The Trojan Horse Problem: Thoughts on Structure

April 15, 2010 | 4 books mentioned 30 5 min read

I’m working on my third novel these days, and since I’m still deep in the mudflats of the first draft, I’ve been thinking a great deal lately about questions of structure. Specifically, how many complications of time and viewpoint a novel can stand and remain viable—and by “viable”, I think I mean both “elegant” and “not completely baffling.”

cover I find myself drawn equally to sheer unrelenting linear simplicity, wherein one thing follows another along a consistent timeline from the point of view of a single character (Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man, for instance) and to virtuosic displays of shifting viewpoints and fractured time (Colum McCann’s Let The Great World Spin.) I think it’s fair to say that I adore a fairly wide range of styles and structural ideas, and yet one thing that I’m consistently troubled by is what I’ve come to think of as the Trojan Horse novel: the book that’s structured as a delivery system for something entirely unrelated to the plot.

cover I bought a book last week that I’d never heard of before: Ghosts, by César Aira. A slim novella with one of the most understatedly lovely covers I’ve ever seen—all staticky grey, slightly luminescent, with raised text in an unobtrusive font—and an equally wonderful premise. Ghosts takes place over the course of a single day in Buenos Aires, the final day of an unspecified year. It’s December 31st, and the family of Raúl Viñas is preparing for the New Years celebration. Raúl is a Chilean builder, and he’s been serving as the night watchman on a construction site for the past year; his family lives in a makeshift apartment on the roof of the structure, beside the still-empty rooftop swimming pool, while Raúl and his crew construct high-end residences on the seven floors below. The project is somewhat behind schedule, some of the exterior walls still absent, the apartments open to the searing air.

“The heat was supernatural,” Aira writes, and so too are most of the building’s inhabitants.  The site is occupied by a drifting population of ghosts. Visible to Raúl and his family, a little eerie, but apparently harmless and no cause for real alarm. In fact, given that the rooftop apartment doesn’t have a fridge, the ghosts are occasionally useful for wine-cooling purposes:

Raúl Viñas was keeping fourteen bottles of red wine cool, using a system he had invented, or rather discovered, himself. It consisted of resolutely approaching a ghost and inserting a bottle into his thorax, where it remained, supernaturally balanced. When he went back for it, say two hours later, it was cold.

The ghosts are a transparent population of naked men, covered head-to-toe in construction dust, floating through walls and floors on their own mysterious errands. They’ve been around for as long as the family has lived on the construction site, but on this last day of the year, something seems different; more and more of them appear as the day goes on, and they seem possessed of a certain urgency.

As the day fades toward evening, with the party well underway, Elisa’s teenage daughter Patri slips away from the celebration. The ghosts on the lower floor of the construction site seem to be moving with unusual purpose, and so Patri asks one of them why he’s in such a hurry. The ghosts are throwing their own party at midnight, he tells her. Would she like to come?

Patri considers the question.

“Of course,” the ghost tells her, “you’ll have to be dead.”

Ghosts was a wonderful read. I’m glad that I found it. Aira’s work is beautiful, even profound—he elevates the mundane details of a day spent preparing for a party, the grocery shopping and the cleaning, the cooking and the household gossip, to something of a revelation. The characters are alive, except of course for the ones who aren’t, and the set-up is inspired. And yet this book, in my entirely subjective opinion, flirts with disaster: it veers off, halfway through, into a ten-page essay about architecture.

I have very mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I like my fiction to keep moving, and ten pages is an awful lot of real estate in a 139-page novella. And the delivery, in this case, can’t quite be called seamless: a sophisticated ten-page musing on the similarities between architecture and literature, on the social structures of the Bushmen and Zulu as reflected in the respective arrangements of their villages, on the “mental city” (e.g., Joyce’s Dublin) is shoehorned into the siesta dream of an uneducated teenager who doesn’t read very much (“But in Patri’s dream the architectural analogy was developed a little further.”) My feeling on the matter is that if you want to write an essay about architecture, you should probably just write an essay about architecture and get it published somewhere, instead of using your novel as a kind of envelope.

This is one of the major criticisms I’ve read of Ayn Rand: that her novels weren’t novels at all, but thinly veiled presentations of her philosophy. Trojan horses, in other words. (My major criticism of Ayn Rand is that I find Objectivism sociopathic, but that’s beside the point.)

On the other hand, am I being unfair? Much of the ten-page interlude in Ghosts is fascinating, and as far off the rails as it pushes the book that carries it, I’m glad to have read it. I wonder if Trojan horses are ever justified—how much extra freight, aside from the weight of the plot itself, a novel can reasonably be expected to carry.

cover I lifted my copy of Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient down from the shelf just now. (It’s a shock, incidentally, to see that the pages are beginning to yellow; I think of this book as my contemporary, having requested it for Christmas when I was fourteen or so, and I remember when these pages were white.) There is no obvious narrative reason for Ondaatje to spend two pages naming various winds, and yet the opening sentence of that section is among my favorite of all the sentences I’ve read in my life:

There is a whirlwind in southern Morocco, the aajej, against which the fellahin defend themselves with knives. There is the africo, which at times reached into the city of Rome. The alm, a fall wind out of Yugoslavia. The arift, also christened aref or rifi, which scorches with numerous tongues. These are permanent winds that live in the present tense.

There are other, less constant winds that change direction…

This goes on for a while. I’m certain that others will disagree with me—as the writer and critic Edmund Wilson wrote, no two people ever read the same book—but I find Ondaatje’s digression weightless. It’s partly a question of relativity: ten pages in a 139-page novella is very different from two pages in a 301-page novel.

But much more importantly, Ondaatje’s digression exists solidly within the world of his book. The difference lies partly in the presentation—Patri’s sophisticated dream isn’t believable, or it isn’t believable that Patri would dream it; but two pages of notes on desert winds aren’t out of place in the personal journal of Ondaatje’s highly intelligent and well-traveled burn patient.

It seems to me that a good novel, one that holds a reader’s attention for three hundred pages, requires a kind of sustained enchantment. Structurally, a good novel can survive almost anything—multiple first-person narrators, long digressions, wild shifts in time and space—but forcing an essay or a philosophy into the narrative breaks the spell, and breaking a novel’s spell is fatal.

Image credit: Pexels/KEMAL HAYIT.

is a staff writer for The Millions. Her most recent novel, Station Eleven, was a 2014 National Book Awards finalist. She is married and lives in Brooklyn.


  1. I like long short stories, novellas and novels of less than 300 pages. In the case of novels it is because most sag in the middle, cannot sustain the brilliance (thrill, intensity, my degree of engagement) of the first 100-150 pages. I also like to read a novel in no more than 3 sittings, prefer 1 or 2. My library queue is always maxed out at 50–every time I check out 4 or 5, I fill up the queue again.

    So if what started out as a really wonderful book drops me cold in the middle, unless it is a book I am reading for a book group esp. if I am facilitating, I have to finish. There are so many others waiting for my fierce attention. So is it a trojan horse to be promised something special and unique and have all these wonderful pages to prove the gift is indeed a gift, and then halfway through have it fizzle or flail helplessly or sink of its own weight? I’ve been cheated and am pissed off. A closed book.

    p.s. Emily–I have requested that my library buy your books.

  2. David, good question… I’d been thinking of trojan horses as books in which the novel functions as a sort of envelope for something that doesn’t fit in the narrative, but books that sag in the middle are far more common and equally troublesome. The fact of the matter is, novels are hard to sustain and they require very, very good editors — an editor I know was telling me about a book he acquired that was 450 pages long when he bought it, but that will be published at about 250 pages. I can’t even imagine how much better the edited book must be.

    Thank you for requesting that my library buy my books. I greatly appreciate it.

  3. Would you characterize a trojan horse as simply a digression that isn’t organic to the plot? If there is an aside that relates thematically, but not to the actual narrative, would that be considered a trojan horse. This isn’t a good example because the book sometimes reads like one big digression, but there is a ten-page biography of a light bulb in Gravity’s Rainbow, which has absolutely nothing to do with the plot, but the themes are still apparent through this digression. Would this be considered a trojan horse? I guess I feel the same way about John Galt’s speech that Rand, whom you mentioned, works into the book, which I haven’t read. The plot effectively stops, but the themes of the book are elaborated upon. It sounds like the Ghosts book was just a digression for digression’s sake, although it does sound quite interesting. Did this touch on any of the motifs of the book? Pardon my digression about digressions.

  4. Thank you for this post for two reasons: this “My major criticism of Ayn Rand is that I find Objectivism sociopathic” and the noodling in my head generated from Ondaatje’s digressions and my ever-changing opinions. Before reading this, I knew what I knew, I believed what I believed, I haven’t questioned this digression idea for years (digression = brilliance). Now I’m not so sure. Still mulling it over, so thank you.

  5. Neil — I think I’d characterize a trojan horse as a digression, or an agenda, that breaks the spell of the novel. My thinking is that if you’re reading a book that lapses into a 10-page musing on architecture, or a biography of a lightbulb, and that digression seems completely organic to the spirit and the flow of the larger work, then it’s not a trojan horse.

    But if partway through that interlude you find yourself thinking “Wow, did the writer really splice a 10-page essay into the middle of his book? Because this doesn’t really fit with anything else in the novel. Actually, I wonder if he just wrote the rest of the novel as a frame for this brilliant essay?” then it is. By this measure, of course, whether or not something’s a trojan horse is an entirely subjective judgement call — what breaks the spell for you might not break the spell for me, and I can easily imagine another reader of Ghosts disagreeing with me and arguing that the 10-page essay on architecture fits perfectly into the book.

    JM — I’m glad you’ve been enjoying mulling it over. (The first time someone tried to explain Objectivism to me, I was like “But we already have a word for people who think their only responsibility is their own happiness. We call them sociopaths.”)

  6. Thanks, Emily, for this beautifully thoughtful post. As much as I love Coetzee, the Trojan horse in ELIZABETH COSTELLO made that novel tough for me. Even though it makes sense for the main character to deliver long set-pieces about animal rights, she seemed more like a lecture-delivery system than a character. The notorious whale section in MOBY DICK had the same effect (I know, I know, it’s a classic). Still, I love complex structures and digressive prose (Ulysses, Rings of Saturn, anything by Woolf). So, you’re right, I think, if we want to be spell-bound by story, some ways of going off the path work, and some don’t.

  7. Tracy, I’m glad you enjoyed it. Someone on Twitter just mentioned MOBY DICK in relation to this essay — I still need to read that book. I’ve been meaning to read it for ages.

  8. One Trojan horse I’ve been thinking about lately is the glove-manufacturing section in American Pastoral. Great book, amazing writer (I own and have read – at least once – 22 Philip Roth novels).

    But that clearly Well-Researched glove material comes off to me simply as being TOO CLEARLY well-researched. Was it included to show how much Roth has learned about glove manufacturing while he was sketching out the Levov family’s history? I can’t figure it out.

    I pretty much implicitly trust Roth’s judgment – I love to go along for whatever ride he’s taking me in whichever novel I’m reading at the time. But all that glove detail seems to me too show-offy and *not essential* to the book.

    Anybody feel this, too?

  9. I thought of the glove scene in American Pastoral when reading this article, so that says something. Other people have mentioned they found it annoying, or wrong, or too much- but it never bothered me. The Swede LOVED his life, he was so grateful and proud. I should reread the book- I read it when it first came out. Roth, structurally, often digresses wildly and often has characters that seem researched- the puppet stuff in Sabbath’s Theater comes to mind, too. (Although he doesn’t get so deep into it, admittedly, as he does the gloves in American Pastoral.)

  10. Honestly, when asked to recommend a Resurgent Roth (Sabbath forward) novel, I’ll actually choose like The Human Stain or Sabbath instead of American Pastoral BECAUSE of those glove pages. And it’s such a shame cuz everything about AP is completely and totally god . . . except THE GLOVES.

  11. In Objectivist meta-ethics the purpose of ethics is the achievement of ones personal happiness by living ones life according to the standard of ‘mans life qua man.’ But this identification does not tell us what virtues are required. Rand identified the requisite virtues in her Objectivist ethics as rationality, productiveness, pride, independence, integrity, honesty and justice. Is this what her detractors consider ‘sociopathic’?

    Rand disagreed with the traditional view that the purpose of ones ethical behavior was the benefit of others or of society. She proposed the alternate view that one must be ethical if one wants to live a life proper to a human being. We are ethical not because it benefits others, though it undoubtedly does, but because ethical behavior benefits ourselves. She knew her detractors would call this “selfish”, so she beat them to the punch. She denied that a brute who tramples over others to achieve his goals was acting selfishly. Unlike her detractors she did not think it is in anyone’s self-interest to violate the rights of others.

    To consider acting in ones own self-interest to be ‘sociopathic’ is to make an ironic confession about ones soul.

  12. Davey and Paula – American Pastoral is one of my favorite books, and now that I think about it, I recall being a little distracted by the glove section too. I loved the book enough that it didn’t bother me terribly, but Davey, I see your point. I think I need to go back and reread that book — it’s been way too many years.

  13. It’s such a thin line–I love the “information bonus” in novels, learning about another world or time. Sometimes that requires digressions. But I HATE feeling like I’m being lectured at. I guess it all comes down, Emily, as you say in this wonderful essay, to whether the Trojan Horse feels integral, necessary, believable. It’s a case-by-case judgment.

    For example, the description of the nose job in Pynchon’s V may not have needed to be there, but I still remember it clearly thirty years later. It announced, “You have NO IDEA what I’m going to put in this book!”

    On a more personal note, it’s hard to read the first comments here when you’re the author of a 450-page, 130,000 word first novel being published in two weeks…people have said it’s a quick, tight read, but I wonder how much I’ll hear about the “sag.” Only learned after the book was done and bought that first novels should never be more than 95,000 words…

  14. Joe – it is a thin line, I agree. With regards to long books — one of my very favourite books of last year was Nick Harkaway’s THE GONE-AWAY WORLD, which weighs in at 497 pages. The 450 page book that the editor I spoke to cut down to 250 pages clearly had 200 pages worth of material that could be cut. If yours doesn’t, then perhaps 450 pages is the perfect length. Sag isn’t really even dependent on length — I’ve read saggy novellas.

  15. I also like the ‘information bonus’ — I want it folded into the story so the seams don’t show, OR when a character’s personality and knowledge can deliver it without me wincing, unless of course the point is to make me wince.

    The ‘sag’ bothers me a lot, too, and I wind up skimming the last half or third of a novel if I don’t stop reading altogether. BUT there’s David Wroblewski’s Story of Edgar Sawtelle. First novel, 570 pages, and I was its willing captive for days. The novel just tore me apart. (Some degree of pride or vanity or something like that compels me to add I am only rarely a best seller reader!)

  16. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer features a digression that specifically makes fun of certain tendencies of young female poets. It doesn’t quite fit with the story, and is clearly a tongue-in-cheek cheap shot wedged in there by Clemens/Twain.

  17. Emily, thank you for this great post, which has given me something to chew on while navigating the mudflats of my own first draft. Lately I too have found myself reading an intriguing passage of a novel that seems to wander on in the form of a digression, and have wondered if maybe I rein myself in too much as a writer. But inevitably, as I get further into the book I find that one of two things happens. Either the digressions become so spell-breaking, as you say, I have to stop reading, OR I discover that what first seemed like digressions actually turn out to be part of an intricate network that the author has cleverly and painstakingly constructed to convey the overarching themes & ideas. For example, last night I finished Jennifer Gilmore’s fantastic new novel, SOMETHING RED, and while near the beginning, I did wonder every now and then why I was reading such a long passage about, say, the daughter’s eating disorder, I eventually discovered that her starvation and secret binges had everything to do with the novel’s main themes of denial and secrets, and not only gave a metaphorical picture of what was going on within the family, but also perfectly mirrored the book’s Carter era setting, including America’s food sanctions against Russia, Russia’s secret stockpiling, and the trade of state-secrets by spies on both sides of the cold war (again reflecting back to the cold war of sorts taking place within the family’s home). I think the passage you point out in THE ENGLISH PATIENT acts the same way. While it may at first appear to be a digression, the romantic and otherworldly description of the desert lays the groundwork for the whole story – a story in which two people become carried away by the magic and romance of a world that’s different and far (in every sense) from their western homes. So now after reading these comments I’m dying to go back and reread the gloves scenes in AMERICAN PASTORAL, which I have some vague memory of being bothered by, too, despite being a huge Roth fan. And as for Ayn Rand, she is just way too didactic. And now back to the mudflats… thanks again!

  18. I found the glove digression thematically relevant to the novel as a whole. You get an understanding of what Swede puts value in, and also about his observations of how time has changed the America he grew up in; the gloves are a nice way to show us this change.

  19. Neil-
    Thanks – that prolly hits the nail on the head. Still, I think it’s the weakest, most tedious part of an incredible novel.

    Wasn’t this like hyper-researched detail a trend in the mid-late 90s/early 2000s (American) fiction? I’m trying to think of other examples – you know, the BIG BOOK bloat syndrome?

    Kavalier & Clay, maybe? I can’t remember the exact over-done research, but that comes to mind. Middlesex (never read it)? Fortress of Solitude (again, didn’t read it)? The Corrections – maybe the Eastern European financial stuff? Of course Infinite Jest – like the Eschaton stuff, which I simply *could not* follow. Some people glossed over the tennis pages, but I was into those (I like tennis).

    Trim the fat, no?

  20. Interesting thoughts, Davie. It reminds me of another bloated novel 2666. There’s a digression, fittingly for this thread, where Bolano details how many authors–from Melville to Bolano–have written flawless short novellas and novels, but how there is something to say for the imperfect huge books–Moby Dick or 2666–that aim for something different than well-edited and concise perfection. About the bravery of shooting for the immense books that will undoubtedly have flaws.

    I myself am a sucker for the Big bloated books, even with their rampant digressions and self-conscious research about gloves, tennis, and whales and prefer them to tightly edited and written books that I don’t feel take as many chances. Sure, we’ll never complain about a slim perfect novella for leaving out odd minutia, but I still wouldn’t trim an ounce of whale fat from any of the fat classics.

  21. I did love that digression in 2666 about the BIG, IMPERFECT novel – of which 2666 itself was clearly Exhibit A. I’m investigating further the bloat (or lack thereof) of The Corrections by rereading it. And it’s better than I remember!

  22. Emily. What a wonderful article! When I read I am exasperated by what I see as self-indulgent Trojan horses in a story that knock me out of the text, but love the beauty of rich, appropriate digressions that add to the story. As Joe Walkace pointed out about a digression, it can even have a Pyncinesque intention to warn Do Not Get Too Comfortable Here! Your suggestion of what makes the difference between a successful and unsuccessful digression seems right to me. I am bothered when I read what should be a separate essay, but deeply in love with beautiful text that enriches my experience of a story. Ondaatje’s two pages on wind are definitely the latter. I now want to read Ghosts!, and reread Pastoral and Moby Dick to think more about all of this. I am almost finished reading Something Red, and agree with Hyatt Bass that Jennifer Gilmore does a wonderful job of drawing us into a complex structure of metaphorical circumstances that initially seem unrelated. And, just FYI, I too think Ayn Rand’s Objectivism is deeply disturbed. Thank you for a wonderful piece. I look forward to reading your books. (Apologies for any typos. Writing this on an iPhone.)

  23. Katherine, thanks very much! Glad you enjoyed the piece.

    I can’t wait to read Something Red — it’s next on my list.

  24. A couple of examples come to mind, both from the same author, and both within the graphic novel genre. Alan Moore, author of Watchmen, V for Vendetta, From Hell and numerous other brilliant titles, often works fairly heavy “asides” into his work. In Watchmen, this takes the form of treatises on birds, faux newspaper articles on politics, etc, placed in between the chapters. In the case of Watchmen, it’s brilliantly executed, fleshing out the world and the characters that the story takes place in, and centres around, respectively.

    However, I’ve recently begun reading his epic From Hell, a heavily political take on the Jack the Ripper murders. An entire chapter of this (the third one, if my memory serves) is framed by a coach-ride through 1888 London, in which many architectural points are made, and much history of buildings in London is discussed. While on one level this was interesting, and parts of it are very important to the plot, the whole chapter felt rather circular, and left me feeling drained, and wanting not to read on. I since have, and Moore’s brilliance shines on, but at the same time, if you’ve come to a point in the novel/graphic novel/film, etc where you think “God, I wish they’d just get on with it…”, then something might be wrong.

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