Are Fragmented Novels a Fad?
Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant
The last four novels I’ve read all have one thing in common: The structure for each is fragmented. In other words, the stories aren’t told in a linear fashion and often are told from multiple points of view. Is this a fad? Or is this a method we should expect to see more of?
Before expositing on why I think many authors are using this structure, let me tell you briefly about each novel’s framework. (By the way, I don’t necessarily recommend these novels. They just happen to be my most recent reading choices.)
1. The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff. This novel’s structure is complex, with five points of view introduced in the first few chapters. It moves from historical characters to a contemporary story, which is told from one person’s point of view. I found five points of view (and moving between historical and contemporary) a complicated beginning to the book. I couldn’t find an anchor from which to push off to different time periods and different characters. Plus, the author didn’t identify whose historical point of view you were reading until you came to the end of that person’s section (many were journal entries, letters, and other ephemera). Boy, howdy, it was a challenge. I liked several elements of this novel, but the structure wasn’t one of them.
2. The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton. In this book, the author also moved between historical and contemporary, but there were so many points of view, I honestly can’t recall how many. The part of the novel that kept throwing me were three contemporary women’s points of view. The women were all trying to solve the same mystery, and as each woman died, the next one took over at the spot where the first left off. They each had significant numbers of people in their lives. Because I read in short spurts rather than for hours at a time, I was constantly lost in the modern sections of the book. A secondary character would pop up, and I’d have no recollection of how that person fit in the book. Wendy, on the other hand, reads in big clumps, and she loved the book, recommending it to me. I can’t say I loved it, although the writing was superb.
3. The House Girl by Tara Conklin. This story’s structure was much simpler than the others. It, too, moved back and forth from historical to contemporary, but each time period was told from one character’s point of view. I found the way the author entwined the two time periods intricate and satisfying to observe.
4. Frog Music by Emma Donoghue. Even though this novel doesn’t move back and forth between historical and contemporary and it’s told from only the protagonist’s point of view, the structure is the most complex of the four books. The book is divided into parts rather than chapters, and each part has sections in it that are delineated with three asterisks. I soon learned to pay attention to every time-frame the author offered because the story moves back and forth, forth and back, overlapping parts of the storyline. The book starts out with a murder. Everything in the story rotates around the murder, with the events before the murder unfolding and the events after the murder also unfolding, but you never knew if you were moving backwards or forward when you started a section, or in what ways the story would overlap with some event you already had read, or what gaps in the story would be filled in later–you hoped. The only way to know if you were reading about pre-murder occurrences was to carefully note the date or time reference given close to the beginning of each section (“not quite a month ago,” “in the saloon of the Eight Mile House at San Miguel Station, on the fourteenth of September…,” etc.). To further confuse the unalert reader, the entire book was written in present tense (“Jennie sings a lilting tune,” “Ernest’s long jaw cracks,” etc.), which meant you had no clues as the direction the calendar had just moved. I actually found this structure fascinating in its complexity. But I couldn’t figure out what the author was trying to achieve.
Each of these books are “fragmented,” which is a term often used to describe a novel that isn’t linear. Why does it seem to be especially popular among writers? I think it’s because our lives and attention spans are fractured. We dip into people’s lives on Facebook, feel as though we’ve connected with them, and then move on. Trawling down your wall entries is a journey into joys, sorrows, suffering, celebration, silliness and poignancy. Twitter flashes messages at us at the rate of 140 characters at a time, always moving on to the new message without your even touching a button. Emails are journeys into the mundane, the advertisement, the complex, and the EOM in the subject line. Television and films flick scenes quickly at us, moving so fast from one part of the storyline to another you better watch closely to keep up.
Is it any surprise, then, that novels reflect that same frantic switching of scenes, time, and perspectives?
(I’ll be out of the office today and might not be able to join the conversation.)
What fragmented book have you read lately? Did you enjoy the fragmentation? What do you think the author was trying to convey through the structure? What do you think about writing a fragmented book yourself?
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