Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Novel Novels

In 2007 there were a staggering 50,071 new works of fiction published in the US, or about a book every 30 minutes. This reminded me of the famous Kurt Vonnegut quip that there’s really only two plotlines in existence – ‘man falls in hole’, and ‘boy meets girl’ – which if he’s right would make for an awful lot of repetition.

More than anything else this might account for the increasing, willful absurdity of a lot of modern fiction. Even in the last few years we’ve had books narrated by a murder victim (Lovely Bones) and an autistic teenager (The Curious case of the Dog at Night Time), both very successful, and both upending ideas of the ‘unreliable narrator.’

All of this came to mind as I read for the first time Nabakov’s excellent Pale Fire, published back in 1962. It’s a great example of a novel novel: a twisty tale masquerading as a definitive, annotated edition of the last work of a (fictional) famous poet. I guess Nabakov was teaching at the time at Cornell, and he has great fun skewing academics and the academic interpretation of literature. The poem of the title, which is at the heart of the book, alternates between gorgeous, haunting imagery and great jokes, and the daft annotations that follow are laugh-out-loud, like Lolita. I feel I’m missing 90 percent of the references, but this is still one of the best books I’ve read in a long time.

Not many writers can pull-off literary tricks like Pale Fire, but here are a few other novel novels that derive a lot of impact from pulling apart the conventional narrative structure.

Time’s Arrow is probably Martin Amis’ best book, and mostly overlooked. It starts from an end, and end with a beginning: the books is entirely in reverse, following the death to birth passage of a man’s life, a Nazi war criminal who from old age moves back through youth and to Germany, where in a concentration camp he brings back to life millions of Jews. The book works in a lot of different ways, not least as a comment on redemption and atonement.

Vikram Seth, like Amis, was the golden boy of literature for a while, and wrote Golden Gate just before the fame hit. The whole novel, set in contemporary San Francisco, is written in iambic pentameter. At one point midway through the book Seth breaks down the “fourth wall” and directly addresses the reader – not as some postmodern trick, but out of exasperation with having to invent more plot with the right meter.

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell got raves in the UK but far less adulation in the US. Some of the criticism has merit, but this book is still wonderful. Here the multiple narrators begin their tales then suddenly switch mid-sentence, and the six stories are dovetailed together in an ascending and descending sequence, each written is a distinctive style and voice that is utterly convincing.

And lastly, I read the latest Bond opus, Devil May Care, written by Sebastien Faulks writing as Ian Fleming. This is a hoot, and Faulks really is writing as Fleming here – pitch perfect, sexist, racist, and with a subtly subversive plot perfectly preserved in some early 1960s world that never really existed at all.

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