Friday, August 23, 2013

Mosaic novels and short story cycles: Doris Manners-Sutton's Black God and the space between novel and short story collection

Sometimes I plan out what I'm going to say in these posts, detailing the nuance of the opening line; but after typing that whopper of a blogpost title, all other thoughts have leapt clean out of my mind. Here's the only thing that has remained: Doris Manners-Sutton's 1934 Black God is something that sits in the space between a traditional novel and a short story collection. That's the same space where Jennifer Egan's A Visit From the Good Squad and Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio sit; and it's got me interested in that weird space.

So let's play my favorite game: Categorize! That! Interstice!

In one corner, we have the novel, that 800-pound gorilla that goes back to, I don't know, Homer or Gilgamesh. It's the sort of story that follows a single or related set of protagonists over the length of an entire work. In the other corner, weighing all of, let's say, less than 15k words, is the short story, which can join together into a Voltron-like monster in a few ways. Let us pull petals and count the ways (and note the major differences):

  1. the short story collection: here, the stories are linked by some connection, such as
    1. author (George Saunders's Pastoralia);
    2. topic/focus/theme/setting (John Joseph Adams's By Blood We Live, a vampire anthology; various Best Of collections organized by venue or genre);
    • Note: the stories here are easy to remove and print elsewhere;
  2. the mosaic novel and the short story cycle (Egan's Goon Squad, some of the Wild Cards books);
    • Note: while these stories could be removed and reprinted, many of them impact each other and deepen the experience; stories in this sort of collection usually swirl around a set of themes/motifs and/or characters/settings/events;
  3. the "dispersed novel": well, I just invented that term and I haven't been sleeping enough, so take it with a grain of salt; but this is a book like Black God and (maybe) Tristram Shandy, where the main thrust of the story and characters is used as a thread from which to hang several anecdotes or other stories;
    • Note: the individual stories here are generally fragmentary, but not exactly incomplete; for instance, Tristram gives us some complete stories or moments, but they aren't all that significant except when put into the whole. Yet, the book's reluctance to engage in a single protagonist (or protagonist group) keeps the book from following in the mainline tradition of the novel. (See also postmodern novel and anti-novel.)
So that gives us a protocol for categorizing different books: the main question is fungibility--whether the story can be removed or exchanged without massively upsetting the structure of the book itself. But does it tell us how to write one of these dispersed novels? What secrets can we gain? Or, to put another way, what's really pushing the reader forward in the dispersed novel?

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