Fragmented Novels

Ah, the fragmented novel. Why do I enjoy you so much? Is it because you remind me of my own fractured, splintered brain? (That’s a slightly melodramatic exaggeration, but not by much.) Is it because you’re an accurate representation of our broken society, our shattered world?  (I guess you could call it multi-faceted if you’re a Thomas Friedman fan.) Are you the current hot shit thing in publishing, thanks to A Visit From the Goon Squad and Cloud Atlas? Are you a pretentious term for a short story collection because nobody wants to read short stories anymore? Are you a marketing gimmick? Are you a symbol of our own collapsing attention spans, numbly clicking from one Internet tab to the next? Are you really that fragmented, or are you merely broken, episodic, polyphonic, a novel-in-stories? Does your special members club include As I Lay Dying and Infinite Jest or am I kinda pushing my luck here?

Whatever. I have no answers for those questions (obviously). They merely serve as a convenient introductory paragraph for this one basic truth that I DO know: I like reading fragmented novels. Like, a lot. I enjoy feeling like a detective when I read, hunting for clues, for hints at ways the stories are going to link together or add up. The thrill of the hunt, the joy of the chase. I like short story collections and I like novels, and with the fragmented novel, you get both! 2-in-one! Like a deal at Fred Meyer where you buy a stick of glue and get a pair of scissors at the same time! What’s not to like?

I have been reading a lot of fragmented novels lately, since that’s the kind of book I’ve been writing (HECK YES). Here are a few that have stood out for me.

Olive Kitteridge (Elizabeth Strout)

This book (a “novel-in-stories”) definitely deserved to win the Pulitzer IMHO, as it is quite the achievement. I think I’ll probably buy it for my mother for Christmas. Olive Kitteridge is the main character (obviously), a high school teacher in small-town Maine, and appears in every single story in this collection, although sometimes only briefly, barely qualifying as a cameo. The stories in which she is not a main character instead focus on different members of the town, or sometimes members of her family.

The main reason this book was so successful for me is that Olive is a terrific character–abrasive, dislikable, yet sympathetic and complex. The moment in which I was truly sold was in the fourth story, “A Little Burst,” when she steals a sweater and single shoe from the know-it-all bride, just to keep her on her toes: Nobody knows everything. They shouldn’t think they do. It’s the kind of characterization that’s makes you want to sit up and clap your hands in delight, even if in other stories you see how her obtuseness can be hurtful. Thanks to the other stories, you understand why some people in her life (like her son) can’t stand her, yet at the same time you pity her (that is a very English 101 statement, but there you go). Strout does an amazing job at creating empathy, at showing both sides of the story (though interestingly enough we never get a story from the son’s point of view). This book really drives home the message  that it is CHARACTER that makes a novel great–more than anything else, good characters are what make you want to keep reading. The writing style was also very impressive–beautifully written, yet unpretentious and extremely readable. I was also very intrigued by the theme of mental illness that runs throughout these stories: different characters are affected by legacies of suicide, eating disorders, pyromania. The levels of crazy  seem to get more and more intense as the book progresses–I’m not sure what it means, but I found it very interesting.

This book was a true pleasure to read and I looked forward to picking it up every day. The other important lesson I learned from this book is that it opens with what is arguably the strongest story in the collection, “Pharmacy” (I hope I don’t get arrested for posting that link here). This helped remind me that you really can’t be fucking around with your reader at the beginning of your book and wasting their time. You gotta put your best shit first.

The Illustrated Man (Ray Bradbury)

This was a nice fun light little read. The framing device in this story is a bit strange and felt somewhat unnecessary: basically, in the opening piece, the narrator meets the titular “illustrated man,” whose body is covered in animated, cinematic tattoos. Every tattoo on his body represents a story in this collection. Bradbury refers to this framing devil in the first two stories then seems to give up on it completely, which makes it a bit jarring when you suddenly return to the illustrated man in the collection’s final piece. Weird, but I guess he wanted to make it more interesting than just a plain short story collection. So party on, Ray Bradbury.

I have become a big fan of Ray Bradbury this year (I’m currently reading The Martian Chronicles as we speak). My favorite story in this was definitely “Kaleidoscope,” which I am seriously tempted to say is one of the most moving short stories I’ve ever read. Or maybe that’s just due to the effect of the Gravity trailers. Tumbling through space into the endless void and abyss–God.

But anyway, there’s something about the simplicity in Bradbury’s writing that feels very escapist and enjoyable to me–like I’m reading the kind of book I would have loved when I was twelve. The contrast between childhood and adulthood is definitely a big theme in his writing. I liked the straightforwardness of this book–they are science fiction stories, tightly plotted, plenty of meditations on man vs. technology, done simply and done well.

I also liked this quote from the collection’s closing story, “The Playground”: It seemed you did more planning in autumn than any other season. This had to do with dying, perhaps. You thought of death and you automatically planned.

NW (Zadie Smith)

Can you believe that this is the first Zadie Smith novel I have ever read? I refuse to count White Teeth, which I read SO LONG AGO (2000!!!) I’m sure most of it went completely over my head, or her collection of essays, which I read earlier this year and very much enjoyed (I definitely aspire to one day write at a Zadie Smith-level of criticism).

I also really enjoyed this book. I wouldn’t have thought of it as a fractured novel–it doesn’t feel like a short story collection in the same way that Olive Kitteridge does. It definitely feels like a novel, albeit narrated in different voices (Leah, Natalie, Felix and Nathan). By the fourth section it definitely becomes clear which character is the one Smith finds most interesting (and thankfully I did as well), and that helps it feel more novelistic as well–you are following one character’s journey or arch, as opposed to many.

My favorite sections in this book were the first and third (the Leah and Natalie sections respectively). I liked these two sections the best because I got the feeling that these were the sections that Smith enjoyed writing the most–that she really KNEW and was invested in the material. They also happened to be the sections that were the most experimental, for what it’s worth (perhaps as a homage to Ulysses, the most obvious example of a city-based book? I’d also really love to know why Natalie’s chapter is divided into 182 sections–why 182?). Section 2, about Felix the ex druggie trying to go clean, was less compelling for me and took a long time to get through, but maybe that was just because I was reading it the day that I adopted my cat (!! yes, along with writing a book, this is another big development in my life…). But yeah, Felix rang a little less true to me, because his chapter felt very familiar–like something I had read before. The last paragraph (depicting the traumatic event that the rest of the book circles around) is truly a thing a beauty, though, and definitely reminds you that Smith is a capital-W Writer. I was also disappointed that unlike what the book jacket promised, we didn’t get to enter Nathan’s head–instead we see him through the eyes of Natalie. That was kind of a bummer. Since we only see him from Natalie ‘s perspective, he comes off as a classic crackhead and not really much of a character. As a reader, I felt like Nathan got turned into the Villain at the expense of giving the book a sense of Plot and Structure. Poor Nathan.

Still, Zadie Smith definitely deserves all the accolades and hype that she gets. She has produced a real treat to read that is accessible yet decidedly uncommercial. Good for her. I also loved the theme of the self that kept popping up. Who are we, this book kept asking. Are we just a composite of what we want other people to think of us? Images that we project and produce? At what point do our real selves end and our fake selves begin? It was all very David Foster Wallace (apparently Smith is a big fan–delightful!).

Anagrams (Lorrie Moore)

This was definitely my favorite work of Lorrie Moore’s that I’ve read so far. It is a very weird, exciting book–it  somewhat loses steam at the end, but I still found it very enjoyable and inspiring. It’s definitely setting out to do something different, and I LOVE fiction that makes me feel like that–like I’m reading something I’ve never seen done before. It’s like that classic Werner Herzog quote about how we must constantly be seeking new images in art, or else die out like dinosaurs (a great sentiment to live by).

I am glad that I knew before reading this book that it was a “fragmented” novel–i.e., in each chapter, the three main characters appear in different forms, with varying ages, careers, personalities, etc. So in some they are a couple, in some they are friends, in another the main character is a university professor with  a daughter, in yet another she is a single aerobics teacher. It is as though each chapter is a jazz riff or variation on what came before. If I hadn’t known this, it is very likely I would have gotten confused or even frustrated. I can definitely see why some people wouldn’t like this book–but I loved it!

The book’s structure  makes sense in light of the book’s title, which in turn is an encapsulation of the book’s main themes: how fragmentary and fragile our identities really are, the possibility of parallel universes and endless combinations of the self, etc. Very Borges-esque. In her Paris Review interview, Moore describes the book as five short stories and one short novel, whereas I would totally be okay with calling this a novel. It follows the same characters throughout on an emotional journey, so why not?

Anyway, I am glad I read this book. It does something really interesting I have not seen before (in the longest piece, one of the main characters is  an imaginary friend–I found this to be EXTREMELy avant-garde!). It is also full of hilarious, classic Lorrie Moore one-liners. Like many people I think this is what I enjoy most about Moore–the humor. I almost NEVER laugh when reading books so anything that makes me even crack the faintest of smiles is a hugely commendable Pulitzer-prize worthy achievement. I think the part that made me laugh the hardest was this line about insects in the bathroom: A big fly buzzed right through a spider web and instead of getting caught in it, the fly ended up dragging the spider along on about six inches of spider silk torn from the web; they flew around the bathroom like that together all day, the spider a kind of astonished kite trailing behind. The whole thing seemed emblematic of something–though I wasn’t sure what.

What really kills me in the passage is the use of the word “astonished”. Amazing.

Hawthorn & Child (Keith Ridgway)

This is definitely the best book I’ve read so far this year and arguably one of the best books I’ve  read in my life. If I could purchase a copy for everybody I knew I would. I couldn’t put it down. Bolaño would LOVE this book.

The titular Hawthron & Child are a pair of detectives who wander in and out of these stories (or are they chapters?) like Rosencratz and Guildenstern, or like they’re waiting for Godot. The plot of the story is that there is no plot. There is no journey or change or connection. Mysteries are unsolvable, life is nonsensical, things don’t add up, there is no answer or explanation. I LOVE THESE THEMES. Onetti and Piglia (two of my other favorite authors) do as well. I find these themes fascinating because they say so much about our desires as readers (and as people!) for order, answers, and conclusions. We want our lives to make sense, to add up, to be coherent. And yet they’re not (if  yours is, what’s your secret?!).

The other thing that is worth commending about this book is the writing style. Ridgway must have edited this book ruthlessly (or maybe he is a sparse writer from Draft 1; who knows?). It is HIGHLY readable, yet the language is beautiful. Every sentence in this book is tight, tight, tight; not a word is wasted. Check out the opening sentences: He dreamed he was sleeping and Child was driving. / It was fucking hot. / She liked art. / I am ill. I have been ill for some time. It is a very smart move on Ridgway’s part of make his writing so readable and approachable (almost pulpy)–with a novel this innovative, it helps to not add an extra level of confusion on the level of the prose.

I was also fascinated by how well Ridgway is able to develop character. We are given virtually NO distinguishing details about Hawthorn & Child: we know that Child is black and wears glasses, and that Hawthorn is gay and cries a lot. That’s basically it. It really drove home the message to me that sometimes to make a character memorable, you don’t need a super complicated image or epic description. Sometimes “funny-looking face” works just fine. The dialogue between Hawthorn & Child is also pitch perfect and hilarious; the scene in the last story where they buy cigarettes for the first time in years is hysterical. I could read 400+ pages of them just talking. The characterization in these stories is magnificent, particularly with the 1st-person narrators–not since American Psycho have I read a work so good at getting into the heads of some seriously sick lunatics (the book’s use of violence sometimes reaches an Infinite Jest-level of icky–there’s one scene involving stairs and a baby that Cormac McCarthy would have truly been proud of). I think my favorite story in this collection is the one about a publisher who must deal with a Game of Thrones-like manuscript about a pack of wolves (this was seriously the most WTF story). Runner-up is “Rothko Eggs,” a bittersweet story about an art-obsessed teenage girl falling in love for the first time with a potentially gay boy.

I am also extremely in awe of the subtle way that Ridgway connects the stories–I never felt I was getting beaten over the head by the author shouting “LOOK AT HOW THESE ARE CONNECTED!!!” The titular cops appear in every story (sometimes only fleetingly, not even named, but recognizable via Child’s trademark glasses or Hawthorn’s pale weepiness). The other threads that connect the pieces are much more subtle: a gangster with a distinctive name floats in and out like a ghost, violence, homosexuality, madness… Everything in this book is gold, I tell you. GOLD. If you are a fan of Paul Auster, you’d dig this. As soon as I finished this book I wanted to buy it. It makes no excuses or apologies. This book pushes the boundaries of what a novel and/or short story collection can and should do.

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2 Comments

Filed under books, review, short stories

2 responses to “Fragmented Novels

  1. stacia

    i LOVED anagrams when i read it in college. i still think about it. i should reread it.

  2. I so agree on Hawthorn & Child, easily one of the best books I’ve read in recent years. It also merits re-reading, if you haven’t already.

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