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.

Ignorance is strength

George Orwell

[Today’s prompt from The Daily Post: Devastation]

Over this past weekend, a dystopian novel first published in 1948 entered the bestseller list on Amazon. The “alternative facts” promoted by President Trump’s leading spokesperson has evoked comparisons to doublethink and newspeak, concepts introduced in George Orwell’s 1984.

I’m glad to see Orwell re-enter the public conversation. My doctoral dissertation in the 1990s relied heavily on the writings of Eric Blair, but as I studied and wrote I wondered if Orwell would remain intellectually and culturally viable in the 21st century. He had a lot going against him — deceased for almost half a century, the title of his most famous work evoking a year sinking further into the past, ridiculed by academics as a lightweight (“let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way about” was a frequent punching bag for postmodern philosophers, who argued that meanings didn’t exist outside of language), castigated for his role as a government informer in his later years. Orwell seemed headed for the dustbin of history; I’d been fascinated by his work since high school and was still moved by his call for simple human decency in defiance of political oppression, and I regretted what I saw as his coming demise.

Well, perhaps that’s changing. Trump’s America is certainly no Oceania, but in less than a week we’ve seen this administration intimidate the press and attempt to control how information is communicated. The Conways and Bannons in the regime seem to realize that while any third-rate despot with enough guns can temporarily control a population by force, a tyrant who controls people’s thoughts can remain in power much longer — and what better way to control people’s thoughts, than to bring devastation to their language?

So welcome back, George Orwell. You felt out of time in your own age, and for all the wondrous technological advances since your passing, I’m sorry to say we’re no less fearful and brutal than what you remember. Maybe it’s that sense of alienation, your feeling of not belonging in an age like this, that gives you an insight that, for all your faults, make your voice still so valuable at this time.

Ulysses – Difficulty, Part 2

There is an abundance of irony in “Ulysses.” Its notorious difficulty is a cause for at least two such points of irony:

The plot is remarkably simple. A university student and middle-aged advertising salesman go about their business on a pleasant summer’s day in Dublin at the turn of the 20th century. Many unremarkable things happen; there’s a funeral, a parade, a lecture; the salesman meets a young girl by the seaside, their encounter leading to a scene that somehow gets the novel banned in the United States for over a decade; the salesman’s wife has an affair; the principals have a surreal encounter in a brothel — and then everybody goes home. While it’s often difficult to figure out what exactly is happening in “Ulysses,” the truth is that there really isn’t that much that actually does happen.

The most infamous episodes are actually more accessible than most of the novel. During our junior year in high school, my classmates and I were assigned to read Melville’s “Billy Budd.” This being the 1970s, a decade of outspokenness (sometimes appropriate, many times not), we made our displeasure known to our teacher, who brushed off our complaining with an admonition — “you think Melville’s tough, that’s nothing compared to ‘Ulysses.’ It ends with sentences ten pages long!” (I get the feeling our teacher was assigned Joyce’s novel in college, and didn’t enjoy the experience.) She was referring to the concluding episode Molly Bloom’s soliloquy eight ginormous strings of associated words that can only by the largest stretch of imagination be considered sentences requiring over two hours to recite in that Naxos audiobooks I keep raving about. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.) This and the episode in the brothel are the two scenes I’ve seen most often cited to support the argument that “Ulysses” is difficult to the point of incomprehensibility. However, I find that once you accept that the surreal environment at the brothel, and learn to focus on Molly’s phrases rather than get hung up on her (lack of) punctuation — both scenes are very readable, certainly more so than the third episode, where I find that trying to follow Stephen Dedalus’ rambling thoughts is like a drunk man trying to read hieroglyphics while riding a motorcycle.

Ulysses – Difficulty, Part 1

No honest analysis of James Joyce’s “Ulysses” can fail to address the novel’s notorious difficulty. Simply calling “Ulysses” a tough read does not do justice to the fact that difficulty is the novel’s distinguishing characteristic, that Joyce boasted his work contained enough mysteries to keep professors busy for centuries, that many readers find the book obscure, unfathomable, even frustrating. I’ve known people who’ve claimed to have understood “Ulysses” on their initial read — some I don’t believe, and of those I do believe, let’s just say I’m glad none have been elected to public office — but for the majority of us, I trust a comment I’ve recently heard: “You don’t read ‘Ulysses.’ You have to re-read ‘Ulysses.'” (I’ll have more to say about where I heard that comment in a future post.)

Aside from its sheer length (over 250,000 words, up to a thousand pages in some print editions, over 27 hours — twenty-seven! — in the Naxos audiobooks performance I’ve praised in previous posts), three qualities contribute principally to the novel’s difficulty:

Lack of chapter delineations. Call it a crutch, but what helps make reading a book, particularly a difficult book, enjoyable for me is knowing how many pages are left in the chapter I’m currently reading. But that’s an experience you don’t necessarily get with “Ulysses.” While Joyce admitted in his letters that his novel is divided into 18 distinct episodes, the initial print edition does not identify where each begins, and many subsequent editions have also kept out these delineations. It’s a structure that forces a difficult choice — if you can’t set apart an entire day to read the novel from start to finish, how do you decide where to stop for the day? After finishing the novel twice, I’ve decided that “Ulysses” is an elephant best eaten an episode at a time, and have resovled that my next reading will be with an edition which contains the retrofitted episode divisions.

Stream of conscious narration. Joyce wasn’t the originator of this technique, and he actually doesn’t employ it that often in “Ulysses” — but when he does, the effect is unforgettable unfathomable. Episode 3, the depiction of Stephen Dedalus’ thoughts as he walks along Sandymount Strand, has to make the short list of most obscure passages in English literary history. It either has to be read slowly, pausing to analyze each of Stephen’s thoughts before the text jumps to the next, or read quickly, with the goal of experiencing rather than understanding.

An apparent disdain for standard discursive representation. “Quotation marks should be used to indicate when characters are speaking in a novel,” you might say, and perhaps you think italics are needed to convey unspoken thoughts, and of course metadiscursive cues, those helpful “Dick said” or Jane thought phrases — these are conventions readers expect even in the most experimental of fiction. Sorry — not going to happen in “Ulysses.” The text jumps abruptly between third-person narration, direct character quotation, and interior monologue, sometimes within the same punctuated sentence, with little to no orthographic signposts indicating the switch. The effect is often disorienting — who is speaking, what’s the perspectice, what the hell is going on? You see this tendency towards unorthodox typography in Joyce’s earlier works — quotation marks seem to be a particular object of Joyce’s scorn — but in this novel it appears elevated to a point of pride.

So yes, “Ulysses” is a very difficult read. But is it worth the effort? That is the question I’ll exlpore in subsequent posts.