The opening section, establishing the scenario of the Gone-Away War and the aftermath the world finds itself in, reads as the opening episodes of a TV series, and what follows – the digressions, the meandering and joyous romp through the pre-history of the post-apocalypse, is Lost or Galactica as conceived by Tarantino for commercial broadcast.
That’s not to say it completely works in those terms, but I think it does offer a solution as to Harkaway’s intention with his structure. As a result, the reader’s desire to get back to the beginning is part of a strategy more familiar in monthly publication, or as weekly serialised installments. A strategy that serves Harkaway well, much moreso than Lost managed in its third season (before the end was announced, and thankfully we now have a conclusion in sight, which has sharpened the writing up no end), largely because of the formal qualities of the novel itself.
After that first 28 pages of scene setting (episode 1), we’re dropped back into the narrator’s childhood, but always with the knowledge that there’s no more than an inch and a half of paper until Harkaway has to get back to where he started from. That he takes just short of 300 pages (or most of a season of shows) to do so doesn’t actually matter, because we, the reader, always knew he had to, and that the meandering journey would be over in due course. TV doesn’t offer that security, which unstuck Lost for a good while, until Lindelof and Cuse decided on an endgame, and the televisual equivalent of an inch and a half of paper was restored. Neil Gaiman (although he extended his own deadline as he went along) did the same with The Sandman, announcing that the story begun in issue 1 would conclude sometime soon, and ensuring his readers knew that an end was in sight, that threads had to come together and resolutions would be reached, the act of which went a long way toward turning a monthly comic book into a serialised novel. Dave Sim did something similar with Cerebus, but proper analysis of a 300 issue strategy is going to have to be left for another post.
I think you’re the first person to nail me on televisual narrative structure. It rings true with me – at least to a point – and something along those lines is inevitable, given my life as a scriptwriter for nine years before I wrote TGAW.
To which I guess I can only say: fair enough.
Actually, I find Tom’s analysis interesting for a couple reasons. One is that, while I think we’re quite used to hearing TV shows described as “novelistic” these days, and have some idea what is meant when that description is used, I’m not sure you’d get the same general understanding if you just said to someone that a novel was “televisionistic” (if that were a word). Certainly my first thought, if you asked me to think of novelists who follow the narrative conventions of TV, would be someone like Scott Lynch. Reviewing The Lies of Locke Lamora in NYRSF, Farah Mendlesohn said something like “he captures the rhythms of the Saturday morning serial perfectly”, and I’d agree. The chapters of Lynch’s books are usually complete subunits of story, like TV episodes, broken down further into short, digestible chunks that function like the different acts of an episode. Lynch often cuts between two scenes for effect, and the way he introduces characters and locations often feels like a camera lingering on a dramatic entrance or vista.
None of that really applies to Harkaway, whose chapters are notable for their continuousness, the way they carry you from point A to B via points Q and 12. On the other hand, when it comes to the macro-scale structure of the book, which is what Tom is actually talking about, there are definite resonances with today’s serial television, and the season or multi-season structure of much contemporary American genre tv. So the second issue raised by Tom’s post that interests me is the way it links the success or failure of a story to reader/viewer expectation, which is in turn dependent on reader/viewer knowledge.
Crudely, Tom found The Gone-Away World satisfying because he could be confident the payoff would come, because a book has a last page; and I found it somewhat unsatisfying at the time because the structure made me impatient, and because I couldn’t be sure the payoff would be worth the journey. (One of the reasons I wanted to talk about the structure in the review was, essentially, to say that yes, I think the journey is worth it.) And yet, I have happily watched TV series where I was even less confident about the quality of the payoff, and enjoyed them for the journey. And just yesterday I had a short exchange with Abigail Nussbaum about whether knowing the ending to The Sarah Connor Chronicles — based on some comments made by the show’s creator — would undermine the viewing experience or not. Her position is that it would:
I’m actually a little more dubious about Friedman’s almost flat out saying that the characters won’t prevent the apocalypse. Certainly the show could go either way, but it detracts from my willingness to watch if I know ahead of time that everything the characters are striving and suffering for is for nothing.
Whereas I’m more favourably disposed. In part that’s probably because I never really expected them to prevent the apocalypse — one argument of the Terminator franchise thus far has seemed to be that this apocalypse will happen no matter what — but in part it’s because seeing how the show’s characters struggle will be (depending on execution) interesting to me even if I know they’re going to fail.
Which leaves a question: why didn’t I shift into that more patient frame of mind when reading The Gone-Away World? And I think the answer has to be expectation: I expected the novel to be one type of story, it turned out to be another, and I didn’t change gears fast enough to keep up. There’s also a part of me that thinks there would have been a more effective way to switch between the two types of story: as I said to James in the original thread, it would have been interesting to read the book without that first chapter, and to thus be blindsided by the arrival of the Go-Away War.