Novel Fragments

Martha Toll explores why so many recent novels are actually linked short stories

by Martha Toll

A friend of mine describes her seven-year-old’s movie habits:  he puts in the DVD and opens to ‘scene selections.’  No matter what order the full-length film, he designs his own screening sequence which may not include the complete movie.  It strikes me that his viewing style reflects the moment.  Tweets and texts splinter our conversations; cell phones and emails invade our work meetings and stalk our vacations.  Let’s face it, electronics are fragmenting our times.

Maybe this explains why so many recent novels are actually linked short stories.  They may contain a common thread, and perhaps even a discernible plot, but like the albums on our iPods, the order is totally re-shuffled.  In Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin, each chapter stands alone as a poetic rendering of personal tragedy.  McCann’s virtuosity is evident in the unique and separate voice he brings to each part.  The novel revolves around two characters who serve as the literary equivalent to New York’s twin towers, juxtaposing public with private loss.  Although we are unable to place the protagonists in time until we finish the book, McCann’s gripping writing keeps us fully engaged until the end.

Before we advanced to a cell phone and a stationary PC, we had a lowly landline and a television.  Now our lives are strewn with smart phones and iPods, laptops, iPads and Kindles, along with the wiring that is unique to each device.  To say nothing of our obsolete paraphernalia, such as old cell phones and chargers, that we can’t figure out how to unload.

Fragmentation is not new–Charles Dickens’ novels first appeared as serial chapters in magazines.  In book form, however, Dickens’ novels tend to unfold sequentially.  And how many times have we enjoyed fiction excerpts in The New Yorker before we got to read the whole novel?

I’m talking about a different phenomenon, however.  Novels are not only getting shorter, they’re breaking up.  My guess is that this has less to do with the economics of publishing, than with our shrinking attention spans.  The trend is observable even when one character keeps the whole work together, like the ornery but lovable Olive Kitteridge in Elizabeth’s Strout’s eponymous book.  And even when the common character is not a person, but an inanimate object.  In Nicole Krauss’ Great House, an overpowering writing desk both haunts and holds the fractionalized chapters together.

We used to be able to relate to each other with fewer interruptions.  But in the staccato rhythms of the present, it’s commonplace to see a group of teenagers out to dinner talking on their cell phones with absent friends, or a couple in a restaurant texting rather than conversing with each other.

A novel mirrors its era.  Defying categorization, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad is an electrifying and disturbing examination of time’s relentlessness.  Characters sprint through the book with varying levels of connection to one another.  Time is totally disordered, and therefore disorienting.  Toward the end of the book we are thrown into the future, where the story continues hurtling at breakneck speed through a lengthy PowerPoint intermixed with phonetically spelled text messages.  I can’t confirm that A Visit from the Goon is a novel, but I can say that I was alarmed and upset while reading it.  Perhaps that was Egan’s intent.

We could decry our disjointed age, bemoaning how technology is leading us down the slippery slope to dissipating concentration, incomplete learning, and failure to focus on the true and meaningful.  However, I’d like to offer a competing theory about the fragmenting novel.

Let’s consider how we get to know each other.  When we first meet someone, we don’t give them a linear re-enactment of our life, exposing all our secrets and skeletons.  Instead our closest relationships develop at random as we haphazardly disclose our past, withholding the juicy stuff until we are more familiar.  I don’t mean a job interview, I’m talking about forging intimate relationships.  I suppose we’ve always gotten to know each other this way, but maybe our contemporary writers are finding innovative ways to reflect this reality.

Jaimy Gordon picks up on this in her award winning Lord of Misrule.  While not exactly linked short stories, Lord of Misrule is a novel divided into four parts, each taking the title of a particular horse in a claiming race.  The book illuminates the seamy underside of back country horseracing, finishing with an epilogue called “Results” that ties up some loose ends. Gordon captures dialect as if spoken language were her anthropological specialty.  We’re hooked by her marvelously inventive writing.  As if we were slowly getting to know our most mysterious friends, Gordon is parsimonious in revealing her characters’ back stories.

Author David Vann is experimenting with material in different ways as well.  His newly released Caribou Island is a ‘traditional’ full length novel that explores more deeply the characters from his earlier book of linked chapters called Legend of a Suicide.  The back stories of the characters are not completely in sync in both books, but Vann is probing the same personal devastation.  Reading Caribou Island our hearts are broken once again, this time with fresh emotional detail.

We live in an age of increasing complexity.  As our access to information expands exponentially, our ability to adjust may lag.  One satisfaction from reading novels is the insight that writers share about the times in which we live.  But more important is a story well told, no matter how it is structured.

Martha Toll is executive director of the Butler Family Fund, a nationwide philanthropy focused on ending homelessness and the death penalty. She has been featured as a book commentator on NPR and has just received representation for her debut novel.

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