A Multiplicity of Voices: On the Polyphonic Novel

Reared in the dressing rooms of the 18th century, the novel can often seem out of place in our age of LOLcats and Angry Birds. But in spite of its advanced age and sometimes stuffy reputation, the old chap is surprisingly nimble. In the technological tumult of the past decade, for example, YA went through puberty, electric literature moved out of the ivory tower, and the literary novel was successfully (for the most part) cross-pollinated with a number of more exotic genres. In the midst of all this, a strange literary beast has reemerged, a hybrid of the short story and traditional novel. This newly reinvigorated genre -- let’s call it the polyphonic novel -- uses a chorus of voices and narrative styles to create a whole that’s greater than the sum of its parts. Think Nicole Krauss’s Great House or David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad or Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists. Just as polyphonic music combines melodies to create texture and tension, the polyphonic novel collects a multiplicity of distinct, often conflicting voices around a single place, family, object, or idea. Polyphony widens the novel’s geographic, psychological, chronological, and stylistic range, while simultaneously focusing its gaze. Drawing inspiration from classics like The Brothers Karamazov, The Sound and the Fury, Mrs. Dalloway, and John Dos Passos’s USA Trilogy, contemporary polyphonic novels make music from the messy cacophony that is life in the 21st century. Bypassing traditional notions of character and plot, polyphonic novels create meaning at the intersection of seemingly random plot lines. Harmonies are found in the artful assemblage of disparate voices. As the Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin described the work of Fyodor Dostoevsky: “A plurality of consciousnesses, with equal rights and each with its own world, combine but are not merged in the unity of the event.” Eschewing objectivity and uniformity, polyphonic novels rely instead on simultaneity, contradiction, and the empty space between voices. Zadie Smith’s most recent novel, NW, is a perfect example of the genre. The book traces four Londoners as they attempt to understand, escape, and make their way through Kilburn, the working-class neighborhood where they all grew up. With each new narrator, the novel loops back on itself, answering and expanding upon questions raised by previous sections. Towards the beginning of the book, for example, one of the main characters watches her best friend and her best friend’s husband exchange a glace across a crowded party. “She sees no smile, no nod, no wave, no recognition, no communication, nothing at all.” Two hundred pages later, we have begun to understand the glance in all its sad complexity. The seemingly enviable couple is really nothing but “an advert for themselves,” “like a double act that only speaks to each other when they are on stage.” Polyphony is particularly well-suited to excavations of the urban landscape. (For what is a city if not a collection of conflicting voices?) In Let the Great World Spin, Colum McCann mobilizes a chorus of seemingly incongruous voices to conjure a portrait of New York in the 1970s. Skipping between narrators -- an aging prostitute, an Irish monk, a judge, and an irresponsible young artist, to name just a few -- McCann creates a dissonant, yet synchronistic world nearly as vivid and wonderfully cluttered as the city itself. But polyphonic novels need not live in the city. Take, for example, Hari Kunzru’s brilliant Gods Without Men, which layers the Mojave desert with a progression of characters searching for meaning in the void. Narrators pop up and fade away. They build doomsday bunkers, military bases, and geodesic domes. They spend decades looking for truth, but the quiet mystery of the desert subsumes them all. As the final narrator writes, “that which is infinite is known only to itself and cannot be contained in the mind of man.” Contemporary polyphonic novels come in a wide variety of flavors. Many find structure in the family. Others, like The Imperfectionists, are shaped around the extended family of the workplace. Ian McEwan’s Atonement centers around a single act of accusation. While Great House and Geraldine Brooks’s People of the Book follow a single object through history, dipping in and out of the lives of those who have possessed it. And then there are those polyphonic novels built on nothing more than an idea. Swirling around seemingly unapproachable concepts such as authorship and fictionality, aging and time, novels like Cloud Atlas and A Visit From the Goon Squad use a variety of forms and styles to create a sense of scope that would be difficult (if not impossible) to achieve with a single narrator. It can be hard sometimes to tell the difference between these most disparate polyphonic novels and linked short story collections like Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge or Emma Donoghue’s Astray. Often, unfortunately, this border is delineated by marketing departments eager to attract readers (who, as conventional wisdom would have it, are drawn like moths to those two tiny words, “a novel,” tucked away at the bottom of the book cover). As Jay McInerney grumbled in a recent review: “I suspect that if Dubliners had been published in recent years it would have been marketed as a novel.” Whether or not his assessment is true, many readers agree with McInerney’s basic premise. Indeed, a quick perusal of Goodreads reveals a sizable cadre of those frustrated by polyphonic novels’ lack of traditional plot and character development. As one reviewer on the Great House page wrote: “writing a book of short stories, fitting them together Tetris-like, and calling it a novel DOES NOT MAKE YOUR BOOK A NOVEL.” Even some professional critics seem flummoxed by polyphony (see, for example, Douglas Copeland on Gods Without Men or Mike Peed on Let the Great World Spin). While certain readers and critics might be frustrated by shifting genre boundaries and non-linearity, the polyphonic novel has found favor among those responsible for giving out literary awards. Almost all of the books mentioned above have won (or should win) major literary prizes. The finalists for the past decade of Pulitzers, Bookers, and National Book Awards include quite a few works that could be described as polyphonic. This might be a coincidence, or a peculiar bias of the awards’ judges. Regardless, these awards indicate that the polyphonic novel occupies an important sector of the contemporary literary landscape. With each foray onto the Internet, each ping and clang, we are searching for meaning in a haystack of data, balancing perspectives, trying to find reason in a cacophony of opinion. Is it any wonder we are drawn to fiction that reflects this new way of being, to a form that’s uniquely suited to our fragmented and globalized century? The novel survived the advent of radio, cinema, and television, thanks in large part to its pliability. And the novel will continue to survive so long as it continues to adapt.

Three Readings, A Bag of Ritz Sandwich Crackers, and Some Serious QT with my Number One Fan

A few months after my first novel, The Oracle of Stamboul, was published, I received an email from one Barbara Ivans of Willingboro, New Jersey. Barbara had read the book on her cousin’s recommendation and wanted to know if I was planning to write a sequel. Before I could respond, Barbara’s cousin, Carol, (who was cc’d on the original email) replied to us both, in all caps. DEAR MICHAEL, MY COUSIN WROTE TO YOU WANTING A SEQUEL TO YOUR FABULOUS DEBUT NOVEL. SHE IS NUTS. THIS NOVEL IS A MASTERPIECE AS IS. I WILL BE ON THE BOOK STORES LIKE AN OVIVIPOROUS PYTHON TO GET YOUR NEXT BOOK. TO WRITE A POETIC/PROSE/HISTORICAL NOVEL AS TIGHT AND TRANSCENDENT AS “ORACLE” IS AN ARTISTIC TRIUMPH. WHEN I READ THE FIRST FEW PAGES IN THE BOOKSTORE MY REACTION WAS PSYCOTIC JOY. Unaccustomed to such vociferous praise, I wrote back saying I was glad she had enjoyed the book and hoped my next one would live up to her expectations. Over the course of the next few weeks, Carol and I exchanged a number of emails, in which she firmly established herself as the President (and perhaps only member) of the Michael David Lukas Fan Club. In the course of the exchange, she offered to fly me out to Cincinnati for a series of readings, which she would arrange herself. In addition to paying for my flight, she said I would be able to stay free of charge at her senior center, The Kenwood, and all my meals would be taken care of. Now, I don’t normally do this sort of thing. But my publisher wasn’t planning much for the paperback tour, so I figured why not? (My publisher did, I should say, send me on a great hardcover tour for which I am endlessly thankful, as I am endlessly thankful for the two wonderful publicists I’ve had the opportunity to work with). Isn’t that what publishing is all about these days -- doing-it-yourself, sleeping on couches, Facebooking and tweeting your little heart out? After checking Carol out on the Internet, verifying she was indeed a former professor at the University of Cincinnati and a founder of the Cincinnati Writers Project, I brushed aside my concerns about being kidnapped or scammed somehow, tried my best to push those scenes from Misery out of my head, and I got on the plane to Cincinnati. Carol picked me up at the airport in a Lincoln Town Car driven by Mike, The Kenwood’s driver. The first thing I noticed about her was her age. She was much younger than I had expected, in her late-60s probably, though dressed like your literary Midwestern grandmother, in a pastel button-up sweater and pearls. The second thing I noticed about Carol was that she was very excited. As I pulled on my seat belt, she handed me a bottle of water and a bag of Chex Mix, then broke out her folder and started going through my schedule for the week. That evening I had a reading at Joseph-Beth, the big independent bookstore in town, then a free day, followed by a reading and reception at The Kenwood -- An Evening with Michael David Lukas, it was called -- then a book group the next afternoon at the JCC. Once we were finished going over my schedule, Carol caught me up on the details of a power struggle going down at The Kenwood. Apparently, a group of concerned residents was engaged in a sort of war of attrition with the management, writing letters to the corporate office to complain about a variety of managerial missteps and to propose a course of action to attract new residents. (At the moment, and for reasons no one could fully explain to me, the facility was operating at about 10 percent of its capacity). My visit, Carol said, was part of the strategy to turn things at The Kenwood around. “I’ll see what I can do,” I said. From a distance, The Kenwood looks like a small casino perched on a hill between a mall and a freeway. As soon as I walked through its sliding glass doors, I could feel the emptiness of the place pressing down on me. Carol showed me through the lobby, the dining rooms, the spa, the Olympic-sized pool, and the gym, all of which were completely empty. Then she led me up to the fourth floor, of which I was the only occupant, and gave me a tour of my suite, giving special attention to the basket of snacks and the twelve pack of Heineken we had emailed about a few months previous. After a shower and a couple Ritz sandwich crackers, I went downstairs to eat dinner with Carol in the still completely empty dining room. I got the Cobb salad and she had a single crab cake, without sauce, followed by a turkey sandwich on toasted English muffins. Over dinner, Carol told me all about the history of Joseph-Beth and their recent brush with bankruptcy. It was the premier bookstore in Cincinnati, she said. The place internationally renowned authors read when they came to town. Indeed, according to the events calendar, Nicole Krauss and Penn Jillette from Penn and Teller were reading there the following week. Not too shabby, I thought. Me, Nicole, and Penn, just three internationally renowned authors doing what internationally renowned authors do when we come to Cincinnati. I don’t know how things turned out for Nicole and Penn, but not a single person showed up to my reading. There were a couple people browsing around the store -- which really is quite nice -- but they clearly weren’t there to hear me read. It was just me, Carol, and the events coordinator. Mike was waiting outside in the car. Now, I’ve had some sparsely attended events. In my short career as a published author, I have read to crowds as small as two, and happily so. But there is something uniquely humiliating about an event with zero attendees. After a few minutes of awkward waiting around, the events coordinator (who I am sure did her very best to publicize the event) pulled a chair up next to me and began asking about my reading habits, a tactic I recognized immediately as zero-person event damage control. The following day was a free day, most of which I spent working at a coffee shop, wandering around downtown Cincinnati, and trying to psych myself up for the reading that evening. After what happened at Joseph-Beth, I thought I would probably be happy if a half dozen people showed up to An Evening with Michael David Lukas. I knew I could count on Carol, and her friends, Edith and Hirsch, said they were coming too. So I was halfway there. Mike picked me up downtown on his way back from dropping a group of women at the hair dresser and we rode back just the two of us, talking about his former job as logistics manager at Toys “R” Us and where to get the best chili in Cincinnati. Back at the ranch, as Mike called it, everyone was excited about the upcoming evening with Michael David Lukas. The Kenwood’s activities coordinator, Sarah, was bustling around checking on food and wine. The front desk receptionist said that some prospective residents were coming to check out The Kenwood’s cultural offerings. And Edith stopped me in the hall to say that her 14-year old granddaughter, Avery, would be there too, if she could finish her homework in time. On my way up to the fourth floor, I peeked into the room where An Evening with Michael David Lukas would be held. Even with the bar at the back and the steam trays set up along the wall, there was enough room for 75 people, give or take a few. I imagined my half dozen guests scattered around the room: Carol reassessing her “PSYCHOTIC JOY,” Avery wishing she had had more homework. “The big night,” Sarah said, sneaking up behind me. “There isn’t anywhere else we could do it?” I asked. “Maybe a smaller room?” “Nope,” she said, cheerfully. “This is the smallest room we have.” Back at the suite, I watched a couple episodes of “Say Yes to the Dress,” showered, ate some more Ritz sandwich crackers, and stared out the window at the back of the mall. When the time came, I took the elevator down to the lobby, bracing myself for the empty room. When the doors opened, though, it was like the triumphant climax of a movie about a writer with low self esteem. The room was full, people were laughing, drinking wine, and eating little chicken skewers. All the residents of The Kenwood were there, as well as a number of their friends and relatives, a good portion of the Cincinnati Writers’ Project, and the prospective residents everyone was buzzing about. The reading went wonderfully as did the Q&A. Carol was ecstatic and Avery came up to me afterwards to say she loved the book. She was, in fact, doing a book report on it the following day and wondered if I might write a note to her teacher saying she had come to my reading. “Avery came to my reading of The Oracle of Stamboul,” I wrote. “She asked a number of incisive questions. Please give her an A on her book report.” The following evening, after talking with a book group at the Cincinnati JCC, I went out to dinner with Carol, Edith, Hirsch, and Sarah. We had a great time. We ate nachos, burgers, and had a couple beers. Carol read a poem she had written that afternoon and Hirsch told a story about performing surgery on the wife of The Lubavitcher Rebbe. At the end of the dinner, Sarah took me aside and thanked me for coming out to Cincinnati. Everyone had such a good time, and the event had helped seal the deal with the prospective residents. “It was my pleasure,” I said, which it indeed was. “I’m thinking about trying to start an Author-in-Residence series at The Kenwood,” Sarah said. “Do you think that’s something other writers would be interested in?” “I’m not sure,” I said, truthfully. “But they should.” Image: Like_the_Grand_Canyon/Flickr