Cities and suburbs, real and imaginary.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Mosaic Novel Paper, Part 4

Part 1 Here
Part 2 Here
Part 3 Here

VII: Something is Missing

While pondering mosaic novels, I could not help but wonder why realistic and general fictions do not have a dearth of these titles compared to the plentiful examples in speculative fiction. I have mentioned a couple texts, already, but even these are not necessarily called “Mosaic Novels” within the genre of general fiction. Many texts in a realistic or general tradition experiment with form in a manner consistent with the mosaic tradition, without acquiring the label. My first reaction was to think about how realistic novels are generally not presenting unknown or unknowable characters and landscapes. Multiple narratives about a single setting might be dramatically less-engaging when that setting is wholly quotidian. Despite the fact that I just expressed that thought, I don’t believe it for three seconds. My readings of the realistic literatures indicated to me that often what a speculative fictionist would call a “fix up” or a “mosaic novel” are referred to as mere “integrated short story collections” or a “novel with a rich tapestry” inside the realistic tradition.
Examples of what I would consider to be mosaic novels are plentiful. Alejandro Carpentier’s meditation on post-slavery Haiti, THE KINGDOM OF THIS WORLD, for instance, had three major narrative sections, each with distinctively different characters and plots connected by setting and narrator alone, with no fictional plot elements to merge between the parts. DROWN by Junot Diaz, nominally a short story collection, includes stories, almost universally with the same unnamed main character, spiraling back and forth between the Dominican Republic and New Jersey to reveal the full spectrum of the immigrant experience, fragmented into shattered pieces of lives much the same way the immigrant experience fractured the lives and minds of the characters in the stories. Though DROWN lacked a clear sense of destination, that is only one interpretation of the text and it could be argued that the cultural drift of the characters makes a destination impossible; ergo, the lack of destination is itself the destination and the text becomes a mosaic.
The most recent novel by Booker Prize Winner Michael Ondaatje, DIVISADERO, wove three different characters in three completely different moments in place and time, connecting them loosely through the shared theme of sudden, inexplicable, overwhelming violence that fragments characters away from each other into a tapestry of other characters who fragment farther towards others and beyond. MIDDLESEX by Jeffrey Eugenides won the Pulitzer Prize, and contained within a loose narrative frame of a family history, lies a genetic mutation – instead of the planet Mars – traveling forward through a series of fictions involving three generations of the same family that each experience their own plots and settings. These narratives, among plentiful others, fit the definition of what I consider inside the parameters of what is loosely defined as a “Mosaic Novel”, despite the narrator as a framing device.
In considering generational or tapestry novels in the realistic tradition, I can locate only two potential differences. The first is the appearance of one clearly-defined and overwhelmingly obvious climax that happens long before the "season finale" at the end of the book. For instance, in Jeffrey Eugenides’, MIDDLESEX, the moment the narrator that was being raised as a girl denounces his former gender and embraces his maleness, the various and diverse threads of narrative merge together into one unifying moment of dramatic change. In contrast to this, DIVISADERO, often referred to as a tapestry novel, does not have one, clear climax or "season finale" even unto the end of the book. Each of the characters’ narratives has one moment of extreme violence that could be considered the climax of their narrative thread in the tapestry, but the division that happens denies the possibility of a singular climactic conclusion.
In ACCELERANDO, the closest thing to a defining unification of the themes and characters occurs when the elevated Lobsters return to save mankind from the Wunch-like activities of the rogue incorporated AIs of human creation that want to preserve as much organic matter in the cosmos for the total conversion to a Matrioshka-style computer built of planetary matter. This moment is not as obvious and powerful as Eugenides’ transgender shift in consideration of all the short stories that came before, with all of their fictional climaxes including such major events as first contact with an alien species’ AIs. In contrast, VENISS UNDERGROUND does contain a singular climax where the Orpheus/Eurydice myth reaches the climax near the middle of the third section: the hero drags his beloved’s body out of a pile of gruesome discarded limbs, to bring her back to life. In other words, this potential delineation between tapestries and mosaics does not really exist in a meaningful fashion. I was wrong to think it even for a moment, and writers would be wrong to assume so in their own work.
The second potential distinction of a mosaic and a tapestry lies in the “weaving” of fictions in and out of each other. For example, in THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES, the individual fictions are not, themselves divided up and layered in and out of other sections. The fictions, in Bradbury’s classic, are complete unto themselves. Each section stands alone. In something like DIVISADERO, characters’ lives weave in and out of other arcs. Exploring this idea, however, I suggest an alternative: In this manner, weaving fictional elements in and out of each other, the mosaic is turned into a “mosaic of mosaics” where the themes of individual sections are more readily juxtaposed against each other. Ergo, a tapestry, with various fictions weaving in and out of each other, is a form of a mosaic novel with an eye towards the edges of the form. In my second attempt at delineating between the two, I found no distinction, again. Much like the labels "traditional novel", the tapestry and the mosaic have no clear, meaningful boundary. Works can fall in multiple categories, and should be allowed to do so. Labels do not transcend the fiction present on the page.
Perhaps the only distinction is the urban legend that critics deride mosaic novels as an inferior form. I say myth because such an assumption is impossible to prove, and lacks clear evidence. The fact that mosaic texts are capable of being critical darlings and classics, like CITY OF SAINTS AND MADMEN and MARTIAN CHRONICLES respectively, undermines the notion of a critical bias against mosaics. Here’s where this myth originates: Labeling a text is often used as an easy way of dismissing a text. The same critic who would call something a failure because it is a mosaic will turn around and praise a work for its success as a novel. Michael Levy, of Strange Horizons, praises Gregory Frost's SHADOWBRIDGE and LORD TOPHET (as well as my own deeply fragmented first novel, LAST DRAGON) without saying anything negative about the narrative breeches that make such texts like mosaics. If he then uses the label to put down a text, it is because the label is a convenient method of dismissing a book. In much the same way, literary and general fiction reviewers always seem to describe something in terms of genre as a method of placing the text lower or higher in relation to “low” things, labeled as such. This is not because of a critical bias, per se, but due instead to the poor writing of the critic who relies on labels to make a point about a text. The important thing is not to put too much stock in a label, even if it is one embraced as inspiration for the creative act.
Work can be defined as more than one thing. I have made little distinction between frame tales and mosaics in my work here, because there is little difference. A mosaic with a frame narrator is not functionally so different from a mosaic without one, in the act of creation. Using a label, even a broad one, diminishes texts more than it uplifts them. For instance, even the broadest of terms, "fiction", when applied to an autobiographical fiction, diminishes those elements of the text that are factual and true as something unreal. In this manner, also, memoirists who take liberties with the truth for the sake of story are sneered at for their sins. The text exists independent of the labels placed upon it, conveying what truth it conveys through the paper mask of the world created in the mind of readers by the words, undiminished and often undefinable.
In this manner, it is important not to allow the percpetion of critical bias to dissuade any creative act that is true to the creator, nor to trust any critical writing that would use a label to dismiss a work instead of allowing the work to exist independent of the label.
What use, then, a label? For the creator, a form creates a target that can be studied, aimed at, and toyed with. Having them is useful for discussion, as long as that label is not used as a tool to diminish the definition of the text, instead of a method to place the text in the context of larger fictional discussions.
With that in mind, the creation of any label, even one as unreliable as the one I am proposing here, requires some boundaries and definitions. They will be fuzzy boundaries and unreliable definitions, but they will be a place to start to think about such things, and a place to begin discussion with other forms and other texts.

VIII: Rules

     First, Mosaics allow an author to approach subjects too large for a single fictional narrative: ACCELERANDO’s depth of future history; CITY OF SAINTS AND MADMEN’s depth of city history; VENISS UNDERGROUND’s divergent narrative perspectives upon a shared plot; DIVISADERO’s theme of extreme, breaking violence across cultures and settings; and etc.
     Secondly, mosaics are created by fracturing either one or a number of the elements of fictional narrative – character, setting, plot, and theme – but never all.
     Thirdly, maintaining a consistent method of breaching the fictional elements is recommended to maintain the feel of a consistent whole. Any breech in this rule is recommended to be carefully set-up in the text, and minimal to maintain consistency to the reader experience.
     Fourth, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Individual pieces of greatness are no cure for individual pieces of mediocrity. Make sure to adjust individual elements to serve the whole, and “fix up” anything that doesn’t work to serve the whole. There is a destination point somewhere in the various texts that all fractured narratives flow towards, even if they flow madly in multiple streams and away from each other.
     Fifth, creating talisman’s (like the squid of Ambergris) and thematic ciphers (Like Aineko in ACCELERANDO) across the different pieces is recommended to give the sense of a whole rising out of the divergent pieces, and to keep the reader anchored in the place and time of narrative. In this manner, coloring each fictional piece carefully with shared narrative elements, keeps the various tiles connected in the mind of the reader.
     Sixth, the whole must be greater than the sum of the parts.

V: Don’t Forget to Break the Rules

     Consider this work of fiction: a series of flash fictions, compelling scenes, and dialogues between characters blended into a single narrative arc inside a single chapter. These “chapters”, themselves, each an individual example of a mosaic of smaller pieces, are merged together into a mosaic of fictional elements that form a whole greater than the sum of the parts. In this, I am describing my own first novel, LAST DRAGON. Though the description of the form I just provided probably sounds obtuse and clunky--I admit my description is not really a perfect one--my novel was #6 on’s Year’s Best SF/F of 2008, and shortlisted for an IAFA Crawford Award among numerous accolades. One of the questions to ask of any narrative form, as an author, is this: what will come next for that narrative form, so that I, as a creator, will be on the cutting edge of the form. I took a concept to an extreme edge, making mosaics within mosaics, and tapestries within tapestries, cutting up all the fictions and pasting only what told the truth of the story.
     I have mentioned, briefly, some writers and projects who have found an edge to exploit inside the form, like John Barth, Michael Ondaatje, and Jeff VanderMeer. These writers, authors, and visionaries, already mentioned – along with myself - are not the only authors to aim for this edge of narrative form. Catherynne Valente crafted a layered series of broken fairy tales, each a small story that serves a much larger whole, in her Orphan’s Tales duology. Inside each of Valente’s Orphan’s stories, a character will begin to tell a story, which breaks away immediately into that characters embedded story, wherein another character will begin to tell a story that leads immediately to a new embedded fiction. In this case, the plentiful fairy tales and fables and fictional elements individually are very strong, but placed into an elegant mosaic of fictions, all fragmented apart with characters that spiral in and out of the different sections, a completely different narrative effect results for the readers, as all these embedded tales resolve together in the life of the tale-teller.
     SPOON RIVER ANTHOLOGY, by Edgar Lee Masters, is not only a wildly influential set of poetry, but – I believe – qualifies as a mosaic novel. It bears all the hallmarks of one. Individual chunks of narrative presented as poetic monologues form a whole far greater than the sum of individual parts as the mosaic unfolds from the cemetery, and the great tragedies and triumphs of the small town ravel and unravel. Vikram Seth wrote a novel in sonnets, inspired by Edgar Lee Masters, in THE GOLDEN GATE. Were Edgar Lee Masters alive today, I wonder if his classic collection would be considered an experimental novel in poems, like Vikram Seth's, or a poetry collection.
     Here is a new rule about rules: the future is a big, wide, expanse of ideas. Experimenting with the form is the rule, not the exception. The most-important command given to the artist is to be interesting. Stylistic experimentation opens up new narrative effects that could not otherwise be found.
CITY OF SAINTS AND MADMEN, despite being written over ten years ago, is still on the bleeding edge of mosaics for a very simple reason: the fiction is unified with graphical forms. Jeff VanderMeer, himself, a reviewer of both graphic novels and novels for the well-respected Omnivoracious blog, run by, saw his own work as the future of mosaics because of the inclusion of graphical elements. When asked about the future of mosaics, he thought hard for a moment, then said, “Mosaic novels where a plan is in there, [with] confluences of graphic novels and fiction more than before, mosaic novels that are part image, mixed media. City of Saints and Madmen is still on the cutting edge in that regard, with the inclusion of imagery.” (VanderMeer, Phone-call, August 2010)
Jeff said “mixed media”. Imagine a novel as a gallery show, with graphics and promotional materials, and descriptive passages on the walls, and live actors walking among the patrons, speaking monologues of story. This would be a mosaic novel.
Phil Athans believes video games are the future of the mosaic and the shared world, because not only can one see a single thread of plot, but one can go back to the beginning and make different decisions along the quests of the game, to experience a different narrative complete with a different ending. (Athans, e-mail August 2010) With major video games come tie-in novels, promotional videos, websites, and art books, and all sorts of related media that together merge into a single narrative focus built up around the central core of the game.  
Multi-genre work, and experimental fiction in general, are on the cutting edge of mosaics, as well. HOUSE OF LEAVES, by Mark Z. Danielewski, took the multi-genre approach beginning with a critical text about an imagined horror film/documentary, with copious intrusive footnotes from a man unrelated to the main narrative thread that found the original manuscript in the original author’s apartment when the author died under mysterious circumstances. Included inside this shifting, experimental text, are numerous examples of other forms and other narratives intruding upon the central setting of the house that is larger on the inside than on the outside.
Knowing the rules is the beginning of transcending the rules. From one author to another, I have to ask you this: “What’s next after what is already next for mosaics?”


So, there you go, party people. The next step, I think, is creating a collation of "True Mosaic Texts", and "Arguable Mosaic Texts" for scholarly study.
With that in mind, if you know of anything you think qualifies as a mosaic text, mind posting it in the comments? I want to make a resource for people who want to learn how such things happen, and that means making a nice, long bibliographic list of books.
Feel free to discuss anything at all, as well. One of the reasons I post this up to the interwebs is to encourage discussion! (Even if that discussion is a vehement proof of how wrong I am!)


Anonymous said...

Elizabeth Bear has often referred to her book New Amsterdam as a mosaic novel. I am less sure of its sequels.

J m mcdermott said...

Ambergris begins with a mosaic, then turns into a pomo experimental piece, and then turns into a murder mystery. Why not?

I'm going to put a list together. I'm putting it together but it isn't ready yet. Anything you can think of, though, and I will add it to the list.

Hal Duncan said...

F'rsure, Vellum and Ink would come under the rubric of mosaic novels, with everything fragged -- character, setting, plot.

J m mcdermott said...

Hal, I totally agree. You are going on my list. In fact, you were already on it.

You know, Hal, if anyone should be writing a critical theories of SF book, it should be you. For much of it you'd just re-publish the amazing essays at your blog!