The Dollhouse

This is my fifth and final analysis of novels with multiple storylines. The works I’ve examined so far featured a gestalt timeline structure, dual narrative structure, linked novella structure, and dual timeline structure. Fiona Davis’ 2016 novel has a combination dual narrative/dual timeline structure, with two different protagonists in two different timelines. 

In 2016, Rose Lewin is forced out of her companion’s condo in New York’s historic Barbizon building when he decides to reunite with his ex-wife. In 1952, Darby McLaughlin moves from rural Ohio to New York and rents a room in the Barbizon, which at the time was a hotel for professional women. Both timelines progress linearly, with occasional brief flashbacks, in alternating short chapters, making it very easy for the reader to pick up a storyline from where it last paused.

Three elements make the dual storyline structure work. The first is the linear structure of both stories, a common theme I’ve identified in my analysis of these five works; if you’re going to ask your reader to keep track of more than one narrative, make sure those narratives don’t jump around in time. Second, the Barbizon serves the common setting for both storylines, and the building functions almost like a character in the novel. Lastly, both protagonists struggle with independence and recognition, and this common arc provides the dual narrative/dual timeline structure with a satisfying storytelling logic.

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The principal lesson I’ve learned from analyzing these five novels is that unconventional narrative structures need to be combined with more traditional storytelling techniques. Use linear timelines to ground the reader; maintain consistent foci on the protagonists; short chapters are a huge benefit when switching between two protagonists or timelines, but longer chapters are more effective after making a large leap in a timeline; identify the time and central characters at the outset of each chapter; establish clear connections between the protagonists/timelines/narratives. These are techniques I’ll keep in mind when I resume work on my own book-length works.

The Girls

Emma Cline’s 2016 novel is the fourth in my series of reviews for novels with multiple storylines. So far I’ve analyzed novels with a gestalt timeline structure, dual narrative structure, and linked novella structure. Cline’s novel features a dual timeline structure, with one protagonist in two different eras separated by almost half a century.

Given what happened to the the protagonist, Evie, when she was 14, it’s hardly surprising it would take her several decades to reflect on it. In 1969, months before entering a boarding school which she wants no part of, Evie joins a cult that is evidently based on the Charles Manson family. It’s an interesting study of how an otherwise level-headed person could become involved in a community so twisted and eventually murderous. Decades later she works as a caretaker for an absent homeowner and befriends a young woman, Sasha, who reminds Evie of her younger self. Sasha asks Evie about her involvement with the cult (she had narrowly missed taking part in its homicidal rampage). Evie reflects on that time as she attempts to guide Sasha away from a disastrous relationship.

Unlike the dual narratives in “All the Light We Cannot See,” the two timelines here are not evenly distributed. The novel is divided into four parts, with Evie and Sasha’s timeline serving as the brief introduction to each part. After the introduction, the novel progresses with numbered chapters that span the four parts. This structure, combined with the fact that both timelines are linear progressions, makes timeline confusion nearly impossible. While the 1969 storyline is the bulk of the novel, the latter storyline is needed to show the lasting impact of those years on Evie.

What I found most interesting is that the outcome of the 1969 timeline — the violent murders committed by the cult — is known from almost the beginning. Given the close parallels to the Manson family, it also seems horrifyingly logical. The reader also knows early on that Evie wasn’t involved in the killings. The suspense lies in finding out how close Evie comes to taking part, and how she was able to avoid it. When those revelations come towards the end of the novel, both are satisfying.

Of the four novels I’ve read for this series, this was the most enjoyable. Cline has a gift for metaphors, many of which are spectacular and only a few misfiring. A sample from page 26: “I’d always liked her in a way I never had to think about, like the fact of my own hands.” The novel has been in development for a Hulu miniseries, but with little progress for several years. I hope the project does get completed, because I think that with a talented director and cast this could be a compelling show.

A Visit from the Goon Squad

Jennifer Egan’s 2010 novel is the third in a series of works I’m reading with multiple storylines. Instead of a gestalt structure or dual narrative, the novel features a linked novella structure, with each chapter focusing on a different character, place, and time. There is also a great deal of variation among the storytelling methods — some chapters are in first person, others in third, one in second, and one chapter is composed entirely of presentation slides.

Each chapter can be read as its own novella (most are too long to qualify as short stories). This is a sharp contrast to Anthony Doerr’s dual narrative, which uses very short chapters. Because Egan uses many more characters and the chapters progress in a non-linear fashion, using lengthier chapters grounds the reader — you won’t have any idea where the story will go in the next chapter, but within each chapter you know exactly who is the focus and when the events take place. There are glimpses of characters or storylines developed in later chapters, but within each chapter the focus is very limited — no in-chapter time leaps, no changes in storytelling method, no shifts in principal character. Each character and the story’s plots are also associated in some way with two characters (a cynical record producer and his assistant), who serve as structural links between the chapters.

The primary benefit of this structure is that it allows for focusing on a theme. The plot of each chapter shows its central character coping with aging and decay; time, the ultimate goon, visits everyone. The diversity of narrative perspectives underscores the universality of time’s effects.

The lessons on storytelling from this novel:

Show connections. If chapter two takes place twenty years before chapter one, allude to what happened in the past during the opening chapter. If you introduce a new character in a chapter, identify his or her association with characters established from previous chapters. If a chapter takes place in a new city or country, allude to that location in earlier chapters. A reader too preoccupied with figuring out who these people are, when the story’s taking place, or how anyone wound up here is less likely to see the themes your developing.

Writing is not juggling. You can bounce back-and-forth between two characters and/or timelines, but more than two requires a different approach. In a structure that links multiple story elements, it’s best to stay in one place for a while. Go with longer chapters, exploring that character or setting or era in depth, before moving on to a different story.

All the Light We Cannot See

I’m continuing my analysis of novels featuring multiple storylines with Anthony Doerr’s award-winning novel from 2014. This work features a dual narrative structure, with two principal characters living in the same timeline. What’s also interesting is that two separate timelines are maintained for both characters.

The novel is divided into 14 numbered sections, with section Zero serving as a prologue. Through section 11, the even-numbered sections occur in the Nazi-occupied French town of Saint-Malo over a five-day span in August 1944, while the odd-numbered sections begin in 1934 and show the development of the two principal characters (a blind French girl and a radio technician ambivalent about his role in the German army) in their respective countries over the ten years leading up to those five fateful days at the end of World War II. Each section begins with a date, making the transition between the two timelines easy to follow.

While the novel includes several memorable supporting characters, the focus remains consistently on either blind Marie-Laure or the brooding Werner. The chapters are short, most being two or three pages, and rarely does either character feature in two consecutive chapters. The balanced alternating structure highlights the similarities between the two characters, despite their being on opposite sides of the same conflict.

The structure of the novel works because the two principal characters and the dual timelines progress to the same point. Marie-Laure and Werner meet in Saint-Malo as the timelines converge in the eleventh section, with the last three sections showing the aftermath of their meeting. For all its complexity, the novel actually has a fairly straightforward progression.

The lesson on storytelling from this novel is on consistency. Keep the spotlight on the principal characters from the outset, and always let the reader know when the timeline changes. Being consistent allows the author to include a great deal of complexity.

Slaughterhouse-Five

I recently attended a workshop on writing stories with multiple storylines, and five novels were cited as examples. So why not read and analyze each of them?

Kurt Vonnegut’s 1969 novel is an example of a gestalt timeline structure. The narrative follows Billy Pilgrim, who has become “unstuck in time” and experiences his entire life when he is captured in World War II. He jumps ahead a decade, sometimes two or three, goes back to his boyhood on occasion, and is also captured by intergalactic aliens and taken to their homeworld. (Quick aside — this novel is often categorized as science fiction, but I fail to see why. If anything, it’s a parody of science fiction.)

Following a character unstuck in time could be disorienting, but two elements help bring order to the narrative:

A commanding narrative voice. The unnamed narrator is clearly a stand-in for Vonnegut, and his voice guides the reader through the numerous time jumps. The narrator’s tone is conversational (there aren’t a lot of big words in the novel; no need to keep a dictionary nearby) and he often repeats himself. This gives the impression that if you don’t exactly understand everything the first time you hear it, no worries — the narrator will eventually explain it again. Using a different narrative voice for each era in Billy’s life would have been disorienting.

A central timeline. After previewing the events in Billy Pilgrim’s life, the narrator then describes his experience during World War II. The events in this year of his life — training, joining his unit in Europe, becoming a German prisoner of war, surviving the bombing of Dresden while in Schlachthof-fünf, clearing the devastated city, being rescued by the Allies — are told in linear order. Whenever Billy journeys to different moments of his life, including his visit to Tralfamadore, he always returns to this core timeline immediately after the moment he’d become unstuck in time. It’s like being on a highway with multiple entrances and exits; no matter how far you travel down an off road, you have the comfort of knowing you can get back to where you were.

Combining experimental storytelling methods with more conventional techniques seems like an effective strategy. That’s my takeaway from this interesting and fun novel.

Beloved

I read a wide range of fiction, and occasionally like to challenge myself with a work that’s well outside my usual fare. Many times I rise to the challenge, and those experiences can be rewarding. Yet there are times when I find a work a little overwhelming; those experiences can be frustrating.

Unfortunately for me, Toni Morrison’s 1987 novel, which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction that year, falls into the latter category.

The elements of a great story are all there — a band of unforgettable characters, a tense setting with a tragic history, and a supernatural being sowing chaos. When I step back from the prose and consider the individual elements of the novel, I’m very impressed with its scope.

The prose, however, is very dense, and the timeline is anything but linear. The text moves effortlessly between past and present, but the shifts happen with a frequency that is dizzying.

This isn’t a novel to be read; it’s a novel to be studied.

However, I feel the fault in this case is more on me than the work itself. I may not be able to appreciate its artistry, but I can at least acknowledge it. Some works are to weighty for me to enjoy, and “Beloved” is one of those works that is just too big for me.

Parable of the Sower

Rarely do I regret not having read a book, but I’m kicking myself for not discovering Octavia E. Butler’s 1993 novel 20 years earlier.

The story begins on the 15th birthday of Lauren Oya Olamina, whose journal comprises the novel’s entirety. The year is 2024, and the world depicted in a little over three years from the time of this post seems disturbingly similar to the world we have now. Gated communities, disinterested and often criminal police forces, rampant drug use, violent gangs, disastrous climate changes, labor laws enabling employers to enslave workers… Dystopian novels set in the near future tend to not age well (I’m looking at you Mr. Blair), but Butler’s prophetic ability is as brilliant as it is unsettling.

Another problem with this genre is tone; once you read the fate of Winston Smith, Robert Neville, or Dwight Towers, you can’t help feeling hopeless. Dystopia is at its best when it offers a solution, a way to escape from mankind’s dark fate, whether it be from a belief that survival is insufficient or an unlikely military victory. In Butler’s novel, hope is seen in Earthseed, the “religion” founded by Lauren in her journal. Quotes are needed because Earthseed, while it borrows language and thought from multiple established religions, is unlike any belief system that came before it. Lauren views God as an independent being, but one that needs to be shaped by its followers:

God isn’t good or evil, doesn’t favor you or hate you, and yet God is better partnered than fought… ‘God is Trickster, Teacher, Chaos, Clay.’ We decide which aspect we embrace — and how to deal with the others.

Lauren, through her thoughts on Earthseed, also looks beyond this planet, and sees humanity’s potential being realized on worlds beyond our solar system. In other words, there isn’t much hope for Earth, but there is hope for its people when they reach the stars.

Butler wrote a sequel to this novel, but her plan to complete a trilogy died with her in 2006. I don’t know when I’ll get to the second book, but it will probably be right after reading another dystopian novel gets me feeling helpless.

I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness

Austin Channing Brown wouldn’t have had much use for the Diversity Training workshops I attended during my corporate work years. Those sessions featured a lot of polite dialogue, along with plenty of numbers and dates demonstrating our company’s commitment to diversity. These were harmonious affairs, comforting and reassuring to anyone save an unrepentant bigot.

The author of this 2018 book writes about leading these sessions, during which she felt pressured by her employers to not offend the feelings of her white participants, to instead re-affirm their goodness. Dissatisfied with these experiences, Brown now advocates more honest talks, uncomfortable discussions about the continued dominance of white supremacist ideology in America, with a focus on actions rather than feelings.

Like Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, Brown’s book combines personal narrative and social analysis. Brown’s narrative style is more effective than Kendi’s, mostly because she chooses a thematic rather than chronological format. She doesn’t match the lyricism of Coates, but not many writers can.

Christianity plays an important role in Brown’s work, and this focus sets her apart from the other two authors. While acknowledging the church’s role as a champion oppressor, Brown believes in a Jesus who is a champion of the oppressed. Hers is a Black Jesus, and she cites the influence of James H. Cone’s liberation theology on her beliefs.

One of the most memorable portions of the book comes in the description of an interracial journey through the south during college. A visit to a museum which documented the history of lynching provoked righteous anger from black students, defensiveness from whites. Brown records only one statement from a white student: “Doing nothing is no longer an option for me.” It was a declaration focused more on action than on feeling, and could serve as a theme for the book. Like Kendi, Brown cares little about what people feel or believe; how they act, and how those actions support or attack the ideology of white supremacy, is far more significant.

Le Morte d’Arthur

After more than a day and a half of reading time spread out over almost three months, I can finally check off Thomas Malory’s 1485 Arthurian saga on my must-read list.

Having had success with listening to Shakespeare performances while reading the test, I employed the same tactic with Le Morte d’Arthur. A wise decision, as Malory is no poet; his prose is so didactic and sedate that I’d have had difficulty staying engaged all the way through. The audiobook from Audible weighs in at thirty-eight hours twenty-six minutes and twenty-five seconds, a figure that has to be spelled out to be appreciated. It’s a good thing I ride a stationary bike for an hour two times a week.

I was already familiar with many of the characters and stories, haven seen more than a few Arthurian films over the years. Arthur pulling Excalibur from the stone… Merlin’s cryptic guidance… Guinevere and Lancelot… Gawain, Tristan, Galahad, and so many other knights of the Round Table. My primary interest was discovering lesser known characters, and I believe I’ve found one in Sir Palamedes, a pagan knight with Muslim origins. Palamedes is a rival of Tristan for Isolde, whom neither can have after she is married to the cowardly King Mark. Like most knights in the saga, Palamedes can be extremely chivalrous at some moments yet violently cruel at others, and his status as both a religious and cultural outsider who nevertheless joins the Round Table makes him fascinating.

I’ve always wondered why Malory was never assigned during my decades of academic literary study, and I now fully understand. It’s a historical chronicle with speculative elements, magicians and dwarves and holy artifacts thrown in mostly to make the protagonist’s conquests seem all the more astonishing. There’s little poetry to be found, hardly a passage worth remembering for the elegance of its prose. But within its numerous pages I did find the origin of almost every Arthurian legend I’ve encountered in other texts, and that ultimately is what makes “Le Morte d’Arthur” a valuable and necessary read. Malory collected tales in numerous languages spread out over many centuries, laying the foundation upon which so many great works of literature have been constructed.

The audiobook performance by Chris McDonnell was much like the prose of the text — steady but unspectacular. It did feel almost as if he read the entire book in one session, a complete impossibility but a testament to the reader’s dedication.

World War Z

Max Brooks’ 2006 novel was the third and final work I read for a recent reading workshop on “contagious fiction.” This lacked the philosophical insight of The Plague or the literary artistry of Station Eleven, but for all its emphasis on gore and action, it still has moments of insight.

The devastating plague in this work turns its victims into flesh-eating zombies, and the uninfected fight a desperate global war for survival. From a strictly literary perspective, zombies make difficult antagonists. They are easy to fear, but difficult to hate since they have no personality. And the fear they generate is purely imaginary; the reader can fear a killer virus or a nuclear conflict depicted in fiction because those are potential events, but being afraid of zombies is like being afraid of dragons.

Fortunately this book features some villainous humans, characters we can truly despise because they are so real. Breck Scott is a con man who makes a fortune pitching an ineffective “cure” for the zombie virus, one that sounded very much like the hydroxychloroquine craze over the COVID summer. Grover Carlson is a White House official who freely admits the government withheld the truth about the zombie threat, similar to how the United States government now admits it lied to its citizens about COVID back in February.

In other words, while “World War Z” might not compare well aesthetically to the two other works I read in my workshop, it did a much better job of foreshadowing the actual events we’ve experienced this year. There’s something to be said for that.