04.20.11

Do Literary Gimmicks Work?

From Steve Martin’s art world games to a novel constructed like a dictionary, there’s a slew of gimmicky new novels. Caryn James wonders if they equal good fiction.

Those live-action newspapers from the Harry Potter books and films—with moving and talking images on the page instead of old-fangled still photographs—don’t seem like a stretch today. They’re more like a prototype for the near future. Soon we’re likely to see a first-rate literary novel written expressly for the iPad or whatever higher-tech device comes next. We already have video books, cross-bred from e-books, and extra features. How can plain ink-on-paper compete with reading as an action sport?

We have entered the Age of the Stunt Novel, literary fiction that relies on gimmicks: photos splashed throughout the text, codes for your smartphone, stand-on-your-head structures, anything that screams “Look, this isn’t a boring old book.”

From Joyce and Beckett through Georges Perec, playing with form is nothing new, of course. The experimental novels of the 1970s turned stunts into a new genre. In Walter Abish’s Alphabetical Africa, for one, all the words in the first chapter begin with the letter A, expanding in chapter two to include words beginning with B, and so on. What we’re seeing now doesn’t come with the same rigorous artistic principles.

The impulse behind today’s shift is partly commercial. You can’t blame frantic authors, stranded in the land of tumbling sales, closing bookstores, and miniscule e-book royalties. But the dynamic also flows, perhaps unconsciously, from the powerful influence of the Web and the way we juggle several things at once, watching online video or TV while texting or checking email and talking on the phone. That multiplicity is creeping into novels.

In a world of sinking sales, gimmicks have become the literary writer’s life raft, and maybe something more.

Is the fiction any good? Here’s a look at several serious yet gimmicky novels, all worth reading for one reason or another. Whether those reasons have anything to do with their high-profile stunts is a more intriguing question.

13, Rue Thérèse
By Elena Mauli Shapiro

Mesh gloves, a rosary, a pencil-holder made from shells of German guns—these are some of the real-life objects that inspired this World War I-era novel, with photos of the objects scattered through the pages. Shapiro inherited the cache of treasures that belonged to a scarcely known neighbor; all she really knew was the woman’s Paris address and name, Louise Brunet. The novel constructs a frame in which an American academic imagines Louise’s story through her possessions: the fiancé killed in the war, her bourgeois marriage, her sexual fantasies.

Piling on the tricks, the book includes codes that let you see the reproductions with an iPhone app, or you can find them on the novel’s website ( www.13rueTherese.com) along with video of the objects, snippets of audio from the text.  It’s all fluffy and engaging, but take away the pretty, busy-making stunts and you’re left with an unimaginative, unconvincing story. As a character, Louise is shallower than Madame Bovary, less surprising than a Desperate Housewife; her academic creator is a stick figure. The gimmickry masks this first novel’s hollowness while adding a momentary allure.

book-cover---the-lovers-dictionary-1

The Lover’s Dictionary
By David Levithan

Novels don’t get more contrived than this, but here’s a stunt that works. Each chapter in this slim book begins with a dictionary word and definition, arranged alphabetically. Jumping off from these words, the unnamed narrator tells of his life-shaping love affair, from their first date to their first apartment together, on to the discovery of his girlfriend’s one-night fling and his attempt to get past the betrayal. It’s a juicy story, and the language—spare, resonant, often poetic—makes it even better.

Sometimes the chapter’s connection to the dictionary word is direct:

“Recant, v.
I want to take back half of the ‘I love you’s because I didn’t mean them as much as the others.”

At times the narrator leaps past literal meanings to associations. “Fast” is both a noun and a verb, the verb “to fast” suggesting “the opposite of desire.... It is what I feel after we fight.”

Intentionally or not, this elliptical novel, with readers filling in the blanks of the story, mirrors the kinetic, participatory feel of the Web, where reading is more than just glancing at a page. There are models for such oddball structures in '70s experimental fiction, but Levithan is the author of YA novels, including (as co-author) Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist, the basis for a Michael Cera movie. The Lover’s Dictionary seems inspired by a new, wired generation.

book-cover---an-object-of-beauty

The Object of Beauty
By Steve Martin

Martin’s novel about the New York art scene follows a dealer named Lacey from obscurity to the glitzy stratosphere and down again, observed by the narrator, an unassuming guy who has been sort-of loving her for years. Throughout the book we find small reproductions of the real-life art the fictional Lacey runs across. The reproductions take up a quarter or half the page, always with titles, dates, and dimensions below, as if the novel had morphed into a catalogue.

I love Martin’s writing. Shopgirl is a gem, a late-20th-century novel of manners. So when I say this is not his best book, I’m criticizing it as a serious work, not some celebrity vanity project. There is a stiff, pedagogical tone to An Object of Beauty, as Martin talks down to an audience that he seems to think needs to have the art spoon-fed. Some of those artists are famous, a few obscure, but most settle into Willem De Kooning territory, with names that wouldn’t baffle anyone who took Art History 101. That whiff of the classroom is only intensified when we run across reproductions labeled:

“Flowers, Andy Warhol, circa 1965
48 x 48 in.”

If the book had given us new art—maybe by the fictional, Banksy-like character called Pilot Mouse—that would have been something fresh, instead of a stunt that makes the novel worse.

book-cover---one-day

One Day
By David Nicholls

A bestseller in the U.K. and here, this breezy, entertaining romance checks in on the nearly-two-decade friendship of Dexter and Emma every year on July 15th, from 1989 to 2007. Same day, different stage in their relationship, as they go from college acquaintances to best friends, then fall out when he becomes an egotistical TV host and she a struggling writer, only to reconnect—you can see where this is going.

Nicholls’ writing is fluid, his characters likable; he creates colorfully fleshed-out scenarios of their changing social scenes, from earnest bed-sit conversations to noisy, drug-fueled restaurants. Those strengths have nothing to do with the same-day structure, though, which gets a little annoying. It feels like a blatant commercial ploy—an author needs a hook—that luckily doesn’t damage the novel.

I can easily see this as a movie-book, a la Harry Potter’s newspapers, because film shapes the novel more that its calendar-bound form. Nicholls, who writes both screenplays and fiction, has built One Day on movie-ready scenes, and director Lone Sherfig ( An Education) has already wrapped the film version, with Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess (scheduled to arrive this summer).

One Day is not The Great American Stunt Novel—we don’t have that yet—but together these books point in that direction. In a world of sinking sales, gimmicks have become the literary writer’s life raft, and maybe something more.

Caryn James writes the James on ScreenS film and television blog for IndieWire.com and also contributes to other publications, including The New York Times Book Review. She has been a film critic, chief television critic and cultural critic at the Times and an editor at the Times Book Review. She is the author of the novels Glorie and What Caroline Knew , and has appeared as a film commentator on CBS Sunday Morning, Charlie Rose, Today, MSNBC and other programs.