Friday, June 16, 2006

Pushing the novel

In A Gathering of Old Men (a good book with a subtle narrative drive and symbolism), Ernest Gaines uses the narrative form of Faulkner's As I Lay Dying: he uses a series of first person narrators, with different characters telling the story in different chapters.

The form doesn't add a lot to the theme or the story, but it works.

Every time I read a jumping first person narration, I'll think of Faulker, who I believe invented it. But 200 years from now will readers think of that, or will it just be another literary form? When I read a novel written in an epistolary form, I don't necessarily think "Oh, this is taken from Richardson." And there are all sorts of other narrative techniques for fiction that can be traced back to a particular innovator somewhere (Cervantes and Flaubert come to mind as so influential on all novels that it's difficult to even consider the influence).

I look at it this way: the jumping first-person narration is Faulkner's contribution to expanding the novel form in all its potential. He invented that particular narrative form, and now it's there to be used. Gaines isn't the first writer to make use of this, and he won't be the last. Faulkner broke it open: first-person narration doesn't have to be limited, it can jump from character to character allowing different perspectives and ideas, and now that's just one more choice a writer can make when creating a novel.

I believe T.S. Eliot has written on the subject of poetic influence (and there's Harold Bloom's The Anxiety of Influence). A lot of work has been done on examining how poets write with and against innovative poets of the past. A lot of work has been done on fiction, too, but less attention is given to form in fiction than in poetry. Novelists contribute concepts, and future novelists use them for their own purposes. John Fowles has his author show up as a character in a book. So does Stephen King (and King has read Fowles). Fowles got some of his metafiction ideas, as I understand, from Beckett. Beckett's relationship to theater makes for a good gateway of metafiction: all theater is metafiction, and modern theater makes that explicit. So once an innovative, creative novelist pushes the limits of form for the novel, two things happen. One, other innovative, creative novelists push those limits and try go further and further. Two, that form is now available for any writer's use. In A Gathering of Old Men, Gaines didn't do anything to push the form further; he just uses one of the available forms of narration that, I would guess, he thought would work best for the story he wanted to tell.

A few other book comments.
Luther Man Between God and the Devil: the most sickening part of Luther the man is his attitude toward the Jews. Oberman does a good job of examining Luther's attitude toward jews with an attempt to understand it while not simply explaining it way: he doesn't shy away from the subject, and remains justly harsh (calling one of Luther's tracts a call for a pogram). Luther is no saint: this aspect of his personality must be confronted, examined, and repeated.

Elliot Kalb's Who's Better, Who's Best in Basketball?: While doing a little research for an entry on my sports blog on Wilt Chamberlain (and since I forgot my notes on the subject at home, I'll probably wait to write that entry rather than use my 60 minutes here re-researching), I looked at Kalb's chapter arguing that Shaq is the greatest basketball player ever. He uses three very shoddy arguments, in my opinion. One, he argues that Shaq was clos to winning more scoring titles than he did. To that I say, so what. Two, he compares playoff series won by Shaq's teams and Russell's teams. To that, I say, "OK, so Russell missed out on a lot of easy first round victories). And finally, he talks of Shaq's "rebounding prowess," then showing his season rankings without comment. What is evident is that Shaq never led the league in rebounding--not once. In fact, you can make an argument that of the greatest centers ever, Shaq is the worst rebounder of the group. It's a chapter with poor logic and unconvincing arguments. Anyway, I guess this should be on the sports blog, shouldn't it?

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