Cities and suburbs, real and imaginary.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Mosaic Novel Paper Part 3

Read Part 1 Here
Read Part 2 Here
Works Cited Here

IV: Over the Edge

     In my study of mosaic novels and fix-ups, I mentioned briefly that the elements of fiction are disjointed in some fashion, whether character, plot, setting, or theme. I only encountered one work of fiction that chose to fragment different elements in different pieces. This work, Jon Barth’s LOST IN THE FUNHOUSE, was an experimental piece, and remains on the cutting edge of mosaic works today. The first section is a coming of age story, about a young artist named Ambrose. Halfway through the book, Ambrose is trapped inside a mirror maze and the work fragments into the many diverse short stories he tells himself before he fades away from life, while trapped surrounded by his own reflections. In this case, the form of the mosaic relies on a post-modern twist uniting the doomed narrator’s life to the stories he creates of metamorphoses, love, and longing. Another cutting edge mosaicists, the oft-mentioned Jeff VanderMeer, retains his place on the cutting edge because he includes fiction, meta-fiction, and graphic fiction in his mosaics. He merged more than just genres, but merged narrative forms together. In the hypertext future, where embedded movies and songs and images and links that lead down rabbit-holes of other links, the cutting edge of mosaics will likely move to the web. Already, authors team up to write hypertext fictions that share elements of mosaic novels, including “The Shadow Unit” (Various) and Neal Stephenson’s “The Mongoliad” (Anders, May 21,2010). Riding the creative edge of mosaics, into technology and beyond, means embracing new forms of story, and uniting those splintering elements together inside the concrete of a fiction element. Mosaics will outlast the binding of physical books, and have the potential to changing needs of an audience deeply immersed in multimedia forms as the world of the internet extends the blur of forms inside the waves of mixed media from websites.

    Along these lines, writers of mosaics are encouraged to blur forms, blend forms, and experiment. There is no boundary where artistry cannot take the story. Whether it is incorporating multi-media elements, or cementing together two different mosaic novels entirely – like LOST IN THE FUNHOUSE, uniting the mosaic of the teller with the mosaic of the tale – there is no outer limit to the definition once the basic craft idea is embraced.

V: The Bottles From Which We Get the Shattered Glass From Which We Get the Beautiful Colors

To retain consistency with what elements are fragmented between the different narrative pieces, often the recurrence of characters or situations or locations will occur across the whole spectrum of fictions. In HYPERION, for instance, the Shrike appeared in person, more than once, across the different framed narratives. In SANDMAN, characters almost always struggled with the larger themes of self-creation and change from the would-be criminal masterminds to the serial killers and the transvestites and divorced or otherwise single women. Uniting thematic elements across the mosaic is generally a very good idea that contributes to the sense of reading an entire, connected and interconnected work.

In VanderMeer’s CITY OF SAINTS AND MADMEN, repeated themes, characters, and locations became talismans of timeline, revealing when we are in the narrative, and talismans of theme, revealing what the focus of the fictional part will be. Even when characters, like Martin Lake or the Torture Squid, appear in sections as minor players, they do so because they are landmarks in themes, not main characters. Martin Lake is a famous painter, and is used as a talisman of artistic integrity in other sections. The Torture Squid are a popular series of comic books in the world itself, making them a talisman of low entertainment elsewhere in the book. Squid often appear as signals of madness and inhuman intelligence. Greycaps are the eternal Other, menacing in that they seem to be everywhere, but also seem displaced by violence and colonialism. In this, the individual tiles create a narrative shorthand that speaks for itself.

LOST IN THE FUNHOUSE, by John Barth, is a post-modern exception to this whole concept of connections that plays with the implied rule that consistency is desired in what elements are fractured. The two narrative focuses – one about the burgeoning artist Ambrose, and the other about all of his creative reimaginings of Greek mythology – do not connect across the different pieces. Some common themes appear over and over, of course, wherein the self is negated by the vast scope of creation. However, on the whole, this work does not neatly fit together from the first half to the second. In this case, the breech upon which these two divergent narrative lines hang only happens in one instance: the mythological short stories are framed inside the narrator’s place in the funhouse. The radical breech that feels radical is explained inside the fictions, and only happens one time. It isn’t a large number of breeches. This experimental form, on the edge of the mosaic, only breaks one rule, one time, and keeps that breech consistent. This is strongly advised to any burgeoning seeker of edges: break the rules, but don’t break them all over the place. One broken rule in Barth’s work, well-explained inside the fictions, is revolutionary and powerful. Had he done it twice, it would have alienated the reader, and diminished the work as a whole.

VI: Consistency is Constantly Constant
At every stage in a generational text, like ACCELERANDO, we know where we are in time and space, and the stories do not randomly step backwards in time. The same is true of MARTIAN CHRONICLES. In a frame tale-like mosaic-like text that has not been mentioned yet, THE FOREVER WAR by Joe Haldeman, the different voyages and returns of the soldiering main character happen in order, with a single point of view character. The breaks in the fictional dream remain constant, such that they do not throw the reader out of the rules of time established in the fictions.

Fragmented time, like in Jeff VanderMeer’s piece, dances around the story of the city from past to present to future as presented in the meta-narrative. Though the pieces feel scattered, they still retain the focus. Never does the unified setting change. Rarely do the pieces stray far from the unified themes of creativity, madness, and exposure to the unknown world of the secret fungal masters of the Post-Colonial city. The aforementioned Talismans remain constant, immutable even as the fictions explore mutable themes of madness and decay. There is, across the different fictions, a sense of the “present” wherein technology has reached a certain level, and the historians look backwards from a certain place in history, and the pieces from history are clearly set up there through the placement of the talismanic objects. Inside that narrative “present” what breeches occur do not occur randomly. When a historical element arrives, like the founder of a popular and omnipresent corporation creating his first shop, the reader already has a preconceived notion of the man as a successful businessman. Watching him struggle to make ends meet with his blind wife peels back a layer in the history of the city in a manner that fuels the sense of narrative “present”. In other words, having a sense of the moment does not go away when constructing mosaics that play with the timeline of events in the different fictions. The “moment” of the narrative, and the destination point, in Vandermeer’s book is about knowledge, not events. The reader scours historical documents, flyers, psychological reports, and footnotes like a scholar of the history, becoming a historian through the act of reading the book.

     Barth’s single exception to the rule of constancy where Ambrose’s portrait of an artist as a young man intersects with mythology, in LOST IN THE FUNHOUSE, uses a fracture as an element of artistry to upend the expectations of the reader. Ambrose, our would-be main character, is trapped in a funhouse, spinning stories of myth and majesty approximately halfway through the mosaic, as a way of framing the mythical meditations also present in the book in a realistic setting, as part of his story. The reader is the woman listening on the other side of the mirror as Ambrose unravels behind the glass. As such, it breaks the rule of consistent mosaic fragmenting by first knowing such a rule exists, and only does it one time, in an explicable fashion. 


AMCrenshaw said...

Quite fun to read. I'm sad it's probably not as fun to write as it is to read. 48 pages!

You should at least look at Concrete by Thomas Bernhard - by the title alone you can probably make out that it's a mosaic novel.

Have you seen 71 Fragments of a Chronology by Michael Haneke? Or any hyper-link films whatsoever?

There's something about them that de-centralizes authority over the texts and allows the audience greater freedom to participate in the implications of their images. Haneke described it as clarifying distance rather than violating closeness.

Other examples of mosaic texts might be "By Night in Chile" by Roberto Bolano, or "The Book of Questions, Vol 1" by Edmond Jabes.

Oh - and happy writing, JM. I'm bloodshot awaiting the butchers to restock their red raw meat. :D

J m mcdermott said...

Definitely will check out Concrete. After all this effort, I am convinced I want to become an expert on Mosaic novels. As writers, it is to our benefit to be an expert on something, and have presentations prepared in case we get invited places.

It isn't as important as writing books, but it is useful just in case a university calls.