Tag Archives: Mosaic Novels

Mosaic Novels: Datura

One of my favorite authors in the last couple of years has been Leena Krohn. I haven’t yet written about her work here. This post is an excuse to correct that. It’s another in my series on mosaic novels–again, I’m defining this as novels made of vignettes that build up to a cumulative theme instead of a single plot. The last two posts covered The Book of Disquiet and Speedboat which, at least on the surface, aren’t structured much like Krohn’s novels. She writes full-length chapters, with titles, usually chronologically ordered. But the chapters in Krohn’s novels work like those novels’ vignettes. Every chapter could stand as an individual unit of writing. But they aren’t stories as such; again, they read more like essays or descriptions of situations.

Krohn’s novels pick a theme and approach it from different angles, with different strategies. So Tainaron: Mail From Another City, a novel composed of letters from a human living in a city of insects, includes chapters centered on metaphors for life in human cities, others anthropomorphizing actual insect behavior, and others just focusing on the strangeness of Tainaron to convey the feeling of living as an expatriate.

Cover of Datura

Tainaron is Krohn’s best novel, but my favorite is Datura (or a Delusion We All See). Datura’s narrator is the editor and entire staff of The New Anomalist, a low-rent Fortean Times knockoff, the seriousness of which is indicated by the fact that its owner wants its gift shop to sell Big Mouth Billy Bass. As she runs around interviewing cranks and crackpots, the datura she’s taking for her asthma is making her hallucinate. Some chapters describe her research. Some are interviews with people who believe in strange things–plant intelligence, trepanation, the face of Jesus manifested in cheese–which are gently mocking but not scornful. Datura is compassionately interested in these people’s conceptions of reality. Other chapters describe the narrator’s hallucinations: an old woman who’s always ahead of her, a candy shop that seems out of its time. Sometimes it’s not clear what kind of chapter we’re reading. At one point the narrator is passed by a column of empty cars which she later learns were a convoy of real driverless vehicles.

There’s not much plot. The narrator starts taking datura and then stops. We know where this rudimentary story is going from the first chapter. But all of her experiences together–character studies of crackpots, different views of reality, musings about how human beings see patterns and create meaning, datura-induced breaks with reality–all these self-contained scenes, equally important, build to a larger theme. It’s an interesting one, because although Datura’s themes–science, skepticism, anomalies, the nature of reality–are familiar in SF, especially since the heyday of The X-Files, Datura approaches them from a different direction than usual. On the questions of whether plants can think or angels exist, Datura comes down on the side of skepticism, but it’s pro-rationality for a reason that in a lot of SF doesn’t get much play: it’s important to understand the world because we live in it with other people, together. To connect with others we need some common frame of reference, however tenuous. “The truth is always shared. A reality that belongs to only one person isn’t real.” Datura has empathy for its cranks because reality connects us even to people who don’t believe in it.

A traditional plot would not have suited Datura. A strong plot would need an active protagonist with a defined goal, and an antagonist to stop her getting it. A plot would turn Datura’s focus inward onto the protagonist instead of outward to the world around her. There’s nothing wrong with that–obviously, lots of strongly plotted novels are great! But it wouldn’t be this novel.

Leena Krohn’s novels have narrators instead of protagonists; they watch, listen, and think more than they act. Her chapters build on each other and develop ideas and characters. But they work more through accumulation and association, less through the cause and effect of traditional plotting. Her books combine the best parts of essays–a focus on ideas, looking out from the self instead of in at a protagonist–with the novel’s ability to explore character and approach themes through metaphor.

Mosaic Novels: Speedboat

As I explained in my last post, this is part of a short series on mosaic novels–novels made up of vignettes that build up to a cumulative theme instead of a single plot. For a lot of people the classic example will be Renata Adler’s Speedboat. Speedboat is a literary cult classic and its recent reprint by New York Review Books Classics got the kind of reviews and attention most new novels only dream of. Most of Speedboat’s vignettes are less than a page long, and many are single paragraphs. They’re written in the voice of Jen Fain, a journalist in the 1970s. Unlike The Book of Disquiet, Speedboat was deliberately ordered, not pulled out of a trunk. It’s also more arch, less introspective, and much more elliptical. According to its afterword, when Adler wrote Speedboat she often found herself stopping before she’d reached a section’s planned ending. The result resembles a book of compact essays suggesting more than they say outright, with a journalist’s eye for telling details.

Cover of Speedboat

Speedboat is a portrait of a particular social milieu (white, educated, upper middle class New Yorkers) at a particular time (the early 1970s). Speedboat is dryly funny and self-deprecating (which may be important for some in an age when it’s harder than it used to be to have patience with feckless privilege). I love its specificity. I said this was a book with exactly the right details but it also uses exactly the right words, in exactly the right order. Every page has several perfect sentences and at least one surprising sentence. Some characters who appear for a few paragraphs have enough comic presence to carry stories of their own. Says Jen, “Hardly anyone about whom I deeply care at all resembles anyone else I have ever met, or heard of, or read about in the literature.” (Which is, there, one of those perfect sentences I mentioned: the way “at all” might equally well belong to “care” or “resembles;” the way it doesn’t end with “read about” but with “in the literature” as though she’s checked scientific journals.)

Like The Book of Disquiet, Speedboat allows anecdotes and observations to stand on their own without having to squeeze themselves into a plot. Vignettes don’t have to justify their presence in utilitarian terms to avoid getting cut. The mosaic novel is the perfect format for authors who don’t want to kill their darlings. Speedboat is the Good Parts Version of the 1970s Great American Novel, minus the filler. But that doesn’t mean the parts don’t add up to a whole, or a hole.

Speedboat takes its name from the story of a woman taking a speedboat out for a spin who happily bounces up and down with the boat until suddenly one sharp bounce injures her spine. This is the structure of the book in miniature. Jen cruises on the amusing foibles of the upper middle class but keeps suddenly veering into anecdotes where someone gets murdered or rides a bicycle off a cliff. By the end she’s describing schoolmates who got sick on field trips, how they apologized for ruining the trip for the other students, how they’re still politely apologizing to each other even though anymore it seems everybody’s sick. Jen’s people seem silly because their money, education, and social status allow them to insulate themselves from the least silly parts of reality… most of the time. Speedboat is about what privilege will not protect you from. Accidents. Illness. Having to make really big life choices. “Even our people who stay fit with yoga seem to be, more than others, subject to the flu.” You can’t keep reality out.

Another novel with Speedboat’s theme might have been heavy, or maudlin, or just whiny. Speedboat stays light and funny because its touch-down-and-take-off-again structure lets it circle its theme without looking straight at it. You’re aware of certain subjects from the holes they leave, the way the novel flinches from them, as its characters flinch. The way Jen keeps changing the subject is the point. (Remember how Adler kept stopping her vignettes before she’d reached the most obvious ending.) It’s like a puzzle book. You triangulate Speedboat’s real subject from the themes its disparate vignettes approach but never baldly confront.

Mosaic Novels: The Book of Disquiet

For most of this year I’ve drifted halfheartedly from book to book, a dozen at once, my attention span measured in single chapters, until a book catches and I’m enthusiastic again. Recently my attention was caught by Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet. It started me off on a blog post that went off on a long enough tangent that I still haven’t finished. It only just tonight occurred to me that I could post it in pieces, which is, for reasons that will become clear, kind of ironic.

The Book of Disquiet is a collection of vignettes, some as short as a single sentence, posing as the diary of an assistant bookkeeper named Bernardo Soares. Pessoa wrote under alternate identities that were more than pen names. He called them “heteronyms” and they had histories and personalities, like player characters in a literary game of Dungeons and Dragons.[1] Pessoa called Bernardo “me minus reason and affectivity.” Bernardo doesn’t do much beyond bookkeeping, writing, and dreaming, so he has plenty of time for self-examination and lots of interesting things to say about things that are not ostensibly interesting. “The wise man makes his life monotonous,” he writes, “for then even the tiniest incident becomes imbued with great significance.” This book is a deep dive into the experience of unimportance.

Cover of The Book of Disquiet

Bernardo is the type popular culture likes to portray as dead inside. In a Hollywood movie Bernardo might be a comic villain; if not, a wild adventure would teach him to loosen up and assert himself. Bernardo will not be loosening up and does not have an adventure; The Book of Disquiet is plotless. Between that and the title you might assume this is a depressing book, but it’s not. Some texts are anxious, or sad, but as often as not Bernardo feels satisfied with his circumscribed life. “In dreams I have achieved everything. I’ve also woken up, but what does that matter?”

The fragmented format makes for easy contrasts. The book doesn’t need to transition from one mood to another, it just places them next to each other like books on a shelf. In one text Bernardo is anxious, in the next he’s relaxed. In one he’s loquacious, then he stops with a sentence, barely able to get the words out. The texts explore different ideas but often highlight common themes through their juxtaposition. Thoughts on the common metaphor of life as a journey are followed by memories of an co-worker who collected travel brochures, going on vacations in his imagination.

I liked The Book of Disquiet enough to buy copies of both available English translations, by Richard Zenith and Margaret Jull Costa. I haven’t yet finished either version–ironically, given my quest for books that hold my attention, this is a good book to dip into at intervals. But I feel confident in my evaluation because The Book of Disquiet is inherently unfinished. Pessoa wrote The Book of Disquiet in bits, on labeled but loose pages, and died before he decided which texts to include, or in what order, or whether any given text was in its final form. (Some sections have blanks where Pessoa intended to go back and insert just the right words.) Every edition of The Book of Disquiet is unique. No selection or ordering is definitive, so both English translations include a different selection of texts in a different order. Richard Zenith even suggests that readers read the book in any order, as they please, like a modernist Choose Your Own Adventure. (To meditate on tedium, turn to section 118. If you’d rather study the back of the man in front of you, turn to section 40.)

Because The Book of Disquiet is one, I’ve been thinking about a kind of novel I might call–because I have to call it something, if I want to talk about it–a mosaic novel. [2] I don’t mean a novel written in pieces and assembled later, as The Book of Disquiet was. My definition of a mosaic novel, which I am admittedly working out as I go along, is a book made up of vignettes, short chapters between a few sentences and a few pages in length, each a distinct piece of writing rather than part of a single overarching plot. Mosaic novels aren’t strongly plotted, although subplots may recur now and then. The vignettes are often not in chronological order and build up to a theme or a big picture instead of a straightforward plot. The de-emphasizing of plot distinguishes the mosaic novel from the montage technique used by John Dos Passos in USA and John Brunner in Stand on Zanzibar. (Some of Kurt Vonnegut’s work feels closer, but is still too plotty for what I have in mind.) The novel in pieces is also not a short story collection, or a fixup novel, because the chapters aren’t complete stories. They’re scenes, sketches, vignettes, or essays.

Similar formats have been used in nonfiction, especially in books of philosophy or aphorisms. It’s a more natural form for nonfiction, so I’m focusing here on fiction: it’s interesting to see writing styles where they don’t obviously belong. Sometimes pieces of an otherwise conventional novel are written in mosaic form. For instance, Jo Walton’s recent novel Necessity includes multiple narrators. Most tell their stories chronologically but one, a robot named Crocus, writes in this subject-to-subject associational way. What’s more interesting is that I’ve read several entire novels in this format, or something like it. My next few posts will talk about novels by Renata Adler and Leena Krohn, plus a multi-author Doctor Who spinoff, and finish with some thoughts about why these books might appeal to me right now.

  1. At one point in The Book of Disquiet Bernardo even praises a poem written by another one of Pessoa’s heteronyms.  ↩
  2. The term is already in use for something that isn’t quite what I’m describing here, but I figured I’d go ahead and repurpose it.  ↩