A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters
Julian Barnes’s A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters is a novel the same way Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is a movie—though both are actually philosophical meditations on humanity, the fact that they both feature episodic events (albeit of various degrees of comprehensibility) necessitates the label of fiction and invites the useful euphemisms of “novel” and “film.” The protagonist of Barnes’s work is more or less “mankind,” and the book’s irreverent premise (succinctly articulated in the title) allows Barnes to do things that neither historians nor novelists are typically allowed to do. Without the evidentiary responsibilities of the former and by eschewing the conventional methods of the latter, Barnes invents (as he did in Flaubert’s Parrot) a form and a style entirely his own.
There But For The
What makes Ali Smith’s There But For The so rich and original has little to do with plot or characters (though these, too, are singularly Smith’s). It’s the way she goes about exploring her themes—namely, through brilliant, extended riffs on the words of the title. Each section is named after and begins with one of the four, and the story—of a dinner-party guest who locks himself into an upstairs bedroom and refuses to come out—is unveiled via virtuosic scrutiny of what are seemingly banal terms, which, under the genius alchemy of Ali Smith, one of the world’s best living fiction writers, are somehow transformed into stunning insights into the human need for love and connection. Also check out Smith’s The First Person and Other Stories, How to be Both, and The Accidental, all of which feature Smith’s unique brand of emotionally evocative wordsmithery.
Regarded as a seminal text of Latin American literature—along with Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, Borges’s Ficciones, and Sabato’s The Tunnel—Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch hasn’t retained the readership of some of his fellow writers. Which is really unfortunate, because Cortázar’s fiction has its own tricks up its sleeve. Hopscotch, for instance, is comprised of 155 chapters that can be read in any order, but according to a “Table of Instructions” from the author, “In many ways, this books consists of many books, but two books above all.” He goes on to explain that you can either read chronologically up to chapter 56 and disregard the last 99 “expendable” chapters, or you can follow a “hopscotching” sequence throughout all of the chapters. Depending on your choice, you’ll have a different experience of the story. (Ali Smith did a similar thing in How to be Both, which was published with its two parts switched so there’s no definitive version, just whichever one you happened to purchase.) Cortázar’s book is a compelling novel of youthful bohemianism forced to confront the tragicomedy of the human condition: Horacio Oliveira and his “Club” of carefree artists in Paris, as well as Horacio’s adventurous episodes that follow the disappearance of his girlfriend, La Maga—these would be memorable enough for Hopscotch to establish Cortázar as a gifted novelist, but when you add the additional feat of multiple sequences, you get an iconic and hugely influential book in its time, a reputation and a readership I hope one day return to it and find their way back into the maze of Cortázar’s brilliance.
House of Leaves
Mark Z. Danielewski
Quite possibly the most popular experimental novel of the new century, Mark Z. Danielewski’s unforgettable Escher-shaped horror story is first notable for its elaborate design—a heady mix of narrators and formats, footnotes and appendices, white space and color fonts. Flipping through the disorienting pages for the first time, many readers express incredulity about the book’s comprehensibility, but surprisingly, it’s really simple to follow, which is saying something since the plot revolves around a house bigger on the inside than on the out, and a hallway that appears out of nowhere and grows into an impossibly enormous maze, and the documentary being made by the home’s owner, Will Navidson, and a blind old man writing a sort-of dissertation on the film, and Jonny Truant, a young ne’er-do-well who happens upon the old man’s manuscript and who discovers that the documentary, Navidson, and many of the references don’t exist at all. House of Leaves is a once-in-a-lifetime literary experience.
Adler’s 1976 novel Speedboat was out-of-print for a long time until the National Books Critic Circle launched a campaign to get it reissued, which finally happened in 2013 from New York Review Books. An acknowledged influence on Elizabeth Hardwick and David Foster Wallace (who put the novel on his syllabi at Claremont College), Speedboat is a thoughtful and accessible experiment, the kind that reads so effortlessly and guilelessly that you forget it’s so fresh and new. Jen Fain, a journalist for the Standard Evening Sun, recounts her life in brief episodes but does so with little interiority, and though she’s involved with men, they never emerge as truly important figures. Instead, Jen’s existence is almost haphazardly chronicled, but the efficacy and insight of each seemingly random episode is so palpable and precise, continuity ceases to matter. You just feel lucky to be reading such a wonderful voice.
Colson Whitehead, whose recent novel The Underground Railroad has been met with wide praise from the New York Times to Barack Obama, first launched himself into the literary world with a novel about warring sects of elevator inspectors. His 1999 debut, The Intuitionist, is set in an unnamed city (but totally New York) and follows Lila Mae Watson, an elevator inspector of the “Intuitionist” school, which involves taking the elevator and intuiting its functionality. The other faction, the “Empiricists,” actually just test the shit out. But what seems like a ridiculous premise soon gets jettisoned into philosophical, political, and social realms—Lila’s race (not to mention that she’s the first Black woman to hold her position) and the sources of her school of thought become deftly fraught components of Whitehead’s pointed commentary. When it was first published, The Intuitionist demonstrated the extraordinary potential of its author, and in the almost two decades since, Whitehead’s debut has proven prescient—indeed, after The Underground Railroad, the possibilities still appear endless for him.
The Tsar of Love and Techno
The cover will tell you that this book is a collection of stories, but don’t be fooled by that. It’s a novel, and one of the most brilliantly structured ones at that. In order for it to succeed so grandly as a novel, the reader has to believe it’s just stories. But after the first entry—in which a censor paints the same image into numerous paintings—the connections begin to pile up, culminating in a work that by the nature of its setup can go anywhere and do anything.
It seems like an obvious question to answer: what, exactly, is a novel? Turns out the answer’s one of the slippery concepts that as soon as you try to define, you begin to qualify and edit and revise, and then qualify some more, until little by little the number of amendments to the original statement is so great that, hell, the definition itself could be considered a novel.
How many pages or words differentiate a novel from a novella? What form must it take? Must it always have plot? Characters? And what of typography? Any rules on that front? Would a handwritten novel in a dollar-store journal of a friend of yours feel like a novel, the same way a published novel by that same friend would? And I mean the word feel in a literal sense. How that journal simply didn’t have those features—of texture, mechanics, and design—that typically evoke the referent novel in a person’s mind but which actually have more to do with fiction’s commodification than with its aesthetics. A novel, then, is mostly a commercial distinction, as in, how do we sell this book?
The answer to this, as we know, is short and sweet. It’s simplicity and catchiness, something a potential consumer can see, comprehend, and remember after a brief exposure. “True crime” is a lot easier to remember than “autofictional memoir blended with criticism and journalism.” But as these generic terms get stamped on books for better marketability, the divisions between the various categories get more distinct and less forgiving to cross.
So if it’s not the page it’s printed on or the length, and if the story’s not inherently plot-driven or character-filled, and if the seeming pervasiveness of a definition is merely the result of branding, then what the hell is it? A novel is a useful umbrella for the many torrents of fictional art. But when it rains it pours, and under harsh duress, the umbrella breaks like any of us. Read these.
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