fragmented novel is to exhibit a relentless
formalism even while, at a superficial level, the books seem
to reject it.
Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad provides
an illuminating example of this. Every chapter presents a
radical disjunction. The main character changes, the plot
changes, the prose style changes. But only after we complete
the book do we realize that Egan has actually continued and
completed every one of these abandoned plots. Each story
is given closure in the background of the succeeding chapters.
The abandonment of form has been an illusion. Egan has
been in control all the time.
A similar hidden coherence emerges again and again in
many of the most influential 21st century novels, such as
Cloud Atlas or Atonement. The books appear loose, but
are actually tight. They come to our hands masquerading
as postmodern pastiches, even as they reject most of the
tenets of postmodernism.
This is a remarkable turn of events. And it is clearly related
to the shift in how authors’ reputations are made nowadays.
A generation ago, academic critics decided who the 'most
important novelists' were. Nowadays, literary stars are made
by the teachers and students at MFA writing programs.
When academic literary critics ruled the roost, they prized
texts that were recondite and suitable vehicles for interpretation
by (yes, you guessed it) academic literary critics.The writers
in the MFA programs appreciate these works too, but give
more attention to elements of craftsmanship—plotting,
dialogue, pacing and other nuts-and-bolts matters that
academic critics have downplayed in recent decades.
When I was a student of literature, my professors—who
were academic literary critics, not fiction writers—almost
never mentioned these elements of craft. I remember one
professor even going on a rant in class about students who
paid too much attention to the plot of the novel. He had more
important matters in mind when he read a book than the
actual story. Meanwhile, a completely different set of
concerns were on the minds of those involved in the
university's 'creative writing' program. I was told that one
teacher in this program even required students to write a
"supermarket novel," thus forcing them to pay attention to
all the ingredients necessary to get a book placed prominently
in the rack in front of the checkout aisle at Safeway.
It was hard to believe that two such different approaches to
fiction could be championed at the same time at the same
university. Something would have to give.
But, strange to say, nothing had to give.
The beauty of the new fragmented novel is that writers can
have it both ways. These books pay deference to complexity,
that deity of the lit critic, but they are also marked by an
intense devotion to plot, pacing and other elements of
traditional craft. Highbrow and lowbrow elements are
pleasingly blurred. Experimentation proves that it is
compatible with accessibility.
I am attracted to these books—and I suspect others are
as well—because of their skill in serving such conflicting
masters, and without obvious compromises.
A passing note: The fragmented narrative is not just a
trend in literary fiction. In 1978, a typical 30-second TV
commercial had a camera cut every 3.8 seconds. By
1991, these same commercials inserted a camera cut
every 2.3 seconds. Yet music videos were adopting an
ever more rapid pace, featuring a cut every 1.6 seconds.
Fiction is responding to these changes, rather than
initiating them. Almost all of the arts now aspire to a
pleasing sense of dislocation.
The fragmented novel has gone through three phases in
modern times. Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg Ohio
(1919) exemplifies the early attempts to take a series of
short stories and turn them into a novel. A. E. van Vogt
gave this approach a name—he called it the "fix-up" and
he built his own reputation on repackaging his pulp fiction
short stories into books that resembled, more or less, science
Van Vogt’s motivation was primarily financial. "A novel would
sell whereas the individual stories seldom did," he explained
to an interviewer. "Hence, the great thought came; and the
fix-up novels began." The obvious advantage was that
van Vogt could sell the same piece of writing twice. As for
those who attacked him for peddling secondhand goods in
his novels, the author countered: “I could only shake my head
over these people; to me, they were obviously dilettantes
who didn't understand the economics of writing science fiction."
Yet the "fix-up" approach is capable of producing literary
works of the highest merit. Some of the greatest 'novels'
of the 20th century could be classified as 'fix-ups'—master-
pieces such as Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses or Tim O'Brien's
The Things They Carried. The 'Winesburg strategy'
continues to find advocates in the current day. Elizabeth
Strout's Olive Kitteridge, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 2009
and Tom Rachman's The Imperfectionists (2010) have more
in common with the old Sherwood Anderson type of
fragmented novel than with the works by Egan, Mitchell and
others discussed above. But these turbocharged fix-ups
also contribute to the ascendancy of this new aesthetic of
collage and juxtaposition.
Jay McInerney recently remarked: "I suspect that if Dubliners
had been published in recent years it would have been
marketed as a novel."
Experimental novelists rediscovered the fragmented novel
in the late 1950s. But their conception was diametrically
opposed to that of Sherwood Anderson and other practitioners
of the 'fix-up' and bears only a superficial connection to the
new style of fragmented novel exemplified by Egan, Mitchell
and others. The avant-garde of the 1950s and 1960s did not
want their textual fragments fit together, and devised a host
of new methods to create a sense of dislocation and
discontinuity among readers.
At an extreme, William Burroughs employed his "cut-up"
method that brought a degree of deliberate randomness
into his prose. Burroughs didn't invent the technique—back
in the 1920s, Dadaist Tristan Tzara announced that poetry
could be created by pulling words out of a hat. Literally out of
a hat, a black magician's hat in Tzara's case. John Dos
Passos dispensed with the hat, but experimented in the
1930s with comparable techniques, inserting newspaper head-
lines and bits of articles or songs into his U.S.A. Trilogy.
Doris Lessing would later do something similar in The Golden
Notebook (1962) and, in my opinion, achieved better results
than Dos Passos. J.G. Ballard took the same approach in
The Atrocity Exhibition—and it was revealing that he asked
Burroughs, the most extreme exponent of the cut-up (as
opposed to the fix-up) to write an introduction to a later
edition of this novel.
The postmodern turn in literature left us with a host of
techniques for turning a novel into bits of semantic shrapnel.
These books made strange, unprecedented demands on their
readers. At the beginning of Hopscotch, Julio Cortázar
suggests a non-sequential way of proceeding through his
novel, starting with chapter 73 and ending with chapter 131.
J.G. Ballard takes an even stranger approach in The Atrocity
Exhibition. "Rather than start at the beginning of each chapter,"
he writes in his introduction, “simply turn the pages until a
paragraph catches your eye." Italo Calvino continually entices
his reader into expecting some degree of narrative continuity
in If On a Winter's Night a Traveler, only to disrupt the process
with constant obstacles and interruptions. At the other extreme,
Raymond Queneau tells the same tedious story over and over
again 99 times in his Exercises in Style. In Pale Fire,
Vladimir Nabokov hid his novel in a text that masqueraded as
an academic’s annotation of a work of modern poetry.
Non-fiction also contributed new techniques. Roland
Barthes published his autobiography in 1975, and broke
it up into fragments that were organized in alphabetical order.
Not long after this work was translated into English, a
friend told me that he wanted to try the same approach in a
novel. He would write chapters that would have simple,
descriptive titles, and then these chapters would be arranged
in order from A to Z.
"The key," he admitted, "is for the climactic scene to take
place at a zoo."
But what my friend suggested in humor soon became reality.
Milorad Pavić, published his Dictionary of the Khazars in
1984—and here the novelist surpasses Barthes by including
three separate and contradictory narratives in his book,
each disguised as a lexicon in alphabetical order.
The only thing Pavić missed was the zoo.
"I wanted very much to accept his offer of the American rights
but as my capacity is limited, and short stories in book form
do not sell well in America I reluctantly abandoned the idea."
From Bernard Huebsch’s rejection letter for James Joyce’s Dubliners
But the most prominent non-fiction role model for the
fragmented novel came from Ludwig Wittgenstein, whose
Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus had long bewitched,
bothered and bewildered readers with its numbered
statements that ostensibly presented a coherent philosophy,
but could also be read as an extravagant type of poetry.
Wittgenstein offered sublime pronouncements, such as:
1.21 Each item can be the case or not the case while
everything else remains the same.
2.027 Objects, the unalterable, and the substantial are one
and the same.
These kind of statements, as far as I can see, really aren't
much different from:
A man and a woman
A man and a woman and a blackbird
So who can be surprised when experimental authors drew
explicit comparison between their works and the Tractatus?
If fragmentation were more than just a game storytellers
played and could actually stake a claim for its superior grasp
of reality, then Wittgenstein was the prophet and systematizer
who provided a philosophy to complement the fractured
narratives of the postmodern novelists.
But the two most prominent postmodern novels with explicit
reference to Wittgenstein's Tractatus—Philip K. Dick's
VALIS and David Markson's Wittgenstein’s Mistress—both
featured narrators who are mentally disturbed.
So does the Tractatus-as-role-model take us closer to
realism or further away?
The fractured works of the current day represent the third
stage in the evolution of the fragmented novel. The first stage
focused on the fix-up. The second stage introduced the
cut-up. The third and perhaps final stage seeks an exemplary
wholeness, a fitting together of the fragments into brilliant
patterns. It does not court randomness or glorify schizophrenia.
The fragments here are not shrapnel. More like pieces of a
glorious jigsaw puzzle.
Indeed, the first work of fiction to explore this technique,
predating the rise of the new fragmented novel, is actually
about jigsaw puzzles. Georges Perec's Life A User’' Manual
(1978) tells the story of a wealthy eccentric who is obsessed
with these puzzles, and they serve as a ruling metaphor for
the book, both a unifying element of plot, and a structural
blueprint for Perec’s fictional account of the activities inside
a Parisian apartment block on June 23, 1975.
When it was published, Perec's work was hardly seen as a
harbinger of the future of mainstream literary fiction. More the
quirky effort of a writer every bit as eccentric as the people
he describes in his novels. Yet fast-forward a generation, and
Life A User's Manual would be very much at home in a
literary culture that turns Cloud Atlas into a Tom Hanks movie
and awards a Pulitzer Prize to A Visit from the Goon Squad.
But if I had to pick a milestone moment when the new style
of fragmentation emerged, I would pinpoint the release of
Don DeLillo's Underworld in 1997. In 2006, when the New
York Times asked authors and critics to vote for the best
work of American fiction of the last 25 years, DeLillo's
800-page behemoth finished second, trailing only Toni
Morrison's Beloved. I suspect that these voters responded,
as did I, to DeLillo’s extraordinary skill in presenting a story
that was sprawling and multivalent, yet also meticulously
controlled and orchestrated.
At the time of its publication, Underworld must have seemed
a one-of-a-kind book, but with the passing years we can see
how this novel anticipated many later developments. And
not just in terms of how to impart structure and solidity to a
fragmented novel. The cover of DeLillo's novel featured
an ominous photograph of the Twin Towers, all this before
their own horrifying fragmentation just four years later.
Somehow this book managed to be a 9/11 novel avant la
lettre. Michiko Kakutani was hardly exaggerating when
she announced in 2011 that Underworld "not only captured
the surreal weirdness of life in the second half of the 20th
century but also anticipated America’s lurch into the terror
and exigencies of the new millennium."
"More and more, I read in pieces. So do you. Digital media,
in all its forms, is fragmentary. Even the longest stretches of
text online are broken up with hyperlinks or other interactive
elements (or even ads). This is neither a good nor bad thing,
necessarily — it is simply a part of modern reading."
Guy Patrick Cunningham, "Fragmentary: Writing in a Digital Age"
It’s no coincidence that the legitimization of comic books
—now referred to as graphic novels—has taken place
during the same period that mainstream literary fiction has
grown increasingly fragmented. The white panels (or
'gutters') that separate the frames of the graphic novel
are much like the gaps that now break up prose narratives.
"The use of gutters," writes Naomi Pallas, "draws attention
to the fragmentary nature of [comic book] narratives, and
allows the authors to explore dynamic elements such as
crumbling memories onto the page."
The graphic novel, like the current incarnation of the
fragmented novel, seeks to create an impression of
continuity and flow even while its basic structural device
is one of separation and discontinuity. So the legitimization
of these once despised 'comic books' is not just another
elevation of pop culture into the realm of the mid-brow and
high-brow. It also signals a convergence between literary
fiction and graphic narratives. A similar type of formalism
prevails in both idioms.
In 2009, Matt Stewart announced his plan to tweet his entire
debut novel The French Revolution in bite-sized 140-character
tidbits. He started on Bastille Day and finished four months
later on October 21, 2009. His book, originally consisting of
approximately 3,700 tweets, was later published in
conventional print format by Soft Skull Press.
Many other authors have followed up on the promise of the
tweet novel. Meanwhile in Japan, mobile phone novels,
known as keitai shousetsu, have become bestsellers.
These downsized 'books', with chapters of around 70-100
words, have spawned a new business model for publishing
and distributing fiction.
All experimental approaches in the arts can perhaps be
divided into two categories—experiments of disjunction
or experiments of compression. Either things get pushed
apart, or get squeezed together. Either an aesthetic of
disintegration, or an aesthetic of wave-like flow.
This dichotomy exists outside progressive fiction, perhaps
finding a place in every art form. Think of Thelonious Monk
as the jazzman of fragmentation, and Bill Evans as his
opposite, the exponent of immersive flow. Or compare the
brusque confronting shapes of cubism versus the gradient
palette of impressionism. Or contrast the visual flow of
Stanley Kubrick (every film has at least one long unspliced
tracking shot) and Terrence Malick with the choppy, in-your-
face approach of Quentin Tarantino and the French New
It was the destiny of avant-garde fiction during most of the
20th century to favor the flow style, instead of the disjunctive
approach. James Joyce played the decisive role in this
history. His advocacy of stream-of-consciousness changed
the course of fiction for almost a half-century. Joyce made
clear the exciting potential for a new kind of novel, in which
all dividing lines—whether of punctuation or psychology, plot
or theme—could be torn asunder. This interpretation of
20th century literature may not be entirely fair to Joyce (who
claimed that Ulysses represented more than a stream-of
consciousness novel, and offered "eighteen different points
of view and in as many styles, all apparently unknown or
undiscovered by my fellow tradesmen") but, for better or
worse, this was how he was perceived by the next
generation. Along with other masters of a flow approach
(Faulkner, Woolf, Proust), Joyce set the tone for avant-
garde writers of the next two generations.
The postmodern boom of the 1970s and 1980s made the
first dent in this aesthetic. None of these authors had the
same cachet as their illustrious predecessors. Italo Calivno
is not Joyce; Paul Auster is not Faulkner. But they planted a
seed, and set an example that is now influencing the current
exponents of literary fiction. Yet here's the unexpected twist:
the techniques of disjunction and fragmentation, once pursued
as part of an avant-garde movement, have been tamed and
subdued. In short, they have gone mainstream.
Yes, the literary novel is falling to pieces. And I'll predict
that this process still has a long way to go. The fact that
the publishing business is also falling to pieces—albeit in
a different way—may only accentuate the trend, as writers
embrace pointillistic do-it-yourself media to present their
deliberately broken wares to an audience that has grown
up on bite-sized fare.
Yes, at some point all trends reverse, and today's quest
for a pleasing disjunction may well be replaced by a
subsequent taste for smoother narratives. But that's probably
still years off in the future. In the current moment, nothing
seems less likely than the rise of a literary community that
embraces homogenized forms of fiction. Most of us
are deeply suspicious of proffered unities nowadays—and
for a good reason, no? Been there, done that. Tidy
narratives have become the domain of politicians and
ideologues. As for the rest of us...well, we've all gotten
on our knees and prayed we won't get fooled again. So
let's grab on to the next best alternative. Let’s try to stack
our bits and pieces into pleasing wholes that approximate
a unity. This just might be good enough until something
better comes along.
Ted Gioia writes on music, books and popular culture. He is currently
writing his ninth book, Love Songs: A Secret History, forthcoming from
Oxford University Press.
Publication date of this essay: July 17, 2013
|Fiction is responding to
these changes, rather than
initiating them. Almost all
of the arts now aspire to a
pleasing sense of