Sunday, April 7, 2013

Forms of Fiction

Good fiction does not date, which is good for those of us woefully behind on our New Yorker reading. Last week, I was rummaging through that unruly stack of back issues living under my coffee table when I came across one of their "deluxe" issues (i.e. twice as many ads combined with roughly the same amount of content). These editions are often organized around a theme, which in this case was "Science Fiction." Those of you playing along at home can locate your own copy wherever you stashed your issues from July, 2012. Yep, nearly a year a ago. So, as I said, good thing that quality fiction does not date, right? During the course of the week, I made my way through the majority of the issue's contents, and can say that it was overall a strong collection of pieces. (I still have one fiction piece to finish, but, unless Mr. Diaz bungles his ending, I think that it's safe to include his work among the highlights). On another day, I might ramble on a little on China Mieville's defense of genre, but instead I would like to say a few words about Jennifer Egan's contribution.

Summer is usually a very hectic time of year for me, but, still, I am not sure how I would have missed the news that Egan was releasing a new short story via Twitter. I would think that such an announcement would have been (arts section) headline generating. Perhaps it was and it simply happened the week I was on vacation, not paying much attention to the news. Regardless, it flew under my radar. Thus, I unknowingly consigned the print verision of this spectulative tale to the limbo of my "to-read" pile.

This is not the first time that Egan has attempted to create a new form for fiction. One of the final chapters of her fabulous novel A Visit from the Goon Squad is written from the perspective of a young person in the near future. Here the story is told more through graphs and charts, literally drawing connections between characters, than through the conventional building blocks of sentences and paragraphs. It is an intriguing experiment, as well as commentary on how social media and smartphones are changing language, but one that does feel as though it could be self-containing. As one part of a larger tapestry it works; however, I have doubts that it could be sustained for an entire novel.

Egan's Twitter tale "Black Box," on the other hand, feels much more successful. Each tweet is the equivalent of a paragraph, with these tweets being grouped together in numbered sections which resemble chapters, or more aptly, stanzas. The narrative focuses on a woman (again in the not too distant future) using her beauty to investigate violent men of dubious incomes. Exactly what criminal activities these men are engaged in is never directly stated, though my inference is terrorism. Business transactions are referred to, as well as the goal of following the money trail, but every cell, no matter how remote, does require fundraising. What is clear is that the unnamed protagonist is a government employee, a "citizen agent," who is often reminded of her patriotic duty.

We also know that she is American. One of the more striking passages of the piece explains a new theory of the self, which is not centered around individual accomplishment, but, instead, the common good. "In the new heroism, the goal is to dig beneath your shiny persona." Many are surprised by what they find through this process, comparing the expansion of awareness to "a dream in which a home acquires new wings and rooms." In the past, individuals sought personal glory, only to make themselves weak in the process, defenseless to those who would do them harm. However, these new citizen agents have learned to use these expectations to their advantage and turn the tables on their adversaries. "Now our notorious narcissism is our camouflage."

This passage is also a good example of how Egan succeeds in her project. Each unit of thought might be compact (it is hard to imagine a writer like Saramago on Twitter), yet still able to convey not only practical information (the tools of an agent), but evocative imagery and social commentary as well. It does what all of the best writing, regardless of form, does: it bewitches you with words, a steady rhythm, leaving you feeling something after you have put down the piece.

Is this a vision of the future, the shape of stories yet to come? Maybe. It is definitely another tool that authors can add to their kit, another form that they can poke around at. Will there be imitators? I'm sure there already have been (remember I am behind the curve on this one). Would I read a whole novel written in this manner? Yes, I would. Reading the story I thought of the older, now mostly abandoned form of the verse novel. As I hinted above, I feel that this is the best comparison to how Egan manipulates the restrictions of Twitter in her piece. Tweets become the equivalent of lines in a poem, her numbered sections the same as a stanza. In both poetry and Twitter there are conventions, rules to which the writer must conform. Both require an economy of words, a stress on the perfectly turned phrase. Something both pithy and evocative is expected by the reader. Would I wish every author to follow this example? No more than I would desire that every novel be written like Eugene Onegin, or every drama to be constrained by the same metric structures of Shakespeare or Moliere. Like I said, what Egan offers the reader is an intriguing glimpse at how future writers might manipulate language in new and thoughtful ways.

Or, for the time being, we could simply enjoy the story according to the more old-fashioned and timeless standard of a captivating tale well told.


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