Archive for The Novel

The Shape of Fiction: Structuring the Novel

Posted in The Literateria, Upcoming Events with tags , , , , , on 02/03/2017 by Janet Fitch

On Feb. 10, I was invited to speak on a panel about the Shape of the Novel with Christian Kiefer (The Animals), with whom I frequently teach at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers,  also Jeff Jackson (Mira Corpora) , Esme Weijun Wang  (the Border of Paradise) and Kirsten Chen (Soy Sauce for Beginners).

Like most writers, I am fascinated by the shapes the novel can take. What a commodious form it is.  It encompasses everything from straightforward chronological  stories– from the 19th Century novel in third person, Anna Karenina say, to the more contemporary and voice driven version first person variety, like Sapphire’s Push, to braided narratives like Barbara Kingsolver’s Poisonwood Bible–where the story is handed off between stories or characters, each advancing the work further. It’s a shape popular among writers, because it’s so useful. It gives us somewhere to go when we’ve exhausted  a certain narrative burst–we can hand it off to the next character’s story line.

There’s the retelling of a story from the point of view of a minor character (The Wind Done Gone, Grendel) and the Rashomon-style narrative, where the same territory is readdressed by  a number of different points of view.  A work like the Alexandria Quartet involves many of these shapes. The first book, Justine, is Darley’s story,  but the second book, Balthazar, interlineates the first one, “here’s what you didn’t know at the time”–like Rashomon. The third book , Mountolive, goes back and describes how the situation came to be (prequel), and the fourth, Clea, moves the narrative forward again.

There are novels made up of single sentences, like Markson’s work–Readers Block is my favorite–and Carole Maso’s Ava, and novels that are one single sentence, like Marquez’s Autumn of the Patriarch. There are novels that are closed universes (Pynchon’s novels, especially Gravity’s Rainbow) where everything comes around again, and there is no ‘outside’ the system.  There are epistolatory novels–novels in letters like Les Liaisons Dangereuses and The White Tiger, and novels in diary form, like Diary of a Madman and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and novels with framing devices (an older character thinking back in time, say, like Evening by Susan Minot) or a past story and a present story like A.S. Byatt’s Possession.

Then there are novels which begin with shape as a game.  Mark Danielewski’s genre-breaking visual novels  the multivolume The Familiar,  House of Leaves and Only Revolutions all contain literary and visual games.  Only Revolutions, for example,  has 360 pages, 36 lines per page, and eliminates whole categories of vocabulary in support of its protagonists, young his-and-her gods in the making. So no religious words, no structural words, no interior words. I loved the way that the two narratives begin, his and hers, one at either end of the novel, and cross in the middle.  You read through and then you flip the book over and start again.

The ultimate gamester is the Oulipo group’s Georges Perec, the one who eliminated the letter e from his novel A Void–which called for a tremendous discipline, as e is the most used letter in the French alphabet, and precludes the use of “the”(le) or “I” (Je.) The Void was not only  the absence of ‘e’ but also the story of an absent person the others search for. The obstruction absolutely shaped the story. In his novel Life a User’s Manual, stories arise from the examination of the contents of a French apartment house, rooms visited on a grid via the knight’s move, with hundreds of obstructions–which he saw as “a machine for inspiration.”

So the shapes and obstructions and rules writers set themselves  aren’t there to frustrate themselves but as challenges and  prompts to the imagination.  In Joyce’s Ulysses–very loosely based on the Odyssey–each chapter was written in an entirely different style.  Rabih Alameddine’s I, The Divine is a novel comprised all of opening chapters as a woman tries and fails to tell her story in various ways.  On the flip side, John Fowles’ French Lieutenant’s Woman gives us three different endings.

With many of the more innovative shapes of novel, the reader has to learn how to read the novel as they go.  That is certainly the case with Danielewski’s typographically intricate works, and notoriously with David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, where the reader must decide whether to read the text and the footnotes concurrently, or get to the end of a chapter and go back for the footnote, or read all the way through, and then go back and read the footnotes all the way through.

There’s the nested novel, like Cloud Atlas, stories within stories–I call this the Sargasso Manuscript novel, from the movie where each character tells a story, and then that story is interrupted by the tale of a character within that story–going down seven layers and coming back out. Michael Cunningham’s Specimen Days was an interesting example of the same-ish story being told three times, in three different genres–ghost story, noir thriller and sci fi. His novel The Hours was more a braided story, but elements of each story bleed into the others.

And don’t forget the novel in verse, which I think is enjoying a comeback due to the openness of young adult fiction to new genres and mashups–many popular young adult novels are written in verse such as Ellen Hopkins’ Crank which will result in an adult audience which isn’t as doctrinaire about genre as past generations. In the adult category, novels in verse can be anything from the tight meter and rhyme of Vikram Seth’s San Francisco novel Golden Gate–Onegin stanzas they’re called, in homage to the greatest of all novels in verse, Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin–but there’s also the looser, more narrative free-verse werewolf novel Sharp Teeth by Toby Barlow.

And I’m reaching to describe the brilliant motival technique of Malcolm Lowry’s masterpiece Under the Volcano, which I’ve always called the Spiral Novel. This novel is shaped by the buildup of images (motifs), like a Beethoven concerto–you get the image or phrase once, then it comes around again and gains power with each repetition, as more emotion and resonance adheres to it. (Like the first time Oaxaca is mentioned, it’s just a place. Then 40 pages later, he says, “Oaxaca meant divorce.” after which every time it’s mentioned, it gains more gravity.) There are hundreds of images and phrases like this whirling around in the book–the feral dogs, the barranca or crevasse which runs unpredictably through the landscape, the Peter Lorre movie Los Manos d’Orlac ) repeating and repeating as it whirls tighter and the images grow ever more dense with meaning  until the whole thing explodes inside your head.

For myself, I’m working to shape the reader’s emotional experience. So I work mostly on what I call the symphonic level–like a longer piece of music, or an opera. I want to have big thunderous moments and quiet ones. I want to have the full chorus singing their lungs out, and then a solo, a duet, a trio. Then chorus again. I like to follow an interior scene with an exterior one, day with night, active with meditative-and keep changing it up.  I’m mostly thinking, how is the reader experiencing this?

Wish you good writing!


Franzen at ALOUD in LA

Posted in The Literateria with tags , , , , , on 09/17/2010 by Janet Fitch

Like myself and half the writers in LA, 600 people paid their hard earned money to see Jonathan Franzen at the Japan/America Theater last night, where he was hosted by the Los Angeles Public Library’s ALOUD series.

I came away so inspired, I am still thinking about it.

Now, I have not yet read Freedom and I have to say, I encountered The Corrections at a bad time in my life, as my twenty-year marriage was breaking up. Not the time for a funny but vicious family novel.

And as an Oprah author, I’d cringed to watch his clumsy handling of that unexpected turn of events–the sudden embrace of an outsized media figure and her vast audience, something I’m sure he’d never even imagined and was ill-equipped to field, having been used to operating within insular literary circles, where he’d long been defending serious literature against the depredations of mass culture. To even imagine that someone like Franzen could have gracefully made the transition from insider-cult-figure to national-media prominence is to misunderstand the elacticity of the human personality.

Seeing him last night made that doubly clear.

Asked to read for ten minutes, he read for 20, saying that the novel (not just his novel, but ‘the novel’) is really not made for cutting up into such small bits. That the art form is a living whole that cannot be so easily sampled–part of his entire project, which is to create novels that a) cannot be so easily sliced and diced and summed up and ‘performed’; and b) that the slowing down demanded by the consumption of a novel is inherently one of its great merits, the way we have to stop flitting about and concentrate in order to partake of this art form, how it changes US to have this particular conversation.

The selection he read was funny and mean… his tools for understanding where we are in America in our time are the satirist’s… and whether this is my favorite kind of writing (it isn’t) or not, the suppleness of the prose and the precision won my admiration.

Then afterwards, he settled down to an interesting, awkward conversation with Meghan Daum, author (Life would be Perfect if I Lived in That House) and columnist with the LA Times.

I would not have wanted to change places with her. He is a difficult interviewee–though I don’t think he means to be, he just very clearly struggles to speak with precision, authenticity and honesty, and is embarrassed and uncomfortable with anything that would tempt another writer to cozy up to an audience or be a “good boy” for the interviewer–the very trait that caused his Oprah troubles to begin with.

We are not used to seeing difficult, authentic, often awkwardly honest writers on the national stage. We expect prominent writers to be performing seals to a certain degree, dealing with interviews and audiences with the confidence and aplomb of pitchmen selling miracle floorwaxes at the County Fair. So to see someone struggling to be honest and authentic, rather than charming and appealing, is a lot like catching an appearance of Hailey’s Comet.

That’s the first thing that impressed me, and helped me better understand the difficulties someone like this can get into on the public stage.

The second thing that impressed me was his refusal to comment on any of the controversy surrounding the publication of Freedom. Whew. Would have eaten up all the time and been boring as shit.

Instead of getting caught up discussing how women are reviewed in America (not well), he spoke about Alice Munro, a favorite writer, an extraordinary woman who has very little recognition outside of literary circles. Guess he’s learned a bit of judo in the last nine years–takes it where HE wants to go, instead of letting the wave pound him.

Also loved his refusal in general to let the natter of the internet rule his life, as it does so many of us–really giving me a lot of thought today… A friend told me that after David Foster Wallace, a very close Franzen friend, died, Franzen poured super glue into his internet port and went back and rewrote Freedom in a concerted burst of energy.

So how do you do your research, if you can’t just go online? Meghan asked. He just writes down all his questions as he’s writing, and when he goes home (clearly has alternative writing space), he looks it up all at once.

About Freedom vis a vis The Corrections, he said that the Corrections was a more autobiographical book, and that he’d been unable to get to the hard ‘unwritable things’– had to be more cartoony, a broader and simpler approach. That’s what happens when you make it too autobiographical. With Freedom, he felt he was better equipped to get to those unwritable things, because he could make up the characters to hold them.

Meghan commented on his incredible vocabulary and asked him if he uses a thesaurus. I loved that he said yes he was, but it wasn’t that his vocabulary was so exotic–“I’ve never used the word nacreous“–it was just that he loves precision. And you could hear it in his speech as well as in his writing–such balm after ‘kind ofs’ and ‘sort ofs’ and ‘that so-and-so thing’ and ‘well like you know’ we hear all the time.

I LOVE that he’s a thesaurus guy. (Any of you who have worked with me, and have had to go out and get a Roget’s International Thesaurus with the finger tabs, knows how happy that made me. My thesaurus has been so well-used it’s bound in duct-tape.) Evidently Nicholson Baker (Vox, Double Fold) was devastated when he learned that John Updike used a thesaurus. but as Franzen pointed out, all of us have the experience of knowing there’s a perfect word for what you want to express and not being able to think of it. So instead of throwing in any word, better to use a book to find the perfect word. Also, we writers are simply lovers of words. How wonderful, he said, to open a book and have all the breeds of dogs in there. YES.

How did he write Freedom? He wrote for five years, piling up the pages–and then saw which characters he kept coming back to, and fashioned a narrative from those, throwing the rest out.

Talking about the satiric nature of Freedom, he said, “Satire is making fun of things you feel superior to.” Maybe this is some of the trouble I had with the Corrections, and probably will have with Freedom–that sense that the author feels superior to the people and phenomena he writes about–very different from the work of say, TC Boyle… who makes you laugh and yet you don’t feel that superiority bleeding through. It’s a different existential standpoint. This is where I get skeptical when I hear Franzen compared to Tolstoy. In his ambition maybe, and his cultural critique… but in his essential attitude towards his creations? We’ll see.

I was fascinated by his reply to Meghan’s asking him to characterize ‘his generation’ (Franzen was born in 1959). At first he said it was very hard, as he could easily characterize other people’s generations, but “we’re just us.” But on second thought, he said, “I was born just in the last minutes of the Baby Boom. I felt like I was seeing the doors shutting right behind me. Things closing down. The openness, the freedoms of the boomers. The year after me in high school, in college–people started thinking about going to business school.” I’ve had that sense myself, of just squeaking in somehow, just as things are ending, or even that it was just ending as we got there. Wonder if that’s a common feeling, or if we are in that ‘tail-end’ generation.

But I especially liked him talking about the novel as a form: “I want to write a book that argues for the form itself.” Had to just sit with that one. And I continue to sit with it. What a mandate, what a challenge. he continued: “My ambition is to write an unfilmable novel.” The LA Times book blogger Carolyn Kellogg asked him to elaborate on ‘the novel making the case for the novel’ in the Q and A period (told you half the writers in LA were there): ‘What makes a novel say ‘fuck you, Hollywood?’ He replied that in the novel “you get to turn the story around constantly. In an omniscient third-person scene, you can get the entire perspective from any number of people. There are more surprises when you live through the time of the artwork. [i.e. the days it takes to live through the reading of a novel], the novel’s capacity to delay the introduction of a new point of view is unlike that of any other art.”

True to his diffidence to accommodate the audience, he refused to discuss the themes of the book: “I pretty radically decline to to talk about the themes of the novel or to interpret it.” (Takes balls to say that in front of an audience of 600–and to see how difficult it was for him to say it really made me admire his choices, his refusing to play footsie, when it would have been the ingratiating thing to do. How he squirmed in the Q and A section… as he tried to not to bullshit but really respond in an honest and authentic and not always loveable way. I really appreciated that, where I once might not have.

And of course, I loved him advocating for the Novel as the superlative art form, the grand project of the Novel, talking about kind of attention novel-reading demands, as opposed to the “busy-ness of the buzzing and tweeting. It’s a way you can keep yourself from sitting still. Novel reading keeps you present to yourself–I don’t mean like yoga, but being present to yourself with ego intact. You’re allowed to be a person reacting to the work of another person.” That one to one sustained encounter.

Funny–the program I use to detach myself from the internet is called… Freedom.

Wishing you all good reading.