Whither Goest the Novel—Do we need a new form?

reinvent novelRachel Cusk, wants to reinvent the novel, at least according to the New York Times Book Review.* Just writing that makes me break into a sweat. Why do we have to reinvent the novel?

Okay, I get it. It's not unlike composers wondering where to take symphonic music after Beethoven. Ludwig pretty much said it all.

Poor Johannes Brahms: when folks heard his first symphony, they went, "Oh...whaddya know: it's Beethoven's 10th!" Or so the story goes.

After 200+ years of the novel as art form, then, it's understandable that authors might want to try something different. And so they are.

Perhaps you've noticed the trend toward SHIFTING POINTS OF VIEW, different characters taking turns at the helm…

. . . or maybe you've noticed the use of ALTERNATIVE TEXTS: news clips, diary entries, handwritten letters, scholarly papers, emails, even PowerPoint…

. . . surely you've noticed the frequent use of SHIFTING TIME FRAMES, the lack of straightforward chronology…

. . . how about the use of ALTERNATE REALITIES?

Sometimes it's hard to tell exactly where you are...or what character you're following—one of the criticisms leveled at Paul Auster's otherwise highly touted new book 4321. Other times, all this narrative disruption can make it hard to engage with the characters.

Yet we know people see and experience life differently. And that is precisely what the new fiction is trying to get at—to point out that the human condition isn't monolithic, that there is more than one way of seeing a particular event.

Still . . . I miss the the single narrator. I have a yen for the 19th-century style of writing in which someone steps onto your front porch, claims a seat, and tells you a grand story.

Richard Russo does just that. I just finished his 1993 Nobody's Fool—in preparation for reading Everybody's Fool, his newest. And Russo is that kind of 19th-century novelist: he plops you down and spins his yarn—a tale that's richly drawn, sardonic, and thoroughly engaging. He tells a straightforward story, in a single narrative voice, with a coherent timeline. I LOVE THAT.

The problem is . . . even Russo has succumbed to the trend. I hear tell that in Everybody's Fool he, too, uses shifting points of view. Fie, Fie, Mr. Russo.

I hate being old-fashioned and curmudgeonly. But I'm weary of the fact that almost EVERY book I pick up messes with point of view and chronology. Friends, I just had to get that off my chest.

* New York Times Book Review, January 29, 2017, cover review of Rachel Cusk's Transit.



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