Is the Novel Dead?

In Featured- Literature & the Arts, Literature & the Arts by gravierhouseLeave a Comment

The back of On the Street Where You Live says the book is about this:

Following a nasty divorce and the trauma of being stalked, criminal defense attorney Emily Graham leaves Albany to work in Manhattan. Craving roots, she buys her ancestral home, a Victorian house in the seaside resort town of Spring Lake, New Jersey. Her family sold the house in 1892, after one of Emily’s forbears, Madeline Shapley, then a young girl, disappeared. As the house is renovated and a pool dug, a skeleton is found and identified as Martha Lawrence, a young Spring Lake woman who vanished several years ago. Within her hand is the finger bone of another woman, with a ring – a Shapley family heirloom – still on it. Determined to find the connection between the two murders, Emily becomes a threat to a seductive killer…who choosesher as the next victim.

Sounds like it could be good. Could be interesting. Let’s take a look at another:

St. Louis, Missouri, is a quietly dying river city until it hires a new police chief: a charismatic young woman from Bombay, India, named S. Jammu. No sooner has Jammu been installed, though, than the city’s leading citizens become embroiled in an all-pervasive political conspiracy. A classic of contemporary fiction, The Twenty-Seventh City shows us an ordinary metropolis turned inside out, and the American Dream unraveling into terror and dark comedy.

This could be a bit more ambitious. Could be good. The “all-pervasive political conspiracy” could get a bit hokey. But, if done well, the book could reveal some interesting dynamics across political and social strata. An what about Digital Fortress:

When the NSA’s invincible code-breaking machine encounters a mysterious code it cannot break, the agency calls its head cryptographer, Susan Fletcher, a brilliant and beautiful mathematician. What she uncovers sends shock waves through the corridors of power. The NSA is being held hostage… not by guns or bombs, but by a code so ingeniously complex that if released it would cripple U.S. intelligence. Caught in an accelerating tempest of secrecy and lies, Susan Fletcher battles to save the agency she believes in. Betrayed on all sides, she finds herself fighting not only for her country, but also for her life, and in the end, for the life of the man she loves.

This could be good too. I would be willing to bet that there is a traitor, inside the organization, probably one of Susan Fletcher’s superiors, maybe a former love interest, or someone who has an interest in her, that is at least partially responsible for the life-threatening danger. I bet she saves the world – or at least the U.S. I bet “the man she loves” is a fairly gratuitous love interest, who only superficially plays a role in the outcome. Of course, I could be completely wrong. Let’s assume I am. It would likely be a nice change, but would it really make a difference?

All of these novels could be good. They could be enlightening. They could be novel.

As different as they sound, they all have one thing in common: It is impossible to tell whether they are good or bad without examining the way in which they are written. How is the story told? What is the voice? What is the point-of-view? What is the narrative strain?

I do not believe, as I used to pretend to believe, that plot is irrelevant. People are defined in large part not by what they think, or what they say, but by what they do. Or fail to do. Life is choices. Choice is character. Mixed with suspense, and drama, and everything else. The mythology of McBeth, or King Lear, or Romeo & Juliet, as revealed through the plot, has a meaning all its own.

And yet, it is hard to see that a story, alone, without more, today, could be so fresh, so new, so different, that it could truly be called “novel”. The devil being in the details. And the evolution of the novel, (if any), must come, not from story alone, but from the way in which the story is told.

Consider the following narrative from a book with a great, literary plot, The Man from St. Petersburg:

“Why? What’s vulgar about it?” Charlotte saw herself becoming enthusiastic again. Marya was always telling her not to be enthusiastic. She took a deep breath and lowered her voice. “You and I have got to have these babies. Don’t you think they might tell us something about how it happens? They’re very keen for us to know all about Mozart and Shakespeare and Leonardo da Vinci.”

Belinda looked uncomfortable, but very interested. She feels the same way about it as I do, Charlotte thought; I wonder how much she knows?

Good, tight narrative. But nothing new. Nothing we haven’t read before. Third-person omniscient. From Charlotte’s point of view. In her head. But not told in the first person. Why? Perhaps because first person infrequently makes sense, (absent suspension of disbelief). First-person narrators generally don’t think, or tell stories. They write. This passage, for example, from the serial killer genre:

We kissed again, pressing even harder together. I didn’t want to stop kissing Christine, holding her tightly. I wanted to take her where we could be alone. My body nearly convulsed. It was that bad, that good.

Where would you ever find this type of narrative, except in a book? Who says “my body nearly convulsed”? Who thinks, to themselves, or remembers: “It was that bad, that good”?  It’s a perfectly acceptable construct, as novels go. But it’s been done to death. Where are you going to go with it?

Like the “literary” novel which is often described as “lyrical”:

After the excruciating silence of the car ride (staring at the stitching on the upholstery, fiddling with a piece of foam on the armrest) Harriet didn’t especially feel like going to the library. But Edie waited stonily at the curb, and Harriet had no choice but to walk up the stairs (stiffly, conscious of being watched) and push open the glass doors.

The library looked empty. Mrs. Fawcett was alone at the front desk going through the night’s returns and drinking a cup of coffee. She was a tiny, bird-boned woman, with short pepper-and-salt hair veiny white arms (she wore copper bracelets, for her arthritis) and eyes that were a little too sharp and closely set, especially since her nose was on the beaky side. Most kids were afraid of her: not Harriet, who loved the library and everything about it.

Well-written. Sure. And there is a value in the poetry of language itself. But Robert McKee said something during his Story seminar that really struck me. I guess I always knew that it was true. He said that being literate is a talent; but it’s a relatively common talent. A lot of people can put together a string of words that are “well written”; a lot of people have a “good ear”.

So what are the “literary” writers doing that wasn’t done by Faulkner, or Ellison, or Thomas, or Lawrence, or Joyce, almost a hundred years ago?

I think that Strong Motion is a great book. I think Baudalino is a great book. I think Seven Types of Ambiguity is a great book. But I’m not sure if they are great in some novel way that books have never been great before.

What, if anything, is the novel evolving into?

If I knew, of course, I would try to do it. To make the leap. But I am paralyzed. Waiting for the “Big Idea”.

There is a documentary on Stanley Kubrick, and they interview Jack Nicholson, and he quotes Kubrick saying something like: “Every shot’s essentially been done. Our job is just to do it a little bit better.”

Doing it better is a worthy goal, of course. It just doesn’t feel like it would be quite good enough.

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