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November 4, 2005

Filed under: fiction»writing»technique

A Novel Idea

There is a certain amount of shame and dismay to reading science fiction. I can get away with it because I am a Journalist and a Rock Musician of Note, but for someone with more self-doubt and less god-like power, I can understand how it would be difficult to admit reading SF, and there's simply no hope for those who read fantasy. It's pure societal guilt, of course: while there's a lot of crap out there, there's also a significant amount of science fiction that may even (grab the rails, kids, this is rough) be better than traditional fiction. I read the good and the bad about equally, myself.

Meanwhile, I'm in two book clubs, one run by my girlfriend and another by a coterie of frustrated intellectual friends. The latter reads Nietzche, Freakonomics, and Johnny Got His Gun. The former, on the other hand, is a more recent development and has only completed Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Which I hated.

My problem with EL&IC is the sheer amount of gimmickry that packs the book. It certainly doesn't need it: although he's a little bit precious (and precocious), the 9-year old main character is charming and very well written. His name is Oskar, and his dad died in 9/11, turning an almost-autistic kid into a rambling weirdo. Foer doesn't need to mark up certain pages with red ink (Oskar's father was a compulsive proofreader) or include lots of grainy black-and-white pictures (supposedly an Oskar-eye view). With Oskar's voice so strong, it's surprising that his grandparents, blind and mute respectively, are so two-dimensional and rely on more typographical tricks. And Foer's closing pages, a reversed flipbook of a man falling from the WTC buildings, undermine what otherwise was a passably weighty ending.

The final impression is that the book, supposedly about September 11, is really all about Foer. I'd have rather read an actual story rather than watch a man jump through increasingly precarious flaming hoops. You may disagree, of course. The rest of the book club certainly did, with one member saying something I thought was interesting: these were ways of going beyond the novel form, of stretching the medium.

Well, maybe. I'm still not buying it. And I think it's frustrating that narcissistic styles like Foer and Dave Eggers get more respect than Iain Banks or William Gibson. But I'm curious about the concept of going "beyond the novel" in literature, especially since I don't think that clever typesetting is anything to write home about (pardon the pun). What would it take to rewrite the novel? At the book club, I proposed hypertext, which got a bunch of blank looks. In retrospect, that's probably just another tricky font choice, although you could probably do some interesting work with timelines or footnoting.

If a science fiction novel did that, would anyone care in the same way? Would it be called (perhaps) a heartbreaking work of staggering genius? Or would they just say it's another toy for the geeks? Why do I think that it would be the latter? I'm a little bitter about that. Never mind.

More importantly, does the novel need a new way to tell a story? I guess I'm a bit of a traditionalist, but what exactly is a novel lacking? If your job is to present a narrative, the simple power of words on paper, one after another and without external embellishment, seems hard to argue with. Readers of literary fiction are looking for something different than I am--the next book for the club is Wickett's Remedy, which apparently contains margin notes from the dead.

It stings a little, knowing that margin notes from the dead are probably better received than, say, American Gods or Perdido Street Station. Doesn't it?

I'll say this much: I don't think we need to reinvent the novel. I like it the way it is, and I like tricks to be in the story, not on it. But I find it curious how few science fiction books I can think of that employ literary fiction's games--and I wonder if there's a link between that lack and the perception of triviality.

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