Why do we need to reinvent the novel?

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, it's understandable that authors might want to try something different.

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

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

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

. . . 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.

"Roshoman effect" — it even has a name: from the 1950 Japenese movie by Akira Kurosawa. The film is considered a classic because of its novel use of varied perspectives — "novel" 70 years ago, not so much now. Anyway, Faulkner got there 20 years before Kurosawa did with As I Lay Dying. And Joyce got there even earlier with Ulysses (a book only academics can read).

Still, don't you miss the comfort of a single narrator? I do. I have a yen for that 19th-century style of writing in which someone steps onto your front porch, claims a seat, and tells you a grand story.

I hate being old-fashioned and curmudgeonly. But I'm weary of the fact that EVERY new 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.



Comments  

#2 M.T. Lundquist 2017-05-10 10:33
Thanks for the comment. I'm glad I'm not the only curmudgeon around...in fact, I suspect there are plenty more like us. Also, your use of the word "self-conscious " is on target: it's as if authors are trying too hard to be cutting edge. ---Molly
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#1 MJ Booklover 2017-05-09 17:09
I agree! I'm old-fashioned and curmudgeonly too, if that means I still love that grand old Victorian invention of the third person omniscient narrator. I enjoy more avant-garde narratives when in the hands of a master, like Faulkner or Woolf. But recent applications of 20th-century artist-narrativ e techniques mostly seem labored and self-conscious to me. Good luck to Ms. Cusk if she can truly find a way to reinvent good storytelling! Writers have been inventing and re-inventing the novel since Defoe invented realism in the mid-1700s. The old ones are still pretty darn good.
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