Mon November 7, 2005
Novel: A Novel
This is a highly self-conscious, playful, post-modern kind of novel, with many digressions and red herrings and no certainty for the reader that anything is "true."
By Don Noble
It is very difficult indeed in America to establish a writing career producing only short stories. Few have remained pure. O. Henry, Alice Munro, and Harold Brodskey perhaps come the closest, though others, like Peter Taylor, Flannery O'Connor, John Cheever, and Katherine Anne Porter have given in and written one or two novels.
Why? Because novels sell much better than short stories, because magazines publish fewer and fewer short stories, because short stories approach poetry sometimes in their demands on the reader's concentration.
George Singleton of South Carolina has for years published only stories. He has three collections: These People Are Us, The Half-Mammals of Dixie, and Why Dogs Chase Cars: Tales of A Beleaguered Boyhood.
But something has changed. Now Singleton has published Novel: A Novel, a very odd, indeed one could say "novel," full-length novel in which the protagonist's name is Novel. So, Singleton seems to be saying, you all wanted me to write a novel, well here's a novel for you, a more-or-less continuous story 335 pages long.
The hero of this episodic rag bag of a tale, this fractured fiction, is Novel Akers, whose parents, Ted and Olivia Akers, were highly eccentric members of the Black Mountain College community who did or did not adopt two Irish orphans named James and Joyce, and so when they had a third child of their own they called the three kids to dinner thusly: James! Joyce! Novel! It goes on this way throughout.
In a very fine opening scene we are shown Novel's mother-in-law and brother-in-law in their car, returning home from the hospital where she, Ina, had just had lung surgery. Ina has an oxygen tank. Irby is driving and smoking. The explosion is funnier than you might think.
With the inheritance, Novel and his wife Bekah move to her home town of Gruel, North Carolina and live in the town's abandoned motel, the Gruel Inn.
First they set the motel up as a weight-loss spa, the Gruel Sneeze 'n' Tone. Novel and his wife had noticed that women who are perpetually sneezing lose weight and have firm abdomens as well, so they pump in to each room the particular irritating allergen for the woman in that room.
Females less than 35 years old are all allergic to White Shoulders. Novel notes that older women, "some of whom lost senses of taste and smell over the years due to a combination of smoking and/or electric shock treatments, could only summon sneezes when my special sweat sock/potpourri/pre-1950 library book/ammonia-filled cat litter box concoction got piped into their quarters."
An unexpected side effect is that many of the sneezing women go into more or less constant sexual ecstasy. So Akers closes down the Sneeze 'n' Tone and opens a writers colony.
Here Singleton has a lot of fun satirizing the hapless, the desperate, the sincere, the misguided individuals who think they could write a novel if only they had a cabin in the woods or a room of their own.
As with the weight-loss business, the writers colony thrives. Akers tells us, "I offered no grants or stipends, no Grand Master Writer-Teacher/Master Writer-Teacher/Teacher/Upcoming Writer/Writer/Sycophant/Waiter type of hierarchy. It would cost prospective 'students' five hundred dollars a week with only a continental breakfast provided...By the end of the month I had reservations going into the next year."
Apparently, people will go to a lot of trouble and expense to write a novel. George Singleton has. Was it worth it?
Well, this is a highly self-conscious, playful, post-modern kind of novel, with many digressions and red herrings and no certainty for the reader that anything is "true." E. M. Forster would not recognize it. Novel is more a loose vaudeville show than a well-made play.
If you enjoy this kind of thing, great. If not, you may feel, as the British say, that Novel is "too clever by half."
Don Noble's book reviews can be heard each Monday on Alabama Public Radio at 7:35 a.m. and 4:44 p.m. Recently retired as English professor at The University of Alabama, Don's specialties are Southern and American literature. Don also hosts Bookmark on Alabama Public Television.