On the Shelf
The Year in (Fragmented) Books
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The tail end of 2022 has been marked by a worrying sense that the center really isn’t holding. Last month’s UN climate conference convened to determine to what degree we might comfortably continue to cook the planet. Election denialism, especially in my home state of Arizona, entrenched itself as a small but no longer negligible branch of political discourse. We could take our grievances to Twitter about such things — or could we? Elon Musk was in charge, not only letting loose the trolls but tweeting as troll-in-chief.
Throw in some overall social and cultural atomization, and it’s coming to feel like we’ve become rhetorically unstuck in time. Fiction is usually a lagging indicator of global crises — Iraq War novels didn’t arrive till years after the war began. But much of the prominent fiction of 2022 met the moment and captured this fragmentation, thick with code-switching, style-shifting and cacophonies of anxious narration. The omniscient, singular authorial voice in literary fiction has become ever more antiquated — still valuable, but more like an exotic, bespoke retreat than literature’s mainland. Call it Franzen Island.
Better befitting our times are a constellation of mosaics — maybe the Egan Archipelago. Jennifer Egan, who set a template for this brand of multi-voiced fiction with her 2009 novel, “A Visit From the Goon Squad,” revisited and updated that sensibility this year with a sequel, “The Candy House,” that despaired of what internet algorithms were doing to our identities. The novel sprays literary gambits like a fallen power line throwing sparks: Here a narrative in tweets, there in emails, here a satire of literary tropes, there a spoof of Hollywood. Egan was writing as if to defend fiction against what the internet was doing to it. A messy online reality — one that spelled “an existential threat to fiction,” she wrote — demanded a stew of styles.
Egan wasn’t alone. In his brilliant second novel, “Trust,” Hernan Diaz cut reality into pieces, telling the story of an early 20th century investor through fiction, memoir and diary to show how each form, on its own, is untrustworthy; every story is self-serving, but put enough of them together and you might get at the truth. The pressures being atomized — rapacious capitalism, entrenched sexism — were systemic, but this was no eon-spanning epic. The narratives were compressed, intimate and particular.
This approach manifested itself poignantly in Namwali Serpell’s second novel, “The Furrows: To Elegy.” A woman mourning her brother’s sudden death switches tones and perspectives to either grasp or escape her complexity in the incident. Her status as a character morphs, as if to suggest that inhabiting someone else’s identity might bring us closer to our own. And in Jonathan Escoffery’s novel-in-stories, “If I Survive You,” the lead character is a Florida-born man of Jamaican heritage whose identity is as fragmentary as the book itself: In the Midwest he’s Black, but in Miami and Jamaica subject to more specific assessments. A chorus of voices seems to consume and splinter him: “You’re brown, but not that kind, and not that kind, and not that kind.”
The style of 2022 — intimate chaos? — was no more specifically American than the chaos of the real world. NoViolet Bulawayo’s second novel, “glory,” is “Animal Farm” for the age of social media, rooted in the animal residents of an authoritarian African nation staging a collective protest against its leaders. In Mithu Sanyal’sidentity,” social media contempt serves as a character in itself, debating the intentions of its protagonist, a Rachel Dolezal-like white academic who performs as a person of color. The novel satirizes the audacity of its heroine, but it also wants to suggest that who we are is increasingly constructed — both internally and externally. (“Oh, so it’s okay to transcend your gender, but a category as obviously made-up as race should be more fixed and inflexible than sex?” she says — a provocation, but Sanyal wrestles seriously with the question.)
Akil Kumarasamy’s debut novel, “Meet Us by the Roaring Sea,” might be the most challenging entry into this genre of scrambled identity. Its heroine is a near-future AI programmer trying to parse a collective manuscript by a group of female medical students. Shoving more data into the algorithm seems to be a path to clarity: “Who are we except for a chain of memories, stories that turn into the big story of identity?” The open question is what we are once technology is done masticating all those memories and stories.
These stylistic gambits aren’t brand-new, of course. Fragmentary characters have often been subject to fragmentary forms. One hundred years ago, James Joyce published “Ulysses,” Modernism’s essential text when it comes to prismatic characterization. And a particular brand of split-narrator, time-folding narrative is almost overly familiar in literary fiction today, taking its cues from novels such as David Mitchell’s “Cloud Atlas.” Earlier this year, the writer Lincoln Michel coined the term “speculative epic” to describe a marketplace almost glutted with “the multi-genre, multi-timeline, sweeping novel,” including Hanya Yanagihara’s “To Paradise‘Richard Powers’ “The Overstory” and Serpell’s own debut, “The Old Drift.” The kinds of dystopia writers are currently concerned about — climate collapse, systemic racism, a society that’s lost its faith in art — required big-picture storytelling to gather it all in.
But the Mitchellesque, history-hoovering dystopian epic is almost as familiar as Franzen Island now, and at risk of becoming antiquated. (I imagine — or fear — that you could tell ChatGPT to write a Mitchell novel and receive a creditable facsimile.) What’s happening in the books I’m thinking about is literary writers trying to fracture form to capture a more fractured sense of self — “Mrs. Dalloway,” but with roughly a century’s worth of wisdom about identity, social phenomena and postmodern gamesmanship behind it.
“Trust” is a love story pretending to be a tale of high finance, but Diaz is skeptical of the romance or Wall Street epic. Serpell is doing much the same for the trauma plot: A recurring phrase in “The Furrows” is, “I don’t want to tell you what happened. I want to tell you how it felt.” Serpell is saying that as much as the protagonist is. She’s seeking a form that escapes conventional storytelling about The Incident That Changed Everything while still building a story around exactly that.
There’s a good chance we’ll see more of this in literary fiction, as the genre increasingly has to argue for its survival amid all the other things competing for our eyeballs. Perhaps this will become its own kind of cliché—the shattered-mirror novel, or whatever. For now, though, it feels like something fresh, a handoff from the Modernists of the early 20th century to the authors of the early 21st.
You can see that handoff explicitly in one of the year’s best novels, James Hannaham’s “Didn’t Nobody Give a S— What Happened to Carlotta.” The title character is, again, a prismatic set of identities — a Black, Colombian trans parolee navigating Brooklyn in the day after she’s been released. Carlotta is relentlessly funny and relentlessly observant, and what she’s noticing is the universe of ways people around her are communicating, defining their relationships, defining themselves. Toward the end, Hannaham makes an explicit nod to “Ulysses” and Joyce’s Dublin. But Carlotta, like a lot of other narrators, is heading off to someplace else entirely.
Athitakis is a writer in Phoenix and author of “The New Midwest.”