That’s James Frey writing, in Bright Shiny Morning, a huge, sprawling metropolis of a novel, an LA novel, maybe the LA novel. It’s as fragmented and made of shards of life and dreams as the city itself, as America, the world, our consciousnesses. It’s a million little pieces of existence, a thousand synapses firing while the soul of it all – big, brash, beautiful, brutal LA – emerges as a hidden quality gradually brought into the bright light of day, from the artificial neon of the night into the fierce light of Frey’s insight. Through Frey’s freewheeling narrative we see haunted souls, dreams moving just beyond their ability to grasp them, just beyond their capacity to dream them; humanity doing what humanity always does: reaching for something other. The dreaming and the reaching in this novel occur in one of the most brutal arenas in which hopes could possibly come to compete with others, the city of angels, of the unflinching guardians of dreams. Interspersed or entwined with the stories of the many is the story of LA itself, from its first settlement in the 1700s through to the modern day; Frey allows himself free rein to insert key historical and sociological moments from the city’s history into the other narratives, each of which in itself adds something to the momentum of this city ravenously consuming the land around it, the resources, the people, their souls, their dreams. All of it may be true; it may all be nothing at all. As Frey is careful to point out in the opening pages of the novel, “nothing in this book should be considered accurate or reliable.” Whether his facts are really that, or modified versions of the truth, is not important. The emotional truth is the thing. And in this monstrous collection of stories, Frey has constructed a fragmented masterpiece from which emotional truth emerges, despite, or, let’s face it, because of, the fractured structure of the whole. Frey concentrates on four central narratives, five if you count the city itself, but there are many more rushing past us in a torrent of humanity, brief glimpses of a moment in a life soon replaced by another, like flashes of the sun on the Pacific. It’s the nature of humanity and capacity to dream that underlies this enterprise at the deepest level; but closer to the surface, these many narratives are held together by the most important character, Los Angeles. Just as Michael Cunningham’s Specimen Days was unified by the poetry of Walt Whitman, Bright Shiny Morning is a novel about LA, and its fragments are made whole by the overwhelming presence of the city. It’s a complex example of the fragmented novel. When Frey says that nothing should be considered reliable, he might also be referring to the publisher’s and bookseller’s labels – this is memoir, that is fiction. Those labels are as unreliable as remembered truths may or may not be. Is this a novel? Is this a collection of stories, some of which may only last for a paragraph, some for a few pages, and some for the duration of the entire work? Is it more fragmented even that that, thousands of shards laid together to form something larger than themselves, like a collection of poems that is really many things but is published as one thing. Does it matter what we call it? Artists convey emotional truths; it is others who decide how to categorize the results. Even the process itself, from creation to publication, is a series of fragmented experiences, the end result of which is a nicely packaged product, a bright shiny novel that of course is one thing because you can just pick it up, one object that belies the thousands of aspects that went into its existence; you may sit there in the coffee shop reading this novel, and actually you are consuming many stories, many lives, many dreams. Bright Shiny Morning is a novel, a great one, but not in the sense that we used to think of novels; the hierarchies are changing, because that is what hierarchies do. We cannot stop them. In 2008, monolithic entities hold less sway than fleet of foot, swiftly moving new forms; twenty-first century concepts that are mutable, and ever-changing.
“As the variety of the environment magnifies in both time and space and the structures that were thought to describe the operation of the world become progressively more unworkable, other concepts of organization must become current” – Brian Eno
“One story just isn’t enough… I think I’ll keep going until every sentence is a different story” – Michael Cunningham
What makes a novel, a novel? What makes it “one thing,” one cohesive object? How disparate can a work’s elements be for it still to be considered a novel? These questions come to my mind as I read and reread my novel, because it began life as a short story, and then another, and another… until suddenly I had a whole book of stories focused on the same characters, their lives, their places – in one way, it contains multiple emotional trajectories, but in another, more profound way, it’s one trajectory, one “moment.” All the stories, or chapters, weave together as the one story progresses to a conclusion (of sorts). So, it’s a novel. As I thought about it more, I realized that this a scene that has been quietly developing: works published as novels that may be collections of stories in disguise. I trace it back to David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten, back in ’99. Published to great acclaim as a novel, the connections between each chapter are minimal. It does not fully involve the same people, places, emotions or atmospheres. It’s disparate, diverse. In Tessa Hadley’s Accidents In The Home, published in 2002, the fault lines are much more subtle – the chapters involve the same characters at least, but in different times, different situations, far away from each other. Michael Cunningham took this further in Specimen Days, published in 2005: it features the same set of characters in the same city (New York), but in three completely different times (the past, the present and the future), and in different incarnations of themselves (human, android, alien). It could be three novellas, or one novel, depending on your preferred perspective. We’ll leave aside the marketing and commercial perspective for now, save to note that publishing something as novel is clearly commercially more viable (interesting though that this commercial imperative creates these hybrid works). In 2006, David Mitchell (having published Cloud Atlas in 2004) returned with Black Swan Green, which he described as thirteen stand-alone stories that happened to be a novel. It’s fascinating, this crossing of the lines. This is where the energy is. Michael Chabon, in a precise and cogent essay entitled “Trickster In A Suit Of Lights,” references Lewis Hyde’s notion of the Trickster, the maverick creative spirit that resides in the borders between between genres; the intersections of the known forms of writing. “The Trickster goes where the action is,” writes Chabon, “and the action is in the borders between things.” The Trickster dwells at the threshold, the crossroads, the places where new directions take form. Chabon urges writers to uncover “the secret shelves between the sections in the bookstore.” Once we step outside of what we think we know about genres and structures, interesting things can happen. Once we realize that what we used to consider “a novel” is changing, we can discover beautiful things, wonderful possibilities, like those brought to light by Mitchell, Hadley and Cunningham. How contiguous does a novel really have to be? Could its ‘novel-ness’ be an emergent quality from a swirling mass of narratives? There are underlying, hidden structures, felt rather than seen, that can allow a diverse collection to be considered “one thing.” If we look to other artforms, it seems easier: an album is really a collection of songs, but is seen as one coherent item. Maybe if we think of these fractured novels as concept albums, we’ll have an easier time of it. Maybe the individual stories are movements in a symphony. It seems as though we need a new philosophical landscape for the novel; we need to move, as Brian Eno describes, from definitions that are fixed, to definitions that are “multiple, shifting, blurred, experimental and adaptive.” Theories are stories, theorists are storytellers, and existing hierarchies are comfortable fictions. It seems that it’s just a story we tell ourselves at this point in time, that this is a novel, and that is a short story collection. We can tell new and different stories about what we consider to be novels. As Chuck Palahniuk has said, “any long story, any novel, is just a collection of short stories.” Our whole world (“one thing”) is of course a collection of many stories. Our consicousnesses are a blend of all the stories we tell ourselves about who we are, and why we did this, or that. Our “consciousness,” which we think of as one unbroken flowing thing, is a beautiful emergent quality of many millions of things. Once you explore beneath what Michel Faber calls the “narrative exteriors,” any number of wonderful things might be happening. It’s incredibly exciting to me that a book could be a novel and a collection of stories at the same time, that we can not just be held to one linear definition, but can move to quantum states of multiple ideas coexisting in the same space; novels evolving in fluid motion over time, into newer forms.