Big Novels For Short Attention Spans

It seems almost clichéd to note the distracted, disparate plurality of a certain contemporary consciousness that has developed alongside personal computers and the blogosphere, with its roots in television and cable. But it is just such an overexposed, impatient populace that is not only increasingly typical, but increasingly typical even of the readership of ambitious contemporary fiction. It is therefore interesting to observe the ways in which writers over the last decade have responded to this ongoing development, from Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai, an infoscape of nearly irreconcilable facts and figures interspersed with a story, to David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, which lurches forward autistically, reengaging the reader with a radically new voice every few dozen pages. The end products are hardly similar aesthetically; the first, as one reviewer said, realizes “a genuinely new story, a genuinely new form,” and, the reviewer would likely agree, a genuinely new voice, while the other decidedly and unabashedly utilizes an assortment of appropriated, hackneyed, and even pulpy genres and voices to braid in a set of thematic concerns meant to resonate across time and space. Yet while the two works are so different in form, upon closer inspection it grows apparent that they share at least a particular pair of characteristics essential to their jaded, contemporary audience: first, both use interesting and unexpected language immediately and frequently while manhandling the formal narrative so as to quickly and repeatedly earn and maintain even an easily-distracted reader’s interest and attention. Second, both works include a number of passages that speak to the aim of the respective projects but that are subtly interwoven with the narratives so that they allow an attentive, intelligent reader the pleasure of discovery and a sense of self-satisfaction (though more obtuse metafictional moments permeate both as well, if less vitally).Though DeWitt’s novel begins with a prologue that delivers a rather straightforward, hilarious, and accessible preliminary narrative, as the main body text of the novel begins, so too does the reader’s disorientation amidst an encyclopedic, disjointed narration. The reader is immediately intrigued by the brutal exactness, the candid intellectuality, and the tantalizing self-conscious pauses of Sibylla, the narrator; he or she is equally off-put, however, by the mid-sentence breaks in the narrative and the density of information that seems to span Western culture and language (and Kurosawa, of course). But The Last Samurai is decidedly a top-heavy book, and if one gives it the same benefit of the doubt that Sibylla gives the obscure German scholar Roemer to begin the tale (or maybe a dozen or so more pages), a sympathetic and thoughtful reader will likely be capable of moving beyond the formal eccentricities and the erudite content and feeling complicit in a narrative project that thins out and speeds up as it progresses.Complicity, however, is hardly the feeling that a typical reader will experience upon being jolted from the concise, undemanding style of the prologue and dropped into Sibylla’s personal narrative. Sibylla’s narration is immediately characterized by number obsession (six different numbers are mentioned in the first eight lines), language obsession (the first ten or so pages deal primarily with musings on the translation into English of a German text), extreme erudition (she claims to be one of fifty English-speaking people familiar with said German text), and stylistic irreverence (by the fourth page she fails to conclude to successive paragraphs that end mid-sentence). As one reads, one gets the sense of entering a cosmopolitan cornucopia of knowledge and information that is as enticing and intriguing as it is daunting and obfuscating to an understanding of the plot.All of this information is delivered in a narrative controlled by a voice that is at turns confessional, candid, and didactic. So while we may be turned off as readers by the recondite exclusivity of Sibylla’s translation project, her confession of how she won the scholarship by cheating and lying breathes life into otherwise cloying sterility; while we are rather uninvested in her still-pretentious project, we are won over by her declaration that at least the first paragraph “did not really seem worth the trouble it had taken to work it out” (19), and we are encouraged to continue reading with the knowledge that we are being led by a narrator who anticipates and recognizes our own concerns. While we are likely (excepting fluent German speakers) alienated by the fourth paragraph being solid German text, we are heartened by its eventual translation; we begin to believe that the novel will be less opaque and oblique than it may have seemed, and we choose to continue, placing more faith in an increasingly relatable narrator.All that is discussed above comes in just the first three pages, though. The first three pages herald a fairly accurate impression of the histrionic narrator who controls the first third of the book, juxtaposing philosophical musings over scholarly concerns with hours spent “looking at sweaters” (19). Yet while there is something to be said for the freshness of the language, the uniqueness of the voice, and the originality of the narrator’s anxiety — a combination that is captivating to an intelligent and curious reader — beginning on the fourth page, the narration begins to use a technique characteristic of much of the novel, and particularly of Sibylla’s narration and the first third of the book: abrupt, mid-sentence breaks in the narration. There are two ways in which DeWitt deploys this stylistic move. On the one hand, there are the thoughts that are interrupted mid-sentence and then resolved a paragraph, a page, or a few pages later; on the other, there are the sentences that are choked off in mid-thought and to which the narration never returns.The first five instances of this mid-thought disruption, beginning with two in a row on the fourth page of the main narrative, are of the choked-off variety. They are made use of in moments when the narrator seems about to reveal some crucial piece of information but catches and stops herself or decides against it; at the very least, each instance takes on that sort of intensity precisely because something appears to be purposefully withheld. Each of these choked-off sentences, in retrospect, seem likely to be on the cusp of revealing the existence of Ludo. The third, fourth, and fifth examples on pages 25-26 begin to reveal some serious anxiety on the narrator’s part, as they form something of a background chant, each ending in “if only–.” Apparently Sibylla has a deep-seated urge to imagine an alternate present in which her life had turned out differently, but each time she stops herself from fully expressing that wish since it essentially equates to her wishing away the circumstances that led to the birth of her son, Ludo. And it is Ludo who is primarily responsible for the second type of mid-sentence narrative interruption. He first appears in the narrative disrupting an expositional moment with unattributed dialogue. It is then only after a scene of floating dialogue (rife with the majuscules, font size changes, non-standard punctuation, and complete lack of tag lines that make The Last Samurai refreshingly contemporary and for which DeWitt, according to her blog, had to fight ardently), some related exposition, a quote from a paper, and a scene from that the sentence is finally completed. While the interruption serves a supposed purpose of mimicking the struggles of child rearing, it also allows DeWitt to cycle through forms and styles quickly so that no individual style gets tiresome; rather, each is revitalizing and part of a process that feels a bit like flipping through tabs on a multitasking browser before returning to an article on the original page. These two stylistic maneuvers both function to engage readers who enjoy the act of reading, who enjoy being allowed by an author to feel intelligent and in on the secret. The interruption that is later resolved more or less necessitates that the reader flip back and forth to get the full meaning of the sentence and ensures that one is left with a lingering anticipation of the conclusion of each interrupted thought (since it becomes apparent that mid-sentence breaks with dashes will not be followed up, and those without will be). In contrast, those choked-off sentences terminated inconclusively with a dash can only be filled in by our imaginations. They are balanced on a tantalizing edge, a sort of Keatsian negative capability that, whether it is actually the case or not, makes us feel like the narrator is withholding some great truth — some key to the text.Ultimately, however, it doesn’t matter whether or not a truth or key is being withheld since what matters is that it produces and promotes a feeling of searching for such clues. The reader has become engaged with the text by the teasing of the narrative, and as a result, otherwise innocuous-seeming sentences start to seem more important to an understanding of the characters, the story, and the project as a whole. A sentence like, “There are people who think death a worse fate than boredom” (19), when one is conditioned to understanding the text this way — metafictionally — seems to reflect not only Sibylla, but DeWitt. No matter how arcane, scatter-brained, or indecipherable it may sometimes seem, the narrative never grows dull by avoiding lingering in the denser moments and utilizing a veritable arsenal of formal and stylistic devices. Sibylla’s explanation a few pages later of the motivations of the Alexandrians seems little more than a description of her own story, for what is she if not someone who raves “in strange, fractured speeches studded with unjustly neglected vocabulary” (21)? What is the novel itself if not “a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern” (21) of the story of a boy’s search for a father?The key passage, however — the passage that finally allows the reader a sigh of relief and encourages one to continue parsing through the convoluted text — comes on page sixty-three. At this point, languages other than English have been established in prominent roles in the novel, and while the opening block of German was eventually translated, French and Greek have entered without translation, whole syllabaries have been included, and sentences have been broken up between each word by long Greek words inserted almost nonsensically. It comes as a bit of a relief, then, that as Sibylla reads Schopenhauer, she argues: “[the claim that] in a book… Italians should speak Italian because in the actual world they speak Italian and the Chinese should speak Chinese because Chinese speak Chinese is a rather naïve way of thinking about art” (63). The argument is ostensibly just the narrator musing on her own conceptions of art, but coming sixty pages into a highly stylized novel making heavy use of metafictional devices and repeated use of foreign language without serious reliance on the meaning, the argument that she delineates at once illuminates and provides a manifesto for the more confusing passages behind it and prepares the reader for what is to come. More importantly, however, once again the reader is allowed to feel complicit with the author in being able to make these connections, and is thus encouraged to enjoy the novel by being reminded of the active pleasures of reading.David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas does not as readily promote a self-conscious reader, or at least not as immediately. Mitchell’s novel is much more fully composed of stories, relying less heavily on factoids, philosophical digressions, charts, and (one must assume) autobiographical details than The Last Samurai. It is therefore much more firmly rooted in the literary tradition (or a number of them), in the strict sense; nevertheless, Mitchell appears to bear in mind many of the same concerns as DeWitt in an effort to appeal to a contemporary readership with shortened attention spans, cynical worldviews, and seen-it-all attitudes. (Perhaps that effect also occurs more naturally as a result of belonging to that readership.) But where DeWitt decided to attempt the invention of a new form, style, and voice as a means of circumventing cliché and surprising her readers, Mitchell chose to embrace appropriated forms and infuse them with styles and voices appropriate and expected, though often slightly more stylized and elegant. Mitchell allows his readers to become fully immersed in each of the six worlds that make up his novel via the comfort and familiarity of the tried-and-true forms before hitting them hard on the descent with the suddenly more explicit demarcations of the themes that weave through them.There’s no doubt that the opening sentences of the first section, “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing,” are supposed to be evocative of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, a fact surely not lost on the well-read. Mitchell’s homage to the early novelist (and, more fervently, to Melville) begins with sentences at once believable for the mode and yet so perfectly lyrical and quaint — “…a White man, his trowzers & Pea-jacket rolled up, sporting a kempt beard & an outsized Beaver, shoveling & sifting the cindery sand with a teaspoon…” (3) — that it takes on the distinct feel of a blogger devoted to an archaic voice intentionally packed with ampersands and outdated spelling in order to dramatize a vacation in the South Pacific. Yet the faithfulness of the style is of little import when it comes to its persuasiveness, for the playfulness of the language only adds to the captivating nature of the journal and allows one to immerse enjoyably into a story that artfully updates a rich literary past. In fact, the narrator of the next section, “Letters from Zedelghem,” professes his interest in the journal upon discovering it, he writes that there’s “something shifty about the journal’s authenticity — seems too structured for a genuine diary, and its language doesn’t ring quite true” (64) Thus is revealed the author’s own self-conscious understanding of his stylistic contrivance; he simultaneously preempts gripes about the vocabulary choices and allows one of the first metafictional, self-reflexive moments that will continue to appear with greater frequency as the novel progresses.But it is the way in which the novel progresses that is its most engaging element. While the narrative is tenuously connected as a whole — spanning across centuries, continents and five hundred pages — it is composed in a rigid, pyramid-like structure that never demands too much of the reader. DeWitt chose to keep the readers’ attention by essentially snapping her fingers in their faces every few paragraphs and saying, “Look at this! ALL CAPS and some biographical details about John Stuart Mill and a Greek syllabary!” Those choices make her story function much like an absentminded spell of procrastination with Wikipedia. In contrast, Mitchell takes a different approach to the short attention span of his audience. His book consists of six novella-length stories, five of which are broken into two parts and sandwiched together; it moves chronologically forward with the post-Apocalyptic centerpiece occurring in its entirety at the physical center of the book. He appears to have adjudged his readers’ attention spans to be around fifty pages, and so and after each novella is halfway completed (and hinging on a made-for-TV cliffhanger), he pauses and reengages the reader with a radically new voice, form, and story. If DeWitt reads like a perusal of Wikipedia, then Mitchell reads more like a series of long hyperliterate, rather cheeky blog posts, with each reveling in its appropriated language and anxious about maintaining the reader’s focus amid so many other distractions.While each of the stories succeeds at being interesting, the perceptive reader will nonetheless be disappointed to come across such an ambitious project without gaining something else — not feeling that same complicity with the author as with DeWitt. Beginning with the center futuristic story, though, a certain collusion of themes begins, and as the stories descend back in time and are concluded one by one, they begin to become more explicit with regard to their connection to each other. Eventually, looming passages appear that seem to speak to Mitchell’s overall point.The major revelatory sections in Cloud Atlas come toward the end after a long, enjoyable journey, not early on as in DeWitt’s novel. This is largely due to the distinct nature of the authors’ primary interests. DeWitt is interested in letting us know what it is she’s doing and how to understand the story — the art — being presented. In contrast, Mitchell doesn’t need to do that since we are so familiar already with the forms he uses. He can therefore wait to give us the key passages (and unlike with DeWitt, there are so many that seem so crucial in the second half of the book that part of the joy is in discovering the shadow of one theme in an aphorism from another section). The central question is less about how and why than what: his project speaks to a resonance of themes across time and space, a feeling that humanity doesn’t change but that good can be found in unlikely places — and so can bad (to put it as sweepingly simply as possible). It is therefore only after we’ve enjoyed the sundry rides that Mitchell provides us that it seems appropriate to encounter the passages that make us reflect and construct the thematic structure through which we’ve trekked. Ultimately, the story returns to Adam Ewing, and his “friend” Dr. Goose provides the succinct explanation for the mania that preceded: “The weak are meat and the strong do eat” (489) for “the world is wicked” (503). It is then up to the reader to reflect on the 500 previous pages and to realize how these simple worldviews are consistently reflected and refracted throughout the book, reductively summing up mankind across culture and time.Both DeWitt’s and Mitchell’s projects are veritable journeys, both anxious to explore the possibilities available to an author in the Internet age who still wishes to maintain an audience’s attention over hundreds of pages. DeWitt reaches for the radically new and gives her readers a treasure map early on to use in understanding her unfamiliar story. In turn, Mitchell relies on the familiar, but he draws on a plural familiar that manages to fascinate and dazzle while slowly outlining its own thematic map, one that is revealed only late to his enraptured readers. Whereas DeWitt consoles us by making us feel as though we are learning arguably usable facts (and thus not wasting time reading for pleasure), Mitchell allows the reader to enjoy reading so much that we almost don’t get a chance to stop to worry about the purpose. Both works then allow the reader the satisfaction of deciphering their project, of discovering the architecture of and the motivations behind the works. Both authors have sought to entice their readers with strong voices and interesting language and then to maintain attention with formal virtuosity, and finally to allow readers self-satisfaction by including passages of central concern with ease and subtlety.