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A Multiplicity of Voices: On the Polyphonic Novel

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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.

In A Far Off Land: Emma Donoghue’s Astray

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After I wept over the last page of Emma Donoghue’s extraordinary 2010 novel Room, I took a break from reading altogether. The break was more for self-preservation than anything else: Donoghue had managed, over the course of her horrific tale of a mother and child’s sadistic imprisonment and wrenching return to the world, to lock me into a tiny cell, a knot of intensely plotted turns and hypnotic language so tight that other novels could not unravel it. After living in Room, I saw all my environments differently. Locks clicked with more finality, and large spaces suddenly left me gasping for air. I put the book away, fleeing to nonfiction for several months afterwards. Fiction had taken me too deep down the rabbit hole.

So it’s with some relief that I can say that Donoghue’s Astray poses no similar threat. Instead of pulling the reader close into a whispered narrative of despair as she did in Room, Donoghue now throws the windows of the world open in fourteen stories of wanderlust, exploration, and possibilities promised by new and unknown lands. The stories are split into three sections “Departures,” “In Transit,” and “Arrivals and Aftermaths,” and each stage of travel poses questions of why we travel, migrate, and drive forward into new territories, and what cost. Where once she constrained us to an eleven-by-eleven-foot cell, Donoghue’s stage is expansive and generous. She notes in her lovely afterword, that our wanderlust is really about the desire to find our fates: “Travelers know all the confusion of the human condition in concentrated form…Moving far away to some arbitrary spot simply highlights the arbitrariness of getting born into this particular body in the first place: this contingent selfhood, this sole life.”

Each of Donoghue’s storytellers goes on great journeys, yet she tethers them before they — and we — ever know it. Each story, shifting in time and location across the last four centuries, concludes with a note from Donoghue, revealing the factual roots that inspired it. In “Man and Boy,” she shows us the poignant bond between the trainer Matthew Scott and his ward, the famous elephant known as “Jumbo,” just as the future circus magnate P.T. Barnum is making an offer to bring the beast into his American tour circuit in 1882. Donoghue slips, Zelig-like, into each story and embellishes the historical skeleton with perfectly attuned language: as the trainer Scott strokes Jumbo’s trunk, he murmurs, “We don’t mind the piddling tiddlers of this world, do we, boy? We just avert our gaze.” The “based upon a true story” hook makes the stories wildly informative and engaging. It’s not necessarily the case that narrative needs truth for maximum impact, but finding the kernel of reality in each tale makes the bigger tale even more resonant. In “Onward,” a young mother turns from a life of prostitution and wins her ticket to Canada by way of Charles Dickens. In “The Widow’s Cruse,” a young lawyer sees only what he wants to see in a young Jewish widow seeking his help. (Donoghue digs deep into the lawyer’s intentions, giving us the delicious description of his lechery. “The days that followed were full of pleasurable anticipations, and the nights brought scalding dreams. His sheets were dreadfully stained; he had to send them out for laundering.”) Donoghue knows how to employ the very best descriptors, all while perfectly mimicking the tone of her story’s time and place. “The Widow’s Cruse,” set in 1735 New York, sounds just as Edgar Allen Poe might lay it out, perfectly noble on the surface and subtly sinister below, just as “Snowblind” is pulled straight from the mouths of doomed prospectors as they trudge into the frozen Yukon during the 1896 Gold Rush. Jack London would be proud.

Some stories are less provocative than others — the moment of a mother’s journey across the Gulf of Saint Lawrence (juxtaposed with her dying husband on shore), or the story of grave robbers going after Abraham Lincoln’s corpse, fall too much on our pre-established pathos and recognition to move the uninformed reader. But where Donoghue really gets us is in the stories that challenge their very contexts. I found unanticipated humor and intrigue in “The Long Way Home,” the story of Mollie Monroe, a cowgirl who also acts as a bounty hunter for wayward husbands in 1870s Arizona, and who agrees to an unlucky trade with one of her targets. The story’s resolution is unexpected in its modern bravado, and Donoghue’s revelation of its true-to-life source — an apocryphal story about a female bounty hunter later committed for insanity (aka cross-dressing, promiscuity, and alcoholism) only makes it more entertaining. But the most startling of these tales, and perhaps the most consequential, has to be “The Lost Seed,” the account of a settler in Cape Cod in 1639, who begins his time in the New World a good Christian, forgiving and compassionate for his neighboring colonists. “If we do not help each other, who will help us? We are all sojourners in a strange land…in this rough country we stand together or we fall.” But as time passes, “each household shuts its doors at night,” and so the man shuts his heart against his former friends. He is scorned by a girl he fancies, and later turns and accuses her and another woman of lewd behavior, of laying together with “not a hand-span between their bodies. It is time now to put our feet to the spades to dig up evil and all its roots.” It would seem that despite the initial clean slate of the new world, it would only take a single man’s wicked and petty mind to sully the entire enterprise. Once part of a community, he now wanders “across the fields for fear of meeting any human creature on the road. And it seemed to me the snow was like a face, for its crust is an image of perfection, but underneath is all darkness and slime.”

Perhaps travel is what produces the desire to settle down at all, in that finding oneself without territory can be profoundly destabilizing. The same impulse that would drive us to travel, to form new communities in new lands, is the same that would have us cling to our tiny plots and ward off interlopers. Accord and antipathy may grow from the same tree, if the soil allows it to be so. A new home, a new land, promises a chance at new definition, a chance to clear old disappointments away and start again. As Donoghue notes in her Afterword, perhaps written as she tours the globe telling stories, “I don’t know where I am. I peer out the little window at the flat landscape hurtling towards me several thousand feet below, and I think, where on earth is this? . . . Emigrants, immigrants, adventurers, and runaways — they fascinate me because they loiter on the margins, stripped of the markers of family and nation; they’re out of place, out of their depth.” By giving us true stories of wanderers and vagabonds in search of broader vistas, Donoghue has given narrative weight to both the journey and the destination. And in offering up history newly made into stories, Donoghue makes the journey of literary reinvention into its own reward.

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