Tuesday, January 3, 2012

More About Reader Disorientation

In yesterday's post about Alice Munro, Davin said that "One thing Munro does often is leave the reader disoriented" with her choices about narrative structure, timeline and exposition. Munro's stories are not straightforward. "But," Davin went on to say, "Somehow I like it when Munro does it."

This got me thinking about the way I feel about Nadine Gordimer's novel Get A Life. Gordimer won the Nobel Prize for Literature a few years ago and I've only read the one novel of hers, though I've read a couple of her stories. Her stories were pretty normal, structurally, taking a main character through a single action with moral consequences. Just like Chekhov or most everybody else. There was nothing disorienting there. The novel Get A Life, on the other hand, is a bit of a different fish.

The book starts out as the story of an ecologist whose job is to fight against the construction of a planned nuclear power plant in an ecologically fragile ecosystem. Ironically, the ecologist is receiving radiation therapy for cancer, which has made his body just radioactive enough during the treatment that he's unsafe to be around his own children.

During a period where his body is sort of de-irradiating (I have my doubts as to the science behind this bit), the ecologist is living with his parents, who are in their 60s. We learn that the ecologist is not getting along with his wife, and they're contemplating divorce.

The story is told mostly through the life of the ecologist's mother, but even so, when the narrative shifts and the ecologist's father runs away with a Scandinavian woman and lives the rest of his life in Norway, the thematic network Gordimer spent 100+ pages building up is totally abandoned. And then the ecologist and his wife reconcile and the novel focuses on the environmental impact of technological advancement, and ends with the birth of a child and the ecologist's pals all drinking a toast to the future. So it's a bit of a hash that doesn't go in a single direction or play out a single character's story. It's also a fairly short book, so the changes in direction come quickly.

I won't go so far as the Guardian, whose November 2005 review says "Awe wins out over comprehension." Apparently many readers were confused by Gordimer's style in this novel. I didn't think it was hard to read at all and certainly it wasn't difficult to follow the story; it's just that the story followed its own ideas instead of striking out on a path and staying on that path. Gordimer was using a non-centered narrative to show how lives and events are not isolated but form systems and webs, which is plain enough. She isn't exactly experimenting with Modernism the way Joyce or Woolf did.

Anyway, when I finished reading Get A Life, I sort of looked at the book and thought, "Huh. That was odd. Not challenging so much as just unexpected." I really didn't think much of it at the time and while the writing seemed fine I can't say that I was impressed. That was about two years ago. The strange thing is that despite my dismissal of it as not much of a novel, the book has stayed with me all this time and I find myself thinking about the sort of layered--or maybe fractured--narrative that Gordimer assembled. I find myself thinking that it more reflects the way real life is lived than a lot of streamlined, linear narratives do. So something that annoyed me is now something that I consider using in my own work.

This sort of thing happens often enough with me. I can't count the number of times Mighty Reader will ask what I'm reading and, when I tell her, she reminds me that I didn't like whatever I've read by that particular author. "That's right," I'll say. "But there's something about him/her that's grown on me. Now I want to read everything he/she has written." I don't know what any of this means, but it keeps happening and because I am of course an exceedingly fascinating guy, the phenomenon interests me.


  1. I really like it when this happens to me. Usually--for me--it's a sign that I just stumbled upon a technique or philosophy or whatever that wasn't on my radar before. So it often ends up being a chance for me to learn something. But, I do find that I usually tend to recenter to the authors I love right away (Tolstoy, Yoshimoto, Kawabata, Woolf). I think the strange books, the ones that I initially don't think much of but that come back to me, affect me and make me a better writer, but in small ways.

  2. I should read Get a Life at some point. I love reading Nadine Gordimer's short stories. I read one by her about three months ago.

  3. Davin: I can never tell how much I'm actually being influenced. Anything new I notice about my writing always seems so huge and visible at the time, but when I've finished writing it always seems like it was no big deal.

    Julia: Yes, read Get A Life. I think I have a book of Gordimer's short stories on the shelf at home, too. I should dig that out. My to-be-read list grows daily, damn it.

  4. Thanks for this, Scott. I've never read Gordimer, but now I think I'm going to add her to my list for this year. I'm wanting to read more short stories, as well, and she may be a good one to add for that, as well.

    I've found, also, that books I don't like at first tend to grow on me afterward if they stick around in my head. And it's often not the plot which sticks in my head, but how the story was told, like you explain here.

  5. Michelle, I think I read for the middles, not for the working-out-of-plots, because I can't for the life of me remember how some of my favorite books end! A year or so (or sooner) after reading a book, what I tend to remember is a sort of general feeling I had about reading the book, and if I liked it or not. But I immediately forget a great deal about the books I read. Which, I'm finding, is not all that uncommon. So anyway, the things I end up really remembering about books I love are odd bits here and there, images or techniques or uses of voice. But never plot.

  6. By far the best narrative structure method is Kal Bashir's - http://www.clickok.co.uk/index4.html


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