Experiments in Narrative


I’ve been working on novels for the last few years. None of them have shown up in publication at this point. I have a tendency not to submit them.

That said, I’ve been trying my hand at a different sort of narrative style.

Modern fiction is largely built around the concept of following a particular character or group of characters through a strong prose narrative. It’s the style of Mark Twain in Huckleberry FinnRudyard Kipling in Kim up to and including most modern writers whether in-genre or out. Even something as out there as Reif Larsen’s The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet, while having a wonderful collection of diversions and ruminations, still follows essentially one or two characters closely.

There are other paths through narrative.

Back in college I became enamored of the experiments of various writers of the first half of the twentieth century. It was fascinating reading what with Faulkner’s exploding prose and Hemingway’s oddly detached perspective. But the writer that really attracted my interest was John Dos Passos.

Dos Passos had a fascinating technique. He used as many points of view as he needed to peer into the works of what he wanted to observe. Some points of view were intimate with a character. Some were more clinical and observational– his “camera eye” sections of USA Trilogy. Some were bits of publications, headlines, newspapers, etc. John Brunner appropriated this technique in Stand on Zanzibar.

Dos Passos and Brunner both used this mosaic approach for cultural examination. Dos Passos was interested in America and used it to dissect what he thought was going on. Brunner was concerned with the possible consequences of overpopulation and used the technique to demonstrate it to the reader. In both cases it’s a fly’s eye approach: many different images integrated by the reader into a whole.

I like that. I like the sense of creating a work composed of different parts where the story is not visible to the characters and only apparent to the reader.

I’ve been trying to adapt this technique for my own use and the effort lies in the debris of unpublished novels.

I dropped my last novel attempt into the workshop last August and a novella attempt a week ago. One of the workshop members– who shall remain nameless to protect the guilty– asked what it was that I so liked about this technique? I had some kind of glib answer but it wasn’t right and I kept thinking about it ever since.

The best analogy for me is music. If you go back and listen to a Bach fugue, there are a lot of moving parts. The pieces come together and go their separate ways. Sometimes it seems like two these are hard at work at opposite sides of the room with only the wispy threads of rhythm holding them together. Then, they nod to one another. One bit seems to (not quite!) meet another and in the next measure they’re connected and finally come together in a wholly unexpected way to climax the piece.

Mahler is another composer where this happens. Beethoven doesn’t work the same way. I get the sense in Beethoven’s work that I’m a traveler on a complex path. In Mahler or Bach, there are many separate travelers that happen to sometimes converge in glorious harmony.

In Dos Passos I get the same feeling. It’s a different feeling from the personal character narrative. Not that the personal narrative isn’t powerful. I’ll carry the last scene between Kim and the Lama to the day I die and it wouldn’t be such a bad image to go out on.

But the mosaic narrative has its own beauty and power. And one of these days I’ll get it right.




Experiments in Narrative — 3 Comments

  1. I experimented with it, although I didn’t have a name for it. The publishers had fits. I ended up cutting back to 6 POV 3rd, but we still missed some of the omniscient POV in the last pass. Took re-releasing in ebook to catch the last couple of places….

    I like the idea. I just haven’t visualized how to make it work. Good that you have pursued it, but I hope you are still writing a few other things in other forms!

    • I think the Dos Passo method (or, as Brunner says, the Innes method. Which comes from Innes comment on MacLuhan’s Guterburg Galaxy) fits novels. I’m on the track of making it work. That said, I have not been able to figure out how to apply it to shorter fiction in any way.

      So I write short fiction in a more traditional way.

  2. I think many are rediscovering the wide variety of omniscient voices explored during the nineteenth and early twentieth century. My own take, after reading the flagrant ones, like Thackeray, the subtle ones like Austen, the mosaic ones like Joyce, is to ask myself Who is telling this story, and why? Because every story has a narrator, even one told at the extreme camera-eye third of Dashiell Hammett.