At the start of 2021 I began an open-ended Twitter thread listing and commenting on my reading as I finish each book. This was supposed to help with these monthly round-ups, to save time, which clearly didn’t work at the end of March, as I didn’t post a round-up at all. So, for this two-month round-up I’ll be picking and choosing and expanding on those thoughts on some but not all of what I’ve read, rather than going through it doggedly.
It took me a bare couple of hours to read No One is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood, and I’ve spent at an hour elsewhere reading reviews and thinkpieces about it. Which only goes to show, as someone on here pointed out, that it’s the least well-titled book of the year. Unless she means it ironically. Or post-ironically. Or whatever.
I did really like the book, but also I found it exasperating and even anxiety-provoking. The short, fragmentary sections are clearly designed to mimic Twitter, but unlike Twitter you seem to have to read every one of them, as if there is something to ‘get’ from each of them.
This was confusing. On Twitter, after all, you skim through a dozen tweets in as many seconds before you deign to give one your more considered attention, sometimes scrolling back up to read one you initially skimmed over. Your micro-decisions about what to give your attention to are affected by names, and digital paratexts like avis and retweet and like counts. You don’t get that with tweet-length paragraphs on the page of Lockwood’s novel, but equally the usual narrative paraphernalia that allow you to speedily and efficiently navigate a story are also absent. Even Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation had more flow and propulsion across its narrative islets than this.
Of course you acclimatise, and for a while you drift through the novel, picking up little dopamine hits for identifying memes and moments. The incest advert. The plums poem. But the pace of reading picks up, and the drifting becomes sliding, and it takes a great line to slow you down. Thankfully there are plenty of great lines.
Then Something Happens, plot-wise, and this is where the real challenge for the novel lies. Having established a vehicle of utter affectlessness in the first half (even while critiquing and despairing over the same), can it step up and deal with a subject that demands genuine emotional engagement?
Well the answer is no, for me at least. The emotion is there, and if you’ve read the interviews and perhaps even if not you’ll know it’s real, but the novel simply cannot express it. None of the usual, traditional functional parts – the filters and switches – are present, or work as required. It’s as if the book knows it’s trapped, and wants to break out of the trap it’s built for itself – and that’s part of the project after all, that’s what so many of us want to know: is there a way through this way of being, that will lead to another, better one?
What’s missing is the connective tissue. Now, the online world, when we are in it, does contain a connective tissue, of sorts: what gets called ‘the discourse’ (as in: the discourse is particularly toxic this morning). The discourse is the suspension (in the scientific sense) in which the individual tweets float, and take their context, and to which they all, infinitesimally, add.
The point of the novel seems to be that this way of connecting with the world is leaving us adrift and unfulfilled. But when Lockwood gets to the second part of the novel, when tragedy drags her away from the Portal and immerses her in real life, the novel doesn’t change. It’s still written in that atomised, fragmentary style. Is that because this is the only way the narrator can think the world into being? Or is it intended to show the inability of ‘interneted narrative’ to represent the deep continuum of real life? Would it have been a failure of form if Lockwood had ‘reverted’ to a more traditional narrative style to cope with what happens ‘off-screen’?
No One is Talking About This is a tragedy of form, because although it allows me to empathise with the narrator when she is feeling sad about her unconnectedness, it fails to make me empathise when she suffers genuine tragedy. And it’s the form that engineers that failure.
Anagrams by Lorrie Moore was an impulse re-read. It has such a wonderfully idiosyncratic form – four short stories followed by a novella, all featuring the same three characters in different versions and permutations: anagrams of themselves, in other words. Here’s what I said when I read it for the first time on holiday, back in 2013. “These people are us! They are us squared!” is clearly me trying to channel Moore. But it’s true that Moore does use humour to set up devastation. And in fact I’d forgotten quite how bleak the end of Anagrams is.Continue reading
The second in an occasional series of posts reflecting on bits and pieces I’ve learned teaching Creative Writing both previously at UEA and St Mary’s University, Twickenham, and now, at City, University of London, where I run the MA/MFA Creative Writing, which is now recruiting for September 2021 entry.
How long should a chapter be?
This is a question I’ve been asked in class by novel-writing students, and it’s not a stupid question. Chapters are odd things, that we tend to take for granted, and that most of us won’t have thought properly about until we try to write one. Or, once we’ve started writing one, when we ask ourselves when we are supposed to stop.
The best way of thinking about chapters (like so much else in writing) will be to think of it from the reader’s point of view. A reader sees chapters first of all as way of measuring a book. A book is divided into chapters like a Terry’s Chocolate Orange is divided into segments. Eat one segment, and you might get an immediate sense of whether you will want to eat the whole thing in one go, or spread the pieces out. Chapters give a sense of scale, then, and also a sense of rhythm. Even though chapters aren’t necessarily all the same size, like Chocolate Orange segments, they will tend to be more or less the same.
Once upon a time, that decision – of how many chapters to ‘eat’ in one go – wasn’t left to the reader. In the Nineteenth Century, novels were usually serialised, published one chapter at a time in weekly or monthly periodicals, and only collected as a book once they were finished. (It wasn’t just commercial novels that were serialised. Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady and Flaubert’s Madame Bovary were originally published this way.)
This led to two results for novels: they tended to get longer, as writers padded out and extended storylines that were proving popular with readers; and novelists learned to end chapters on a cliff-hanger, an unresolved plot element that would not just make readers want to know what happened next, but would stick in their heads for the week or month until the next instalment.Continue reading