Novels with fractured narratives were once considered experimental and edgy but today they have become mainstream. Our complicated and increasingly uncertain lives seem to be mirrored by the fragmented structure of these often challenging novels. We're obliged to work a little harder but the rewards can be greater. Here are some of my favourites:
Life - A User's Manual by Georges Perec translated (1987) by David Bellos
Over 100 storylines in one novel. How is that possible? George Perec takes us room by room, through a Paris apartment block on a June evening in 1975. Through his narrator, the elderly painter Valene, he relates the lives and obsessions of all the residents and their predecessors; a novel that peels wallpaper. We are overwhelmed with details - the story behind their every possession it seems - as we glean how the residents' lives overlap. It's intriguing. I took notes for the first 70 pages to keep track of each character's fragmented bio. It's a challenge but the appendices and index ease the way. I read this book immediately after reading Tom McCarthy's Remainder - there must be a connection between the two books.
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (2004)
I feel envious of people reading this book for the first time. An exemplar of fractured narrative sometimes described as having a nested structure. David Mitchell writes six stories in widely ranging genre style - from detective story to science fiction. We read the first half of each story in the first section and in the second section we read the second half, in reverse order - so that the novel starts and finishes with The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing. There are links between the stories - characters with a comet-shaped scar, for example. And books or music written by a character in one story appear in the next. Postmodern, indeed. But Mitchell delivers this strange concoction in a surprisingly palatable form by writing with pace and littering the novel with cliffhangers. It's similar in form to his first novel, Ghostwritten, but even better.
A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka (2005)
This is a dark comedy centred on a family of Ukrainian émigrés living in England. Two estranged sisters - a war-baby and a peace-baby - join forces to protect their widowed father Nikolai from a young, Ukrainian, bottle-blond gold-digger. There is, however, a second thread. Nikolai, a former agricultural engineer, is writing a political and social history of tractor innovation. Initially this jars but we learn how tractor design has overlapped with that of military tanks and so this historical narrative fits neatly with family's terrifying experiences in wartime Ukraine. This very readable novel is a gentle introduction to the concept of fractured narrative. My only gripe - I wanted more about the tractors.
The Hours by Michael Cunningham (1999)
A short, dream of a book that moves back and forth between three stories set in different times and locations; one of my favourite modern novels, always kept within easy reach. For maximum delight, read Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway before The Hours since this provides the link between Cunningham's three stories. He writes a fictional account of Virginia Woolf as she writes, in the 1920s, her famous day-in-the-life of a society hostess, Clarissa Dalloway. Cunningham's second storyline centres on a 1950s American housewife who reads Mrs Dalloway as she contemplates suicide. And the third strand, introduces us to literary agent Clarissa Vaughan living in 1990s New York as she buys flowers for a literary celebration for her star poet who is dying. Cunningham followed up with another three-strand novel - Specimen Days - with references this time to Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass. Also brilliant.
Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi by Geoff Dyer (2009)
As the title suggests this is a book of two halves. Laugh out loud funny. Part 1 is written in first person: Jeff is an arts writer on a raucous press junket to the Venice Biennale. As an artist and former journo, I found this insanely amusing. Part 2 is written in third person: Geff is a journalist reporting on Varanasi, a holy cremation site on the banks of the Ganges. There are clues that Jeff and Geff could be the same character. Fabulous writing. For me, this book hones in on a man living ostensibly through the best and worst times of his life - but which life experience has more meaning? Is it only in retrospect we recognise the true high and low points of our lives?
The Unfortunates by B S Johnson (1969)
The new edition (1999) of The Unfortunates is, in fact, a beautiful object - a book-sized box that opens to reveal 27 individual sections, plus a forward by his biographer Jonathan Coe, all unbound. B S Johnson believed that all life was chaos and he urges us to read the sections in random order. The Unfortunates is an interior monologue - Johnson's recollection of a soccer match and memories of his friendship with literary critic Tony Tillinghast who died of cancer at the age of 29. It seems fitting that Johnson's ethereal and loving memories are conveyed in such flimsy sections, many just four pages long, which the reader holds with fingertips, with trepidation. As Coe says in his brilliant biography Like a Fiery Elephant - The Story of B S Johnson: compared to his experimental peers, Johnson 'refused to sacrifice feeling on the altar of formal ingenuity.' Ah, well said, Mr Coe.
If On A Winter's Night A Traveller by Italo Calvino translated (1981) by William Weaver
At the surrealist end of the spectrum, I'd recommend Calvino's novel . . . 10 stories in all, or the first chapter of 10 stories, which have subtle links. In effect, Calvino presents a succession of false starts. He addresses you the reader - in a series of second-person passages - to unveil what you already know but try to ignore: that you are reading a story, a fiction, written by an author who controls every twist and turn. The book thus stutters along giving a sense of uncanniness. In fact, you only start If On A Winter's Night A Traveller in Chapter 2. You discover that due to a (fictional) binding error, you are reading pages from another book. And so the crazy journey begins to find the missing part of the first book. Calvino was, not surprisingly, an influence on Geoff Dyer.
The Sound and The Fury by William Faulkner (1931)
Here's a real challenge. It's an early example of fractured narrative, wielded to great effect in conveying the dysfunctional relationships within the Compson family - high-born Southerners fallen on hard times. Three sections are written from the point of view of different family members and the fourth by an omniscient narrator. Faulkner writes in stream of consciousness with frequent time slips. Infamously, he opens the novel with the meandering thoughts of mentally disabled Benji. Gradually, you piece together the family's traumas, their disgrace and the cruelties inflicted not only within the family but also on their servants. The latter part of the book is written more conventionally. Personally, I feel the transition in 'readability' is too sharp between the first two and last two sections. Don't expect a neat and tidy ending.
A Visit From The Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan (2010)
I've just finished Jennifer Egan's novel - the most recently published in this list - and I'm starting again so I can luxuriate. A Visit From The Goon Squad is a beautifully crafted book adopting many formal devices to take the reader on a disjointed journey through the music business from punk rock onwards. Egan holds a mirror to our confused attitude towards time (the goon squad) - our hankering for the past, our longing to see the future. It's about ageing, thwarted ambition, moral compromises. And if that sounds depressing, let me say it's also warm and funny. For example, we read the diary of a 10-year-old girl - not handwritten but created as Power Point diagrams - detailing her autistic brother's obsession with pauses in old rock and roll songs; it's a true reflection of the anarchic wit of many pre-teens. Like other novels in this list, it leaps between the present day, the past and the near future ending with an intelligently written dystopian vision of New York City.Suggest a correction