Don’t call it a comeback
I’ve been here for years,
Rockin’ my peers, puttin’ suckas in fear.
—LL Cool J, “Mama Said Knock You Out”
Really, there should be a macro on every writer’s computer that spits out a 500-word treatise on these subjects with a single keystroke. (A pop-up window saying “Delete? YES or Maybe” should appear as soon as you punch in that macro.)
Then again, you can only believe that the novel is dying if you believe that it’s only living if it’s moving constantly to new forms. Ah, progress—that sacred cow. But cows get sent to the slaughterhouse. The disgruntled experimental writer huffs and puffs that, unless your novel is moving forward stylistically in new directions, it’s not worth doing. The harrumphing realist critic spits out venom against anything that doesn’t ultimately travel in the tradition of Flaubert’s sense of psychology or Tolstoy’s social realism—in short, the novel’s mechanics and style peaked around 1900.
But what if you think, as I do, that there’s room for all of this, and everything in-between, and all of it occurring simultaneously? What if you believe that all of the novel’s potential thematic, aesthetic, and moral directions were all there from the beginning, in the same way that silent cinema reveals all the rich possibilities (some under-explored, even now) of the form? Think I’m wrong, think that the novel was rudimentary before Dostoevsky? Read Don Quixote and Tristam Shandy and Gargantua and Pantagruel again, and see if they don’t still—hundreds of years later—seem radical, head-clearing, and just plain weird.
One of the novel’s greatest tricks is its ability to regenerate itself periodically. Yes, I’ve written “periodically” twice—oops, that makes thrice—and I meant it. I’m in the middle of Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji, a book that’s widely considered, if controversially, to be the first novel. It’s over a thousand pages long, it’s gonna take me forever to read, I love it, and it feels as fresh as if it had been written yesterday. Of course, for all the chest hair and dick-length measuring attached by critics to loooooong prose, it’s worth noting that Genji was written by a woman. (It’s as if no critic has read George Eliot’s triple-decker masterpieces.) Perhaps I’ll write more on that later. What’s important here, though, is the fact that Murasaki produced the novel in installments, doling out chapters to her fellow noblewomen, who were anxious to read (or hear) what was coming next. The Tale of Genji, for all its convoluted system of characters and relationships, was a potboiler. It’s at once a book breaking the limits of fiction—and why not? After all, it’s not like the novel had clear aesthetic boundaries when it was being conceived—and utterly devoted to entertaining its readers. All the furious debates over “what is the novel?” and “is the novel dead?” are present in The Tale of Genji. The book’s full of headache-inducing experiments and crowd-pleasing cliffhangers.
So, the novel’s roots are serial. You knew that, though, didn’t you? After all, the Victorians brought back Murasaki’s slow trickle of prose, dragging out novels on the installment plan in magazines and newspapers. Like her, they were read widely. They were agents of dialogue around the proverbial watercooler for readers, the same way that op-eds and the sports section are. Around the time that Modernism kicked in for good, let’s say 1922 with Ulysses and The Waste Land, the serial novel bowed out. From the mid-1970s to the end of the eighties, Armistead Maupin brought it roaring back with his Tales of the City series in San Francisco newspapers. I re-read the series almost every year, and pine for seriality on the magazine page or in newsprint. Sure, comics strips and TV do it but it’s not the same.
There are signs, however, that the serial novel is making a comeback. Is it true? Please say yes. In any case, fiction on the installment plan seems to have found a natural home online. Please allow two examples. Over at the newly formed Tablet, a so-far terrific magazine of Jewish life and culture, Steve Stern is serializing The Frozen Rabbi. It crosses kabbalah mysticism, Yiddish folklore, and old-fashioned modern Jewish anxiety together into a ribald, fantastical tale. It begins thusly:
Sometime during his restless fifteenth year, Bernie Karp discovered in his parents’ food freezer—a white-enameled Kelvinator humming in its corner of the basement rumpus room—an old man frozen in a block of ice. He had been searching for a slab of meat, albeit not for the purpose of eating. Having recently sneaked his parents’ copy of a famously scandalous novel of the sixties in which the adolescent hero has relations with a piece of liver, Bernie was moved to duplicate the feat.
And it gets even better. The clarity of quotidian life, mixed with the loopy magic of something akin to Joann Sfar’s comics, comes through vividly. Tablet is publishing it five days a week, up until the novel’s official publication.
Maybe there’s something in the well with absurdist Jewish writers. Daniel Pinkwater, children’s book writer extraordinaire, is serializing Adventures of a Cat-Whiskered Girl, which is as crazy and wonderful as the title suggests. His nonchalant sense of nutty humor abounds here, as it has in his 80 previous kids’ books.
Seriality extends to the short story, online. Five Chapters publishes a story a week, in five installments each weekday. The prose ranges from the deeply avant-garde to the straightforward, from the character-driven to the idea-drunk. I hope it survives.
My hope, though, isn’t needed. The novel, like the Dude, abides. It’s a form that, at least online, is regressing to its original forms. Long live its new iterations.
The contents of this essay owe a tremendous debt to two destroyers of writer’s block and depression: Television’s Marquee Moon; and the quiet, foggy joys of three vodka martinis—I don’t like gin; you purists can kiss my ass—all of which are being consumed on a late Friday night/early Saturday morning while I’m missing my wife. (She’s visiting her parents.)