In my recent reading, it’s been as much about how the story is told as it’s been about the story itself. This certainly isn’t a new idea—these examples span three decades—but sometimes the phenomenon is more prevalent in my stacks.
Maybe you’ve read some of these, or maybe you have other favourite examples of works by authors who have arranged their narratives so that you, as reader, experience the work differently than you would have if they’d arranged things in a more conventional manner.
Here, experiments with form and pacing and voice work to change the borders drawn between readers and writers.
Whether pushing us to the margins or drawing us close, whether heightening the sense of urgency or weighting the prose with history, whether drawing attention to gaps in the historical record or to gaps in our understanding of the world.
Interior Chinatown muscled past the short story collections Charles Yu has written, which I thought I’d read first – How to Live Safely in a Science Fiction Universe (2010) and Sorry Please Thank You (2012). Coming to this full-length work with thoughts of his being a short story writer worked, however; presented as a series of short pieces, structured like teleplays, Interior Chinatown was perfect for toting around on public transit, reading a “scene” between destinations. In some ways, it’s a celebration of the fragmented view on this community: “Tiny, anonymous parts for each of them, an undercurrent of social or political relevance. Hard to see the big picture from their vantage point, but they knew that behind them was a historical backdrop, that they were part of a prestigious project, with the sweep and scope of a grand American narrative. So they do what it takes, make the best of a small role, just to get it.” But the narrator’s relationships to family members are so moving that the culminating effect is novelistic, supported by numerous “flash-backs” which require deft handling of time and memory. It’s also very funny, particularly the representation of the generic Asian roles the narrator plays as various guest star appearances on television shows.
Brannavan Gnanalingam’s Sodden Downstream (2017) unfolds over the course of a day in Sita’s life as she prepares to go to work in what will later be recognized as the margins of tropical Cyclone Evelyn. Sita, who emigrated from Sri Lanka to New Zealand and now lives there with her husband and young son, cleans office buildings and helps her family cope in the wake of their wartime experiences. This story is quietly propulsive as the question of how Sita can find her way through the city, which is shut down to cope with the weather, remains unresolved. The crisis compounds all the social and economic issues which divide the community, but the story is not a soapbox song, simply a detailed and vibrant account of the landscape Sita inhabits. Small exchanges with people she meets along the way, quotidian phone communications, arrangements and negotiations: these alter readers’ investment in Sita’s success (and what success means under these circumstances) and, in fewer than 200 pages, this woman’s life shifts from interesting to fascinating. The irony being that her story is one that remains largely unheard.
The whole of Toni Morrison’s A Mercy (2008), I read aloud like an epic poem. “In short, 1682 and Virginia was still a mess. Who could keep up with the pitched battles for God, king and land?”
This doesn’t read like a seventeenth-century story; it feels relevant and vivid. It’s a meditation on how we find mercy, how we offer and receive it, and it reminds me of Paradise. Here, readers meet “three unmastered women and an infant…alone, belonging to no one, became wild game for anyone” after we have met another woman: “Take the girl, she says, my daughter, she says. Me. Me. Sir agrees and changes the balance due.” After we have met Sir. And another Sir.
The narrative is arranged like chapters but with empty space denoting breaks so that it’s easy to imagine how the threads can be drawn and pulled through those spaces, how the different narratives align and collide.
Thus readers have a twinned sense of restlessness and rootedness, for while we are immersed in one character’s, the others fall away, but every single character’s story is connected to other characters’ stories: there’s a sense of lightness (a focus on one voice at a time) and heaviness (all these voices, so many needing mercy).
If you’re already loved Sarah Leavitt’s memoir Tangles (2010), you’ll be fascinated by Agnes, Murderess (2019) immediately; how does one move from telling the story of their mother’s dementia, experienced intimately and concretely, to telling the story of a 19th-century serial killer who barely exists in the historical record. I imagine the impetus came from the idea that Agnes expresses near the middle of her story, when the setting shifts: “I had thought most people would choose to live far from the city, hidden in the woods…as I dreamed of myself. […] We often think of people being just like us…until we realize that’s just not true.
A tour of 108 Mile House in British Columbia, a roadhouse Agnes owned in the mid-1800s, sparked Leavitt’s interest although archivally speaking there is no evidence of Agnes McVee’s existence. Leavitt’s pen-and-ink drawing style is simple and stark, facial expressions comprised of dots and lines and everyone seems to be wearing the same hats and shoes.
Most of the oversized pages are divided into nine panels (frequently two of those are combined, to create more of a scene, before the focus returns on the people once more, with the occasional foray into an unexpected perspective, to resituate a bird or a house). Rarely they’re bound by squiggly lines (for a dream sequence). Sometimes Agnes is so small that she is the size of a single stair, other times she is barely contained in the panels. It’s an extensive invention with an impressive bibliography. And if that statement surprises you, it’s just the beginning in a series of surprises as Leavitt makes this story both uniquely Agnes’ story and entirely her own creation. Published by Freehand Books.
Eduardo Galeano’s The Book of Embraces (1989; Trans. Cedric Belfrage and Mark Schafer, 1991) is a hypnotic volume, arranged a little like Julio Cortazar’s Hopscotch, so that you can read straight through, if you wish, but you might also be guided by the index (which records the page numbers for multiple pieces on the same theme).
Most pieces are a few paragraphs long, although some occupy more space with woodcut-styled illustrations. Some read like poems, others like fables, others like newspaper headlines.
Some themes appear in sequence, like “Forgetting” and “Television”. Others are interrupted, like “Resurrections” and “Indians”. Others seem deliberately arranged, like the two on “Art and Reality”, flanked by “Celebration of Reality” on one side and “Reality is Mad as a Hatter” on the other.
There are a lot of “Celebrations…”, easy to identify in the Index (“Celebrations of Courage” and “Celebrations of Contradictions”, for instance) and a lot of “Chronicles…” too.
It feels strangely like a perfectly arranged display and a series of intimate confidences: it’s a good jumping-off point for exploring the work of this remarkable Uruguayan author.