pick up the pieces (notes and quotes)

[William T. Vollmann, David Markson, Carole Maso, Pamela Zoline, and many other writers including the author of the JEST — all work in a strange model of fragments arranged in a seemingly random sequence, rather than a coherent or formulaic story line. What are the story-telling advantages of this model besides just being cool? It appeals to me aesthetically because it’s almost like getting a novel full of tiny novels, or a film full of a hundred short films — i get a specific aesthetic tingle of pleasure when I watch Hou Hsiao Hsien, Mizoguchi, or Tsai Ming-Liang, who have a 1-scene-1-shot way of working. It also frees up the space to include more and more different types of discourses and rhetoric: there’s conventional narration but also dialog transcripts, essays, news clippings, lengthy quotations (“found literature?”) — these kind of novels tend to double as free-form literary criticism.

There’s also a political pleasure: history as we experience it is in fragments, not wholes: the whole is more often than not an illusion of coherence that serves power and hero-worship. Contrast the “integrated” presentation of Ken Burns’s TV epics, with their archival photographs and laconic music and baritone male narrator, all overlapping to deliver a specific effect, with Peter Watkins’s radical “dis-integration” of such elements, keeping images and sounds separate, or combining them in unconventional ways, to specifically keep us on guard and foreground bias and authorial agency.

Attached below are some other justifications. One from Madison Smartt Bell, who highlights the thematic and allegorical possibilities in Vollmann’s “modular” novels; the second from theorist Stefano Ercolino, who wrote a monograph on “the maximalist novel” as a postmodern literary phenomenon, which includes the JEST, talking about the “fragment” as the base unit for these novels’ structures; and finally a brief word from Michael Goddard on Raul Ruiz, one of the most fascinating filmmakers i know of, who reminds us that this fragmented style is nothing new, but its own historical tradition.]

Madison Smartt Bell in an essay on Vollmann, “Where an author might be standing,” (The Review of Contemporary Fiction, 1993 13.2):

He uses modular design much in the manner of Lautreamont, yet the arrangement of the modules is all his own. The intent of the arrange is to break the constraints of narrative continuity so as to draw structural and dramatic analogies between otherwise unrelated story lines. Thus the Afghan landscape is mapped onto the Land of Counterpane of Vollmann’s childhood memories, …

Stefano Ercolino, in MAXIMALIST NOVEL:

At the level of the organization of narrative information, the use of the fragment in the maximalist novel tends generally to exist side by side with the traditional subdivision of the narrative into parts and chapters. In White Teeth , we have five parts, each formed by five chapters, each of these in turn fractured into fragments. The same thing occurs in 2005 dopo Cristo , with the distribution of the narrative across three sections, each divided into numbered fragments, some only a few lines long and without the mediation of a macrotextual structure such as the chapter. Not to mention Infinite Jest, in which the classic setup of the novel form organized according to immediately recognizable textual partitions shatters completely. The fragment here is elevated to a system with the segmentation of the abundant narrative flow via the simple use of shorter or longer fragments, albeit often having a title, and the consequent abolition of any paratextual or intratextual grid to which the reader can refer.

Whatever its dosage — measured in The Corrections, a novel with a more traditional narrative structure; extreme, instead, in Infinite Jest — the fragment is the privileged bearer of maximalist narrative information, while the more usual divisions of the narrative into parts and chapters seem to behave more as conventional structural criteria, although they have sometimes a specific function, as we will see. The fragment is the textual segment responsible for the production of meaning, the semantic entity in which the conflicting perspectives of author, narrator, characters, and readers are played out, the place in which geographic space and time are disassembled and recombined by the voracious storytelling frenzy of the maximalist narrator.

It is in the typographic space that separates one fragment from another that a gamma of morphological potentialities is arranged to be actualized in accordance with narrative contingencies. In the maximalist novel, typographical space is always the signal of a change of scene — in Genette’s sense of the term — occurring in the transition from one fragment to another fragment. A change of scene orchestrated in accordance with a precise rhetoric and traceable in essence to three typologies: (1) variation of point of view; (2) transition in time or in space (even within a single segment of the story); (3) introduction or resumption of a narrative thread.


What characterizes the baroque most of all is an emphasis on the fragment over the whole  and a resulting complexity in which there are multiple levels coexisting within the same work, which are not reducible to anoverall scheme or perspective. This is the great distinction made by Benjamin between the baroque and romanticism; whereas romanticism presents fragments as symbols of a totalisable whole or essence, even if this whole is absent, in the baroque there are only allegories, which are enigmatic signs leading only to other signs and therefore ultimately to a non-totalizable infinity of irreconcilable points of view.


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