Novels can contain the world. It’s one thing they can do better than any other medium. Their four-century head start translates to a much longer historical context than television, film, or anything online, and thus novelists have more to “play with” and readers more to “read against.”
When we think of the acceleration of the city space in the wake of the industrial revolution, do we think of silent films? Or radio plays? I would argue Joyce and Woolf expressed the age better than anyone else through their formal inventions and all-encompassing narratives. (I will always associate stream-of-consciousness with urbanites’ interior monologues.)
And yet I spent much of 2009 thinking about new media. Transmedia texts would be inherently better because of… what? Their novelty? This is a common fallacy (especially online). There are exciting inroads in this space, but they’ve got nothing on what novels can do.
And are doing. I remember Sam Tenenhaus saying Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 was great because it captured our fragmented, internet-addled expression of reality. I would say Zachary Mason’s The Lost Books of the Odyssey does the same.
This slim work doesn’t need images, or hyperlinks, or video animations to make it “better,” it’s already at the peak of its art as a novel. It can be tersely described as a Borgesian fan fiction approach to Homer. (This plays well on Twitter.) But I would also argue its episodic structure, sidelong approach to canonical myths – an iterative text built upon the urtext – and its conception by a computer scientist make Zachary Mason’s novel a consummate evocation of the novel in 2010. It contains the modern world, though slyly, furtively.
Like a Jasper Johns flag painting, Mason uses a totemic story as a tabula rasa to allow room for the reader to investigate the how of the book: its formal qualities are front and center, and its these that perfectly capture the associative, intuitive approach to what makes a “story.” Mason has duplicated the experience of rabbit-hole internet consumption.
On a personal note, this was one of the first books I’ve read at FSG, as I catch up on the 2010 frontlist. It’s thrilling to be working at a publisher that continues to produce literature like this.