Failed fragments

by Steve

fragmented photo of men with flag1

Mainstream literary fiction is falling to pieces.


This may not be a bad thing.

So, I read an interesting piece on the rise of the fragmented novel. It is worth reading, but my understanding of it (which might not be right), is that novels are in a process of moving away from the linear to the fragmentary, and that those fragments aren’t just random pieces, but can be read as a whole, one informing another, the sum of the parts revealing the bigger picture.

I’ve been reading several novels at once. It is not necessarily a completely satisfying experience and is sometimes a confusing one. I think it leads to me trailing off from reading certain books. It might be a symptom of my lack of attention span, or my hunger to move on to the next thing. It might be a reflection of the books I’m reading. The most compelling books I can’t put down, I find more time to read. The books that fail to grab me that way are far more forgiving, they don’t seem to mind me putting them down and picking up something else.

I listen to a lot of podcasts, watch my fair share of TV, etc. Sometimes I multitask. Nothing exceptional there. Sometimes I get mixed up, misremember where I saw or heard something. Programmes blur. Sometimes I realise I’ve paid attention to nothing. Sometimes I feel like I can take on a lot of different information at once, and then draw upon it. It can feel invigorating, it is not always exhausting.

One book I’m reading tells its tale in a traditional, linear way. It is starting to frustrate me, as I can see what it is doing. It spends several chapters setting up particular events, or in cultivating the reader to feel sympathetic towards one character rather than another. The book feels clumsy for its linearity. Yet everywhere I see acclaim for this book. The fragmentary novel isn’t king yet.

children with puzzle

Another book I’m reading is very fragmentary, each chapter is in a different time period, a different setting, often with different characters. While it is a far more satisfying read I feel a little uneasy about how the reader is expected to piece everything together.

I don’t see why fragments have to fit neatly together. Is there really that much difference between a standard narrative and a fragmentary one that by the end assumes a coherent whole? We experience life in fragments, but those fragments don’t always make sense. We are flooded with information, but that information does not always provide a traditional narrative. How might hindsight or perspective should a book have?

The Fragmentary-Novel-That-Eventually-Makes-Sense feels more like a detective novel, or a puzzle to solve, than a reflection or comment on modern life. I’d prefer the loose ends stayed that way. I like ambiguity. I want to be challenged in a more meaningful way than in attempting to solve some sort of simplified metaphysical whodunnit.

I think I prefer experimentation over a neat trick.

woman with patchwork quilt

But maybe I like fragments as they are easier to consume. They are bite-sized. I get a feel for a book without reading the whole thing. I can flit from book to book and it probably doesn’t matter. Maybe I’m lazy.

Maybe I want some sort of truth, some sort of believability. Yet a lot of realist, traditional literature doesn’t seem to capture how we live. I guess it is a case of hunting out the good stuff. But not the stuff that is so difficult that it stops being meaningful too.

Essentially I don’t know what I want.

I imagine I’d write a novel in fragments too. Far more manageable. A good coping mechanism for my lack of attention span/focus. I like lots of things. Would want to write about lots of things in lots of ways.

broken sign

We’re all more than a linear tale. We’re all more than a fragmented whole. We can’t be solved, or fixed. I have trouble suspending disbelief when a narrative tries to do that. Sometimes a format that distances itself, or is less naturalistic, is somehow more believable. It gives me room to think, to manoeuver.

This post wasn’t as fragmentary as I’d planned. If you plan it, it is not the sort of fragments I’d like.  Or maybe they actually need more planning, more craft. Or maybe chance is a handy tool. I don’t think I can explain myself. I’m not sure how to conciliate clarity and confusion. I’m not sure conciliate is the right word. But I liked the alteration.

Perhaps I should have written a straight post. Perhaps I didn’t want to put the work in. Have I just built a rationale for an easier kind of writing? Does it even matter?

I’m sure I’ll think of something to add, to illuminate, when I hit ‘publish’. That would be apt, and probably no bad thing.

Images from Fylkesarkivet i Sogn og Fjordane, George Eastman House, Library of Congress and US National Archives, all via Flickr.