Thursday, March 27, 2014

Fragmentary Novels

You'll see these two books side by side on the Staff Recommends case next to the register. Submergence shelved in by my muted praise, Dept. of Speculation behind Jamie's more effusive recommendation. 

In this week's New Yorker James Wood reviews the Dept. of Speculation. This is a challenging book to review - even Wood admits that the Dept. of Speculation is "wonderfully hard to encapsulate, because it faces in many directions at the same time and glitters with different emotional colors." Jamie's recommendation does manage to encapsulate the effect of the novel - she, like I, re-read Dept. of Speculation multiple times and told everyone we could that we loved it, even if we couldn't adequately describe the novel.

But when thinking about Dept. of Speculation and Submergence side by side, I realized that part of why I loved them so much is for their form. Wood describes the form of Dept. of Speculation as "very short, double-spaced paragraph dispatches, as if we were rifling through the pages of [the narrator's] private diary." Over the past few months, and maybe, always, I've connected most with books that have a more fragmentary style.  The fragmentary style is like a diary and through it an intimacy is created with the reader; those double-spaces, between each fragment, beg to be scribbled in. The fragmentary novel is not going to give you characters that are so fleshed out that they walk off the page. There are many novels that will give you that - Goldfinch by Donna Tartt and Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi, to name two - and they are wonderful for it. But what the fragmentary novel does is invite you to take ownership of the story. The tangents wander off, the way our mind does, straying from what is in front but always connected. As a written form, these tangents stretch the novel beyond the confines of the world of the characters and invite you, as the reader, inside.

Wood mentions other books that follow a similar form: Wittgenstein’s Mistress by David Markson, Speedboat by Renata Adler, Lydia Davis’ short stories. I’d add Submergence to that list. The story revolves around two characters, Danny, an oceanographer, and James, a British spy. They are their professions, and they meet while they are each on separate vacations. It is in this limbo that they meet and fall quickly in love, only to part and never see each other again. The novel has no chapters, but a single page will have two or three fragments, weaving in mythology, science, and philosophy along with their story. I've been revisiting the passages I've marked, the scribbles I've made, and I still find that Submergence moves me in a way no other novel has in a long time.  

As I return to my own novel after a long break from it, I realize that the fragmentary style is one that seems most true to me. I write in fragments, knowing that eventually I'll have to stitch the various pieces together. So it's exciting to see the fragmentary novel gaining some popularity. Or maybe, as the popularity of Speedboat (published in the 70s) and Wittgenstein's Mistress (published in the 80s) suggest, this type of novel has always existed and I've only just discovered it. I do know that when I jump back into my novel after a long time away, it is a little bit like falling in love - I am giddy, preoccupied, and everything I encounter is an echo or an affirmation of what I'm working on. And that's the beauty of these two books: they are unforgettable for their lean prose and for their spaces, the spaces where you can find yourself.

No comments: