If, in modern times, melody could disappear from music and recognizable image from art, is it possible that the novel can also, at long last, grow free of its imprisoning burden of “story”?
As far back as 1927, E.M. Forster wished for that very thing, lamenting in Aspects of the Novel that “Yes- oh, dear, yes – the novel tells a story…[And] I wish that it was not so, that it could be something different – melody, or perception of the truth, not this low atavistic form.”
It may be that all true art struggles against the confines of its own medium – and the more intense the struggle, the greater the art. In fiction, the escape from “story” goes back at least to Laurence Sterne, with his hilarious blank pages in Tristram Shandy. And there was of course Gertrude Stein, who carried the effort about as far as possible, while Virginia Woolf strove valiantly in the name of truth against the fossilizings of tale.
In our own time the “story-novel” has pretty clearly run out of steam, functioning no longer as art at all but, high-brow or low-, as a form of entertainment (or infotainment) entirely content within its old shoe of a medium. And yet maybe, as a result, something new is afoot – the stirrings again of the anti-novel.
There’ve already been the “experimental” novels of, say, Alain Robbe-Grillet or the late Natalie Sarraute. But those, all art and no play, have grown dusty and are gone. So consider just a few recent treasures from current rebels against the old “he said, she said” novel – Julia Blackburn’s The Book of Color; Gordon Lish’s Arcade or How to Write a Novel; Ben Marcus’s The Age of Wire and String; Jason Schwartz’s A German Picturesque; David Markson’s Reader’s Block.
Little known? Little sold? Little recognized? Ah, yes, but their day may come.
Such thoughts are roused by a tiny new little book, a mere slip of a thing, God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian, from Kurt Vonnegut, that great and resilient writer who more than any other has labored to pierce the rusty armor of “story,” coming up with book after book of wit, depth, hilarity, profundity, grace, and sorrow. This little one is no exception, but you’d better grab it – it’s so very tiny – before it disappears altogether. Like, maybe, the novel.