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Jan 22, 2007


Gwendolyn Dawson

a structure contest:

My favorite unconventionally-structured novel is David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas. Cloud Atlas is told through six, interwoven narratives, each one evoking a different time and place. More remarkably, each narrative is written in a completely different style. The first narrative is a 19th-century travelogue. Other narratives take the form of a story told in letters, a mystery, a post-apocalyptic tale, and even an interview. Each narrative is interrupted at a crucial point and concluded at a later point during the second half of the book. Mitchell convincingly writes in each style and creates a book with a very unique and compelling structure.

Interestingly, one of the narratives, the one told via letters, describes a young musician's work with a renowned composer. During the course of that narrative, the young composer describes a work he is composing as 6 solo instruments, playing one after the other, each interrupted at a critical point in the melody. The melodic lines are then resolved one after the other. The envisioned work exactly mirrors the structure of the novel as a whole.


Structure contest:

Stephen Elliott's "Happy Baby" is written in reverse chronological order, with the first chapter occurring last in time, the last chapter occurring first in time, etc. Had the narrative been presented chronologically, the harrowing story of Theo might have become too painful to continue reading. But in reverse, with the first chapter showing that he's indeed alive and well at the chronological end of the story, when I later read of Theo's various degradations, I thought "Well, he managed to survive all of this." This gives the story a much more optimistic tone, so instead of abandoning the book in despair, I kept reading, very curious to know exactly how Theo got into the predicaments that he ultimately escaped from. Without the reverse order, I doubt I would have finished reading the book, thus depriving myself of a very moving story which I ultimately enjoyed a great deal.


Mark Z. Danielewski's "House of Leaves" is my favorite unconventionally-structured novel. It's so unconventional that it barely even resembles a novel. On the one hand, we're treated to a dry, quasi-intellectual textbook about a documentary; then we're given Johnny Truant's rambling, mistake-filled footnotes, in which he gleefully points out the book's plot holes and inconsistencies. Readers are forced to flip ahead in order to keep pace with the footnotes, only to flip back several pages to the story, then flip ahead once again. It's like reading two novels at once, literally; at times, I felt like I was holding two open books in my hands, constantly reading back and forth between them. Readers also turn the book upside-down and diagonal--and doing this in public will definitely draw a few bewildered stares. Trust me.

I loved "House of Leaves" because it obliterates the novel form. Sure, it treads a fine line between pretentiousness and genius, but Danielewski is fully aware of what he's doing and how the book might be perceived. The fact he's making fun of his own book (through Johnny Truant) shows a certain level of confidence and humor that I find refreshing. It's almost as if he doesn't want us to take the book seriously. We can't trust Johnny or Zampano to get the story right, but in the end, does it really matter? "House of Leaves" is still a bizarre ride that's unlike anything I've ever read.

don slutzky

7 loves is a wonderful book. it is so very moving and has a mystical flowing feel which is sweet and poignant. i loved it (that makes 8 loves). ds


Milorad Pavic's Dictionary of the Khazars is a lexical novel. Ages and days ago the ruler of Khazaria had an incomprehensible and foreboding dream. He invited three holy men -- a rabbi, a muslim dervish, and a Christian monk -- to interpret the dream. The one with the best interpretation -- whatever that means: the most accurate? the most pleasing? -- would win not only the khanate's gratitude but also the conversion of the entire country.

But what the dream was and which religion won has been lost to history. All we have left is the compilations of three later scholars, one from each of the respective religions, which have in turn been brought together by another scholar. Their notes have been arranged into entries with some appearing in all three, and while they all follow the same rough story, there are several contradictions, which interpretation "won," for instance.

Throughout the novel, Pavic plays around with point-of-view. The later scholars search for the missing dictionaries so they might gain a more complete picture of the Khazars. Each dictionary reveals a different cultural sensibility and way of looking at things.
He also focuses on the nature and power of stories. There are hints that the experience of reading will change the reader ("Here lies the reader. He is forever dead," which is one of the more drastic changes, I suppose) and that no two people will encounter the same story, and even the same reader will not find the same story twice.

I especially loved the mix of post-modernism and the more traditional, folk-tale tropes: heroic epithets, quests, the fixation on threes, and all sorts of fantastic details. There's an egg that contains an extra lifetime for the owner to crack open whenever he or she wishes; there are three devils who are all very frank about their identity whenever confronted with it; and a powerful merchant family whose members speak many languages: Greek when they wish to court; Romanian before royalty; but their own tongue only when they are about to kill.

A more linear structure would place undue emphasis on Pavic's solutions. The answers are there, but the focus is more on the journey than an easy conclusion. The lexical structure frees the narrative from those concerns, allowing the reader a sort of Name-Your-Own-Adventure experience with the book.

Sebastian Stockman

Yes, Ulysses is “set in a single day,” but I’m not sure that defines its structure. The more fascinating “structural” elements of Ulysses, for me, are the individual structures of the various episodes (for which Joyce developed an intricate schema; one he shared with Stuart Gilbert, one of the book’s first champions).

For me, there were (at least) four episodes that stood out, and I could spend pages and pages on any one. I’ll write about just one of my favorites, for contest purposes.

One of these cunning structural ploys is the opening of the “Sirens” episode. “Sirens” begins “Bronze by Gold heard the hoofirons steelyringing Imperthnthn thnthnthn.” This goes on for about a page and a half (snippets include “Last rose Castille of summer left bloom I feel so sad alone. Pwee! Little wind piped wee.”). That this is an overture, (this initial section ends: “Done. /Begin!”) didn’t become clear – for me, anyway – until I was most of the way through the episode.

The seeming nonsense at the beginning is made up of snippets of prose taken from throughout the episode, just as, in a piece of music, the overture (usually) consists of snippets of themes from throughout the piece. The “real” episode, or piece begins: “Bronze by gold, Miss Douce’s head by Miss Kennedy’s head, over the crossblind of the Ormond bar, heard the viceregal hoofs go by, ringing steel.” Compare that with the way the “overture” begins. Something, eh? Oh, and the music theme makes sense in THIS particular episode, because it’s the one in which Bloom (the main character, of course) spends most of his time in the bar of the Ormond Hotel listening to various singers (and thinking about his own singer back at home – who’s about to do him dirty).

Joyce doesn’t get too high-falutin’ though, the episode ends on a fart joke: as Bloom, playing his own instrument, waits to break wind until the tram is passing safely by, so no one will hear. Done.

Allen Wyler

Just want to say that Seven Loves is not only one of the most beautifully written novels I read in 2006, but the characters had a wonderfully sincere feel to them.

Nancy Gist

After the first 15, I stopped turning down the corners of pages on which there were phrases or sentences so achingly beautiful I wanted to return to them. I realized that such is the whole book. Seven Loves, in its lyrical reflections on love and loss and longing and a life, is exquisitely crafted and written, and Valerie Trueblood is a poet who writes magical prose.


One of my favorite unusually structured novels is Geoff Ryman's 253, which was first published online and can still be read here:

253 = the number of passengers that can ride a seven car Bakerloo Line train, plus the driver. The novel supposes that on January 11, 1995, one such train crashes while entering the Elephant & Castle Station.

The first seven chapters of the book are each a car of the train. Within each car, there is a vignette for each passenger. Each vignette (which includes what the passenger looks like, what he or she really is or does and what he or she is thinking about) is 253 words. The final chapter describes what happens to each passenger during the crash. There are footnotes and slyness thinly disguised as ad copy throughout.

All in all, the plot of the book is about four minutes long. But the breadth, at times, feels endless -- and universal.

Unlike some books where unusual structure is a nice perk, there is literally no other way that 253 could have been told without something important being sacrificed. And fortunately, it's easy to see for yourself if you agree.

Mary Kay Barbieri

I was stunned by the beauty of Valerie Trueblood's writing. I don’t use the word “stunned” lightly. Over and over I was jarred by the freshness and vivacity and truthfulness of her words. I found myself reading and re-reading her sentences with amazement that she used those words—those absolutely perfect words—in that sentence when it seemed to me that no one else would or could have found those words to put in that place. The people who inhabit the book are so alive--so very alive--and so full of rich, human complexity.

Debbie Milner

By habit I am a fast reader, but only a few pages into this book, I realized that I needed to slow down my reading so I could savor the beauty of the language and appreciate the nuanced way May's character is revealed. Valerie Trueblood writes with such precision and care that you feel the "rightness" of every word, the power of every detail. At a time when I find myself more and more struck by the way popular books are overwritten and in need of extensive editing, it was a pleasure to read a book that is so complete and well-crafted that there isn't an extra word that doesn't belong. I felt compelled to go back and reread the book, just to spend more time learning from the author about what makes for powerful writing. Teachers of writing would do well to encourage their students to use this book as a model and Valerie Trueblood as a mentor.

jennifer calkins

I arrived late to this discussion, but would like to mention one additional novella--Dies by Vanessa Place (Les Figues Press). This novella takes place within a war--most likely the first world war although recent wars in general form the backdrop. The narrative is a single sentence--a dying breath, so to speak--by a legless man to his armless campfire companion. During the narrative, as during war, all that is concrete becomes unmoored. Out of a text that is at turns playful, vulgar and horrifying comes a story that is simply heartbreaking.

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