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Novels That Shouldn’t Work But Do Work—and Why Part II


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Last month, we took a preliminary look at a type of story that shouldn’t work but which, handled properly, does work: episodic novels.  Lacking an overt central conflict or problem, wandering around without any apparent plan through a grab bag of experiences, such novels ought to come across as mere chronicles; sophomoric swaggers around town held together—if at all—only by their own sense of self-importance.  In other words, junk.

However, that’s not necessarily the case.  Unlikely-to-succeed episodic novels can work well, but when they do there are elements, hard to discern at first, which sew up their patchwork jumble of episodes, lending them an underlying unity that keeps us reading.  First among those elements, we discovered, are openings which promise us adventure, assure us that the tale ahead has significance, and that there is a steady hand steering the journey we’re embarking upon.

What, then, about the hundreds of pages that follow?  As we wander from episode to episode, what keeps us going and gives us a sense that the seemingly random walk that we’re taking has a point and which in the end will add up to something greater than the sum of its parts?  Let’s take a look at a few of those elements and see out how they might enhance any novel.

Going Out of Bounds

A promise of adventure is wonderful and awakens the child inside us.  Who doesn’t want to explore, see neat things, taste a bit of danger and have a whole lot of fun?  Count me in!  You too, I’m pretty sure.  However, a promise is one thing and following through is another.  To work, an episodic novel must first of all fulfill the promise it has made to us.

41uhR24W2gL.jpg?resize=194%2C300&ssl=1How?  First of all, through the pluck and high spirits of a protagonist.  Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table (2011) is the story of Michael, an eleven-year-old boy making a sea voyage, unaccompanied, aboard the ship Oronsay from Ceylon to England in the early 1950’s.  Seated at mealtimes at the “cat’s table”, the one farthest from the captain’s, Michael could be forgiven for keeping his head down, studying algebra to get ready for the new school he will attend, and simply surviving to arrive safely.  But, heck, what fun would that be?

Michael has aboard two friends more-or-less his age: troublemaker Cassius and sickly Romadhin.  For the boys, the ship is a floating castle of wonders and, unsupervised, they resolve to have a blast and experience as much as they can.  Among other impish activities, the three friends take to arising very early and sneaking up to the first-class deck, there to swim in the first class pool and steal food from the first class breakfast buffet, which they then surreptitiously consume under the canvas cover of a lifeboat.  And it’s still early in the day!

It was not even eight o’clock when we crossed the border from First Class back to Tourist Class. We pretended to stagger with the roll of the ship.  I had by now come to love the slow waltz of our vessel from side to side.  And the fact that I was on my own, save for the distant Flavia Prins and Emily, was itself an adventure.  I had no family responsibilities.  I could go anywhere, do anything.  And Ramadhin, Cassius, and I had already established one rule. Each day we had to do at least one thing that was forbidden.  The day had barely begun, and we still had hours ahead of us to perform this task.

What better way for a novel to break rules than to feature a protagonist whose very intention is to be an outlaw, to be unconventional, to stay alert and to savor what is forbidden?  When a hero or heroine isn’t ordinary, how can our reading journey be anything but extraordinary, as well?

Clowns, Lion Tamers and Tightrope Walkers

Episodic novels keep us entertained with a cast of characters who are odd, eccentric, intriguing, colorful and sometimes dangerous.

In Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table, none of the passengers is ordinary.  There is Sir Hector de Silva who is dying of rabies, Mr. Mazappa the jazz musician who teaches the boys dirty songs, Mr. Daniels who keeps his collection of poisonous plants in the ship’s hold, Mr. Nevil a ship dismantler who explains to the boys the vessel’s mechanical workings, Miss Lisqueti and her thirty pet pigeons, and Michael’s alluring but aloof seventeen-year-old cousin Emily on whom he has a crush but who “had her own plans for the voyage”.

Most mysterious of all is the prisoner, unknown to the other passengers, who after the evening activities are over is taken for darkness walks while in chains, accompanied by specially trained guards. The boys naturally are fascinated by the prisoner and devise ways to witness his secret walks, which later on will occasion a key event which will forever haunt all aboard, especially the boys and also Emily, whose gained experience will not leave her better off.

51f63bXc2NL.jpg?resize=202%2C300&ssl=1Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book (2008) doesn’t even try to be realistic, which anyway would be pretty much pointless for a novel about a boy, Nobody Owens, who grows up in a graveyard after his family is murdered.  Bod, as he’s called, can see and hear those who are dead as well as creatures who shouldn’t exist in the first place.  Naturally, none of the denizens of the graveyard are normal.   There is Silas his guardian, the Lady on the Grey, Indigo Man and a snake-like creature called Sleer who protects a brooch, a goblet and a knife.  Add to those Miss Lepuscu the Hound of God who babysits him, Liza Hempstock a witch in the Potter’s Field, plus a villainous antique dealer called Abanazer Bolger and who actually is the murderous “man Jack” who killed Bod’s family and who is a member of the Jacks of All Trades who, by prophecy, must kill Bod to survive.  Oh, and there is one living human girl to be a love interest, Scarlett Amber Perkins.

And if you think that’s a weird cast of characters, recall the people in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five (1969).  There is the novel’s hero Billy Pilgrim, who is “unstuck” in time and who encounters many others including a science fiction novelist named Kilgore Trout and aliens from the planet Trafamadore, to which Billy is abducted in order to be displayed in a zoo and mated with a movie star named Montana Wildhack.  Surviving the novel’s central and inciting event, the WWII firebombing of the city of Dresden, is the least of Billy’s problems—or perhaps Billy’s problems are an hallucinogenic processing of that wartime trauma?  You decide.

The point is, why simply have a cast when you can have a circus?

The Pieces and the Puzzle

What makes a mere episode more than simply an anecdote, but rather a puzzle piece in a novel the whole picture of which will become apparent after all the pieces have slotted into place?  The magic that does that is meaning.  When every episode has a point and every eccentric character has something to show or teach a protagonist, then a novel’s puzzle pieces shoulder more than their weight.  Every episode becomes gold.

In The Cat’s Table, Ondaatje doesn’t throw away anything or anyone.  Even Mr. Mazappa, the dirty-minded jazz musician, and Miss Lasqueti of the pet pigeons (and later, crucially, the owner of a gun) have an extra reason to be on board in the story.  When Mr. Maappa departs the ship, Miss Lasqueti misses him, albeit in ambiguous terms, giving rise to speculation about a relationship between them.  Were they soul mates?  In observing the pigeon-lover following the departure of the jazz musician, Michael gains an insight greater than shallow gossip can provide:

There was no more talk of Mr. Mazappa.  Even from her.  She kept to herself.  Most afternoons I caught a glimpse of her in the shadows of B Deck, in a deck chair.  She always had in her possession a copy of The Magic Mountain, but no one ever saw her reading it.  Miss Lasqueti consumed mostly crime thrillers, which constantly seemed to disappoint her.  I suspect that for her the world was more accidental than any book’s plot.  Twice I saw her so irritated by a mystery that she half rose from the shadow of her chair and flung the paperback over the railing into the sea.

Miss Lisqueti, you see, craved real experience.  Real love.  Men who presented a mystery—as certain novels also do—proved intolerable to her.  They might as well go overboard, leaving the ship.  And how telling it is that the novel which Miss Lisqueti owns but does not read is Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, set in a tuberculosis sanitorium in Switzerland, and which arguably is itself episodic and is a mountain hospital of a novel peopled with patients representing Europe’s sickness and humanity’s maladies.

Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book similarly treats each discrete episode as a schoolroom of sorts for growing Bod.  When Bod spends some time in the care of (at first) disagreeable Miss Lepescu, he—I’ll summarize—discovers a lot about ghouls.  For one thing, they can eat anything without getting sick.  When Bod’s main caretaker Silas returns from some time away, his main concern about Bod is not with regard to Bod’s safety in his absence, but rather with Bod’s education:

Silas came back at the end of the month.  He carried his black bag in his left hand and he held his right arm stiffly.  But he was Silas, and Bod was happy to see him, and even happier when Silas game him a present, a little model of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.

It was almost midnight, and it was still not fully dark.  The three of them sat at the top of the hill, with the lights of the city glimmering beneath them.

“I trust that all went well in my absence,” said Silas

“I learned a lot,” said Bod, still holding his Bridge.  He pointed up into the night sky.  “That’s the Big Bear and her son, the Little Bear.  That’s Draco the Dragon, snaking between them.”

“Very good,” said Silas.

“And you?” asked Bod.  “Did you learn anything while you were away?”

“Oh yes,” said Silas, but he declined to elaborate.

“I also,” said Miss Lepescu, primly.  “I also learned things.”

“Good,” said Silas.  An owl hooted in the branches of an oak tree.

I ask you, what good is being a captive of ghouls if you don’t learn anything from it?  And what good is scene in a novel without a point to make, or a chapter without a punch to the head?

9780385333849-us.jpg?resize=196%2C300&ssVonnegut in Slaughterhouse Five feeds us the lessons of Billy Pilgrim’s life like drips running down an IV tube and into our veins.  His novel is written in bursts, moments in Billy’s life and experience arriving not in chronological order, I think because there’s no linear way to make sense out of surviving the bombing of Dresden, let alone to apprehend the whole meaning of Billy’s psychedelic time-and-space leaps.  The novel achieves its meaning by accretion, much like wet beach sand dripping down from your hands until the sand globs pile up into something resembling a castle.

At one point in the novel, Billy is a POW being transported to captivity in a German train:

Billy Pilgrim was packed into a boxcar with many other privates.  He and Roland Weary were separated.  Weary was packed into another car in the same train.

Germans were writing on the cars with blue chalk—the number of persons in each car, their rank, their nationality, the date on which they had been put on board.  Other Germans were securing the hasps on the car doors with wire and spikes and other trackside trash.  Billy could hear somebody writing on his car, too, but he couldn’t see who was doing it.

Most of the privates on Billy’s car were very young—at the end of childhood.  But crammed into the corner with Billy was a former hobo who was forty years old. 

“I’ve been hungrier than this,” the hobo told Billy.  “I been in worse places than this.  This ain’t so bad.”

And so it goes.  There’s always a different perspective.  Vonnegut could have written that out plainly but it’s better that he didn’t.  His narrative bursts accumulate, a building picture—by turns mundane or trippy—that add up to the horror of war, the banality and absurdity of life, and finally the terrible beauty of survival.  It’s sometimes dry, other times dramatic, always disturbing and forever memorable.

The Lessons

So, what’s our takeaway today?  What about episodic novels has application to other types of fiction, maybe yours?  I suggest these thoughts for your consideration:

  • Send your protagonist out of bounds, to places we readers normally don’t go whether far afield, outside the law or to face tests and earn triumphs such as only the heroes and heroines in stories can have.
  • Make secondary characters each something special: unusual or even eccentric with weird habits and wild back stories.  Secondary characters can be so gray and forgettable!  Wouldn’t you rather sit at a circus than in a dentist’s waiting room?  The latter group of patients may be true to life, sure, but the former clown riot is much more fun.
  • Every scene in your manuscript can do more than simply advance the plot.  Every scene is a layer cake of meaning, if you mix, bake, and decorate it that way.  Seriously, why not?

There we have it, some ways in which novels that shouldn’t work go about enthralling us years after they were first published.  Is there a lesson in this for your WIP?  Let us know.

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About Donald Maass

Donald Maass (he/him) founded the Donald Maass Literary Agency. in New York in 1980. He is the author of The Career Novelist (1996), Writing the Breakout Novel (2001), Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook (2004), The Fire in Fiction (2009), The Breakout Novelist (2011), Writing 21st Century Fiction (2012) and The Emotional Craft of Fiction (2019). He has presented hundreds of workshops around the world and is a past president of the American Association of Literary Agents (formerly AAR).

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