Fragmented fiction: A new kind of novel?

Janet Grant

Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant

I read a fascinating blogpost this week entitled “The Rise of the Fragmented Novel” in which the author, Ted Giola, posits we’ve entered into a new era of a novel’s structure. Rather than a smooth narration, the 21st-century novel unfolds in bits and pieces. Sometimes those pieces don’t seem as if they’ll fit together at all; yet in each novel, the bits come together in a manner that pleases the reader who is paying attention. (He does trace the development of this type of novel through its history, showing it’s not a new development but a new expression of an old idea.)

For me, the post highlighted a number of novels I’ve read and raved abou (except for Atonement, which I didn’t especially appreciate). But I hadn’t seen the similarities between their structure until I read Giola’s blog.

On his list were:

  • Geraldine Brooks’s The People of the Book, which moves through eras in which various people possessed the book, and  the clues to who  they were left in the book.
  • Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife, a study of time and what happens when a person doesn’t experience its confines.
  • Ian McEwan’s Atonement
  • Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists, which I wrote about here.

I would also add Gone Girl as a novel that is told piecemeal by two untrustworthy narrators; so the reader wonders wherein lies truth–if anywhere.

In some ways each of these books is like a mystery. The author leaves clues throughout for us to put together the puzzle and to form a whole, but part of the enjoyment in reading them is seeing how the author had been in control of the narrative all along. Watching a master craftsman at work is a wonder.

How did fragmented novels gain ascendency in popularity? For one thing, as Giola points out, we are a society that reads in fragments: tweets, FB posts, blogs. Today’s movies teach us to expect jerky camera movements, blurred images that eventually focus, frequent scene changes, dabs of dialogue doled out sparingly.

Simple, straightforward narratives with sweet endings aren’t a reflection of the life we live post 9/11. As Giola says, “Most of us are deeply suspicious of proffered unities nowadays–and for a good reason, no? Been there, done that. Tidy narratives have become the domain of politicians and ideologues.”

Does the idea of writing a fragmented manuscript excite you or seem uninteresting? Why?

How could the method of fragmentation work in writing nonfiction?

What fragmented books have you read? Did you enjoy them or did they frustrate you?


Have you read a fragmented novel recently? Click to tweet.

Is a fragmented novel a new kind of book? Click to tweet.

Why are fragmented novels gaining in popularity? Click to tweet.

62 Responses

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  1. Anne Love says:

    I have little to no interest in reading a fragmented novel. Not because the craft wouldn’t be interesting. But more because I had trouble reading from little up, and had to take special classes to help my reading in elementary school. I’ve pushed myself for years to become the reader I am now, and it’s a bit ironic that I love to write. Perhaps it’s just my way of trying to conquer? But people who have trouble reading often get stuck reading the same sentence multiple times, or rereading paragraphs, before they can get “into” a book–thus, fragmented writing would seem more frustrating that fun.

    I would watch the movie though! 🙂

    • Janet Grant says:

      Anne, thanks for your perspective on fragmented novels. So fragmented movies work for you? Interesting…

      • Anne Love says:

        I think it’s a processing thing. Visual images are just easier than words if the words or the organization of words is complex. But maybe I’m just weird that way, because I get jazzed about learning pathophysiology for work–and that’s complex. But in my reading for enjoyment, I don’t want to have to re-read anything while I’m trying to enjoy it. But maybe I should try it anyway. Maybe it’s just the word, “fragmented” that is the stopper. Perhaps, in reality it’s just the intriguing kind of book I’d love?

      • Janet Grant says:

        Anne, I think if you gave The Imperfectionists a try, you’d like it. It doesn’t feel fragmented to me, but a series of short stories that add up to a greater whole than the sum of its parts.

  2. Julie Garmon says:

    I love reading a fractured novel–had never heard the term before but it suits. A novel written this way says to the reader, “I respect your intelligence. I put extra time into weaving this story together just for you.”

  3. I have this this about symmetry and perspective. My perennial garden is basically symmetrical. No matter from which angle it is viewed, it is framed in the viewer’s eyes. Our living room has visual balance, and I break into emotional hives if I’m somewhere that is optically disorganized. I do not do well with modern art. All our wall decor has balance.
    I cannot sing experimental music (hello? The prefix ‘ex’ and the word ‘mental’? Kinda means there’s no thought process to it all?) because it sounds far too disorganized to my ear. My house might be covered in a fine layer of dust, but it’s my dust, so we’re okay.
    I cannot possibly add literary confusion to my world.
    I would get annoyed beyond words.

    • Jan Thompson says:

      I’m with you on symmetry and perspective!!

      I prefer an organized writing and reading life. It’s wonderful and all that there are many types of novels for many types of readers. But for me and my bookcase, I like novels that are organized and have a flow from start to finish. And HEA doesn’t hurt LOL.

      I have symmetrical gardens too… in my novels! (What I’m poor at in real life I make up for in fiction, like having a green thumb, or being able to sing in perfect pitch, LOL.)

      • Janet Grant says:

        Thanks, Jennifer and Jan, for casting your votes for symmetry. I can understand why a fragmented novel would be disconcerting. But one of the aspects of such a novel that I appreciate is how all the disparate parts come together beautifully in the end. I guess not everyone wants to wait until the end to see the consonance.

  4. AHHH!

    *this THING about symmetry.

    That is going to bug me all day.

  5. I read the Imperfectionists and loved it, not knowing it was of this kind of style. It’s funny to me that Ted Giola’s post on this topic is a fragmented post, broken into numbered mini-essays.

    I think the Gospels were written this way: numerous stories and teachings of Christ, brilliantly written and assembled (under divine inspiration) to communicate profound theological truth by their words and sequencing. The same applies to 1-2 Chronicles in the Old Testament. These contain “fragments” of previously written material from Samuel, Kings, Psalms, and Isaiah, carefully selected and brilliantly assembled to teach spiritual truth. The narrative at times is choppy, but the effect is wonderful, as the writers skillfully employed literary techniques under the guidance of God.

    Might Ecclesiastes be considered a fragmented memoir?

    Something like the literary equivalent of Impressionism?

    I dig it. If I were to write a novel, it would be fragmented.

    • Norma Horton says:

      Bill, I almost agree Ecclesiates could be a fractured novel, and have to cite the collective memory of the Israeli people during the OT years as the perfect impetus for this type of writing.

      You might have created a new Biblical genre: poetry, legal, apolocalyptic, fragmented! I’ll watch for the category in the next Continuing Education electronic catalog.

      BTW, just read And the Mountains Echoed by Hosseini, and it would probably qualify for this category. Excellent book, BTW.

      • Ha! A new biblical genre! But what if it’s actually the other way around and current authors are catching up with the brilliant writing of our ancient biblical authors!!!

    • I see your point, Bill, but, speaking of fiction only, doesn’t our approach to the Bible and to novels differ significantly? We absorb the Bible in bits and pieces, yes, in fragments, as our spirit allows. With a novel, we often sit down and don’t get up until it is finished.

      • I certainly don’t take the BIble as fiction, but as historical fact. However, the writing style was literature of the highest order, and literary criticism (i.e., analysis) is really helpful in interpreting the narrative portions of Scripture. I think the literary elements of the Bible are peerless. 🙂

    • Actually, Bill, I was thinking the entire Bible could be read that way. First, we think it’s about a Creator forcing His creation to obey certain rules, with repercussions once crossed. Then, we discover it’s about forgiveness, mercy and the wise counsel of a loving Father. There are hints of all of this throughout both Testaments, but the truth is not revealed until Jesus’ work was complete. We all look back now and say, “Oh, I get it. That God must be a genius” (both as writer AND Creator)!

  6. A fragmented novel would be the antithesis of one of my primary reasons for reading fiction. Our world, my world, is fragmented enough. As Giola, and you, Janet, point out, our reading, indeed our very experience of life, is fragmented. Social media, blogs, news articles, camera jerks on TV and movies. Church comes in fragments, everyone going to different services and our calendars overwhelmed. Relationships are fragmented. For we women, at least, our minds are fragmented into a dozen different to-do’s and responsibilities pulling on us at any given moment.

    I’m tired.

    Reading (and writing) is an escape for me, an opportunity to experience another world where everything flows together and is resolved in the end, to form relationships that last (for at least 300 pages!), to focus on just one concept/issue/solution for a while with the only distraction the melting ice in my tea. Is this not at least one reason why Amish fiction and romance have endured?

    • Point well made Meghan.

    • Janet Grant says:

      It occurred to me, as I wrote the blog post, that the Amish novels’ popularity is a reflection of the counter-trend to the trend of fragmented novels. I like reading books that are more a reflection of life than as an escape; so I think our motivations for what we read are a big part of the kind of reading we seek.

  7. Fragment. The very word indicates something that needs to be put back together, discarded, or kept for its unique interest. (I have some pottery shards that I think are pretty unto themselves.) I haven’t yet read a fragmented novel that I liked much, except to admire the craft of the writing. I thought “Atonement” was dismal; “The Shadow of the Wind” by Carlos Ruiz Zafón was weird (if that’s in fact a “fragmented” novel). And my recollection of “The Magus” by John Fowles was that I never knew up from down.
    I prefer to write an interesting or hyper reality: going somewhere the reader recognizes and can relate to. But I can see that it would be fun to write something really complex, like the fragments of a kaleidoscope that shift and come together as something that satisfies the reader.
    If my reaction at the end of a book is, “Oh, ick,” or “What was that all about?” the writer has let me down.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Cristine, I would agree with you that I’m not interested in reading any book that has an “oh, ick” ending. That’s not satisfying to me. Each of the fragmented novels I’ve read pleased me with how they came together. And none of them was so odd that I didn’t know the answer to the question, “What was that about?” Maybe I’ve just been fortunate in the fragmented novels I’ve happened upon.

  8. Wendy Lawton says:

    Interesting, Janet. I ‘m guessing the fragmented novel falls into the category we call literary fiction or upmarket fiction. It takes a high skill level to write the “architecture” of this kind of novel and a committed reader to read it.

    That puts it at odds with what we call commercial fiction, doesn’t it? And, while interesting to read, I can’t imagine trying to sell a fragmented novel in this tight market.

    I’m not sure I’d call this experimental but I find that many forms of experimental fiction are more about entertaining the writer than entertaining the reader.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Wendy, good points. I’m not sure a fragmented novel is likely to work in the Christian market. I think most CBA readers prefer a straightforward plot and read to escape rather than to dissect the way a novel was written. So commercial fiction is more likely to win the day.
      I’m an English major, what can I say?
      Many of the novels I listed were best-sellers, but they also tended to be written by established authors. The Time Traveler’s Wife and The Imperfectionists were written by debut novelists, which blows my mind because they were so intricate.

  9. Reminds me of something I read in an article by Richard Bach (yes, he of Jonathan Livingston Seagull).

    He described a party he went to in the late 60s, where a man said he liked the movie “Trash”, and “described in detail a scene that would bore a toad to stone”.

    Bach questioned where someone would find a reason for living if he had to seek his values in “Trash”, and I think that speaks to the current question.

    The stories to which we listen, and which we tell, are the tool that makes sense of a world that is far beyond our control. Jesus used parables – Paul used narrative – John the Revelator used vision. But in the end these are all stories, and signposts that keep our surroundings and path understandable, to bring order out of chaos.

    The use of an inchoate narrative that nonetheless ties up loose ends at the finish, or the use of untrustworthy observers describing the same action, is a conceit that misses the point of why we read.

    • Janet Grant says:

      The point of a fragmented novel is to show how to make sense of our fragmented lives. Some of us relate to that approach; others do not. To thine own self be true.

      • Point taken.

      • I hit ‘post’ too fast…

        My example of Richard Bach is actually a case in point – his later books tended to a fragmented approach (“Running From Safety” is a good example).

        William Manchester used fragmentation locally in his memoir, “Goodbye Darkness”, to describe his memories of the fight for Sugar loaf Hill on Okinawa in 1845. He was seriously wounded, and the fragmented memories were all he had; rather than try to weave them into a sequential narrative, he offered them as a truer testimony of his own experiences.

        And it is a good approach, because all combat is episodic in the extreme. My experiences, if I chose to write about them (which will not happen) could only be told this way, because of the nature of the incidents, and the complete unavailabilty of any reference material that would put them into context.

        I therefore stand corrected. My initial comments were not fully considered.

        And crow ain’t a half-bad meal, when you’ve earned it!

      • Janet Grant says:

        Andrew, I appreciate your comments because you come at the conversation from a different perspective. It’s valuable for all of us to consider other ways of seeing a topic.

  10. Interesting points; btw, so glad I get to read this blog as soon as a new post comes out…now that I’m in the same time zone!

    • Janet Grant says:

      Welcome to the right time zone!

      • Thanks, just a while longer and then it’s back to Singapore for me. Btw, I am not sure why I never get notified when there is a response to one of my comments…I usually have to scroll back to find it. When I leave a comment I always tick the follow up comment notification so that’s not it. Thanks Jennifer

      • Janet Grant says:

        Jennifer, that is odd that you don’t receive notification of a follow-up comment. That element seems to work for others. Ah, the vagaries of technology.

  11. lisa says:

    Hmm… So interesting. I need to go over and read the post and check out the books. Is fragmented kind of a bit on the abstract side of writing? I think my writing style leans toward this although I have been working to rein it in.

    Ann Voskamp of a Holy Experience strikes me as someone who writes in a fragment style in One Thousand Gifts.

    • Janet Grant says:

      I don’t know that I’d describe the writing style as abstract. It’s more about taking what seem like disparate pieces of a story and weaving them together in a way that creates continuity. You should read a fragmented novel to understand how one works.
      I don’t know that I’d describe One Thousand Gifts as fragmented. It seems to move forward in a pretty orderly way. But maybe I’m missing something.

      • Lisa says:

        I have read many of the titles. I guess I see abstract as not concrete. I see fragmented novels as not concrete or linear until the end of course. Ann’s writing has an abstract poetic tone and I saw similarities to fragmented fiction. Maybe I am generalizing too much.

      • Janet Grant says:

        Lisa, a fragmented novel doesn’t have to be abstract or feel oddly structured. Some are, of course, but not all. The Time Traveler’s Wife is pretty complex to follow, especially at the beginning. But People of the Book makes sense as it moves from one historical setting to contemporary and then on to another historical setting.

  12. Funny you’d post this today, Janet. As it happens, I’m working on what might be considered a fragmented novel this summer. It is excruciatingly difficult to write, because the story won’t be told chronologically. One entire POV (the heroine’s) will take place before the inciting incident and will be scattered throughout the story. Multiple POVs will tell what happens to our heroine after the incident. I fear I’m not up to the task, but I’m attempting it anyway. It’s a story I can’t walk away from.

    To your list of fragmented novels, I would add Testimony by Anita Shreve. Incredibly depressing novel, but wow, what a talented writer she is.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Robin,it does sound as if you are attempting a fragmented novel. You might decide you aren’t ready for such a complex assignment, but you’re going to learn a lot in the process of trying. Good for you for experimenting!
      I haven’t read Testimony; thanks for adding it to the list. I’ll have to check it out.

  13. Charles Dickens seemed to have fragmented novels. You got bits and pieces of different people’s lives, and in the end they all converged and you realized how they were related.

    • Janet Grant says:

      That fragmentation might have been the result of his writing his novels as serial novels, published piecemeal in newspapers. I thought, as I wrote the blog, that fragmented novels might work well as novels one subscribes to. On the other hand, to see how a novel fits together as a whole, I’d like to have the entire novel in my hands so I can read in clumps of my choosing.

  14. Stephanie McCarthy says:

    I enjoy this for a change once in a while, but have found a little goes a long way. It’s rather exhausting to read and I have zero interest in writing it. But I like that it’s something different than linear fiction and respect those who have mastered it.

    • Janet Grant says:

      I see your point. I’m not sure I’d want every novel I read to be fragmented. A solid, linear plot can be satisfying in its own way and not as demanding to read.

  15. I appreciate that there are many different ways to structure a novel, and that there are many different people who enjoy reading them. As for me, I read and write for the pure pleasure of escapism. I’m a mother

    • (The joys of typing with an iPhone!) as I was saying…

      I’m a mother of four small children (the two youngest are three year old twin boys) so the last thing I enjoy doing is “working” at reading. 🙂 Someday I might venture into a fragmented novel, but for now, I’ll enjoy a book that does the work for me!

  16. I thought “The Book Thief” by Markus Zusak was extraordinary. Some of the most beautiful writing I’ve ever read – a fragmented, masterful mosaic of words. It’s not brain-candy, as so much fiction tends to be – fluffy, feel-good narrative that goes down like cotton candy but holds about as much substance. “The Book Thief” was smart fiction, something to be pondered and chewed.

    As for me, I am a big fan of the genre.

  17. I’m on both sides of the fence on this one. When I was younger—and life simpler—I LOVED this kind of story. I was energized by things that challenged me to think. Then, I became a drug-prevention counselor in a very rough neighborhood and preferred simpler reading with happier endings. I still NEED it to be realistic, maybe pieces of the narrative left hanging, but the main thread needs to resolve to some degree. I saw enough reality every day in the lives of my clients. So I would read to take myself away from that for a time.
    Now, I’m still a sucker for a happy ending, but I know, with our Savior, the story is written and the end is good. However, it’s very messy in-between. I don’t mind if a story is a little fragmented, but I do prefer to have SOME idea where it is going, or at least opportunities to guess where it’s going. Still, I don’t think I could read that type of book every day without getting burned out. I’d need the next book to be pure escapist literature.

    • Janet Grant says:

      I didn’t find any of the fragmented books on the list in the blog post confusing about how the story was moving forward. I “got it,” which I think is a reflection of how great authors can write in fragments make sense in terms of the story’s structure. I don’t recall getting lost or confused as I read any of these books.
      But I understand that fragmented novels don’t make good escapist reads.

  18. I must admit, I love a sense of order, whether I be the writer or the reader.
    Fragmented seems more of a statement of the times we live in to me, and not one I necessarily desire to spend my time dissecting.

    The Bibles stories are indeed told by different people, in different ways but Jesus chose the simplicity of parables to teach and reach the crowds that gathered to hear him and the beloved inner circle that walked beside him.

    Today’s experimental fiction also seems to me to be more for the writer than the reader though fragmented writing would seem to be scattered outside this endeavor.

    Not my personal choice to read or write. A movie that comes to mind is, The Matrix. And that has quite an interesting fractured history. Bits and pieces everywhere.

    I am a hopeless romantic, list maker, organizer, and gulp, lover of literary fiction.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Kathy, I hear you. Although not all of Jesus’ parables were simple. I often think, if I were in the listening audience, would I get what he was saying? I’m pretty sure sometimes I wouldn’t. The telling of the stories was straightforward, but the parables were jam-packed with thought-provoking material.

  19. Peter DeHaan says:

    I’m pleased with fragmented novels that are well-done, but I’ve read too many that have holes and contradictions, likely introduced during the various iterations of editing when scenes are altered, moved, inserted, or rewritten. In those cases, I’d prefer the author to have saved us both the frustration and simply written a smooth narration.

  20. Etta Wilson says:

    Such an interesting discussion, and Peter’s comment describes my feeling exactly after reading several novels whose authors attempted a fragmented novel and wound up with a lot of scenes that didn’t fit together–and perhaps a poor editor to boot. In most cases, writing the fragmented novel requires a lot of clear thinking, although it may not seem that way to the reader at first shot.

  21. Emily says:

    Great article and thought-inspiring. I had not really considered it as a genre before, but I certainly do enjoy them if done well. I guess it’s a step along from writing from multiple viewpoints. Thanks for the post!

  22. Linda says:

    I didn’t read every post, but my feeling is that “fragmented” has so many uncomfortable connotations that we just need to change the name. 🙂