A Multiplicity of Voices: On the Polyphonic Novel

February 15, 2013 | 9 books mentioned 28 4 min read

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.

covercovercoverIn 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.

coverZadie 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.”

covercoverPolyphony 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.”

covercoverContemporary 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.

covercoverIt 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.

is the author of the bestselling novel The Oracle of Stamboul, which was a finalist for the California Book Award, the NCIBA Book of the Year Award, and the Harold U. Ribalow Prize, and has been published in 15 languages. His second novel, The Last Watchman of Old Cairo, is forthcoming from Spiegel & Grau in March 2018. He has been a Fulbright Scholar in Turkey, a student at the American University of Cairo, and a night-shift proofreader in Tel Aviv. A graduate of Brown University, he has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and the Santa Maddalena Foundation, and his writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Slate, and VQR. He lives in Oakland, Calif.


  1. I didn’t know such novels had a categorical name. I think the ones I have read are great. It’s a wonderful literary device.

    Don’t forget Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying.

  2. I feel like you missed one of the largest polyphonic novels of the past 20 years–DFW’s “Infinite Jest.” The book’s 1100 pages more or less consist of 30 some-odd POVs.

  3. By presenting so many examples from the past (as far back as a century ago) it seems that novelists at play with voice, POV, and tone is almost a bedrock piece of the puzzle of long fiction worth reading. I love the concept of polyphony though and I think that’s a great contribution for critical literature.

    You can’t be faulted for not listing everything worthy of this category, but still…Andrew notes Infinite Jest. What about Gravity’s Rainbow, Ulysses, Underworld, Sometimes a Great Notion, even The Corrections. That’s just what I see on my bookshelf right now. The truth is that playing with time & consciousness is what gives fiction its power (and difficulty compared to TV and film).

    All that said, short story collections are just as potent as the novel. I’m finishing up Mary Gaitskill’s Bad Behavior right now, a polyphony of deviant women (and men). Carver, Hemingway, Cather, Welty, Salter, Ford, Hannah, Larry Brown, Cheever, Doerr…somebody stop me.

  4. Very interesting article. I would add for consideration here A SUITABLE BOY by Vikram Seth which (at 1400 pp) has an extraordinary amount of characters. Written in third person limited, the novel doesn’t seem to concern itself with changes in voice as much as moving the “gaze” of the narrator from one character to another. I find this to be a particularly interesting achievement because it is less concerned with pyrotechnics with voice and perspective and capturing consciousness as it is with establishing the third-person limited gaze as trustworthy and objective and consistent (a questionable endeavour). That consistency, actually, is one of the most extraordinary aspects of the novel. Seth has the enviable ability to use an even lens on characters that are very different.

  5. YA is easy reading. (Sorry. Young Adult). I have never said this publicly before, but in my opinion YA is now at the forefront of marketable fiction because it’s riding the Harry Potter wave. I can’t tell you how many friends of mine began reading HP seriously because they were (10-15 years ago) reading it to their kids. Rather than actually attempt to take on something like Underworld or The Satanic Verses (there’s another polyphonic masterpiece) they stuck with YA. And lots of them are still stuck there.

    CP, Yeah, Faulkie!

    Quite contemporaneously, I just finished Murakami’s 1Q84. It’s not so much polyphonic as an aria duet, with strains of a trio at the end (kind of a Kvazimodo injection of pathos and confusion).

  6. Daniel Kehlmann’s Fame: A Novel in Nine Episodes (in German– Ruhm: ein Roman in neun Geschichten). And given its extended thematization of technology and human interaction/relationships, it’s clearly trying to speak specifically to modernity and the challenges/pecularities thereof.

  7. Maidenhair, recently published in English, is a good example. Ditto Vilnius Poker. Three Trapped Tigers is one of my favorites. And, of course, Faulkner.

  8. I’m confused that if the main focus in this piece is novels composed of short stories, and that we must categorize this “new” (more like “emergent”) form, why then use the term “polyphonic novel”? Seems inexact in the sense that if delineated short stories are in fact the hallmark of this emergent form, ‘phone’ is a loose fit(unless all short stories, by definition, are inherently of a certain ‘voice’), and in the sense that the term “polyphonic novel” exists as a concept with a critical history. The author did mention Bakhtin, and Bakhtin points to polyphony in novels at least as far back as Dostoevsky. So what’s the rub here?

    Perhaps it would be more interesting to compare this emergent form – novels composed of stories, and by association multiple viewpoints – to how the polyphonic novel is already defined. Does this emergent form come out of polyphonic novels of the past? Or – in response to the author’s quick word about marketing – is this form related to the market and business of contemporary literature? Or (whatever question comes forth in this comparison)?

  9. I think a closer text that better represents a polyphonic structure is “Bright Shiny Morning” by James Frey. I think this kind of story is best used to paint a larger theme without directly addressing it. In Frey’s case, he is developing a portrait of Los Angeles.

  10. In Martin Amis’s “The Information,” unsuccessful writer Richard Tull’s latest manuscript (titled “Untitled”) features a rotating cast of eighteen unnamed unreliable narrators. Somehow I don’t think this description was intended to fill us with hope for the prospects of his opus.

  11. Missing so far from the discussion is the king of polyphonic writing and the godfather of English literature, William Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s plays blend the voices of dozens of characters, great and mean, into a crazy quilt of humanity. Given Shakespeare’s influence, it is a wonder there haven’t been more polyphonic novels over the past 400 years.

  12. I’ve read many of the novels mentioned in the article but feel you’ve missed the best written one, of the past two years at least, Ivan & Misha by Michael Aleynikov. Sadly, since it was published by a small publisher with no publicity, you can be excused for overlooking it. But it’s a beautiful literary novel with an intriguing construction that deserves to be read. Maybe NYRB someday will reprint it as a neglected gem.

  13. Wonderful article.

    I have recently finished NW and was thinking that part of the reason I enjoyed it was because its structure was similar to my other favourite contemporary novels : Cloud Atlas, A Visit From the Goon Squad, The Imperfectionists and especially Let the Great World Spin. However I couldn’t think of a term to describe them all – and you have manged to come up with the perfect one.

    I would put NW and A Visit From the Goon Squad in the sub-genre of techno-polyphonic as the writers have been brave enough to incorporate forms that reflect modern communication – Egan’s chapter in Powerpoint and Smith’s chapter in text messages – and give kudos to the writers for trying them as this is truly how the novel will survive.

    I have read about half the novels in your piece and the other half are now next on my reading list.

  14. Karl Taro Greenfeld’s Triburbia should be mentioned—a novel of linked stories, each with a different protagonist, rather than simply different points of view (since some are told in the third person), but all of whom have some (even tangential) connection to each other. The result is a lively and complex portrait of a neighborhood and the interconnected lives that reside in it.

  15. Just found this piece as a link in the item by Ted Gioia: it’s an interesting debate, and has stirred up quite a range of opinions – which is what literary discussion is supposed to do! Thanks for the stimulating essays and comments.

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