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Is it a novel, a TV series, or a "polyphonic narrative"?

This past week we learned that Booker Prize winning novelist Salman Rushdie now considers the cable television drama series his primary (if not preferred) medium for "widely communicating ideas and stories."  The author of "Midnight's Children" (1981), "The Satanic Verses" (1988), and "Shalimar the Clown" (2005), who visited  Buffalo's Kleinhans Music Hall in April of 2010 to deliver a BABEL Series lecture, told an interviewer from the Sunday Observer, "I'm in this position where, for the first time in my writing life, I don't have a novel on the go, but I have a movie [Director Director Deepa Mehta version of 'Midnight's Children'] and a memoir and a TV series."

While promoting his upcoming Showtime cable TV science-fiction series "The Next People," Rushdie cited David Simon's "The Wire," David Chase's "The Sopranos," Aaron Sorkin's "The West Wing," and Matthew Weiner's "Mad Men" as examples of storytelling that employed the long arc of narrative development that is closer to what novelists do than the compression and visual dramatization of narrative that feature film-makers employ.

"It's like the best of both worlds," Rushdie told The Observer. "You can work in movie style productions, but have proper control."  Rushdie's US agents also suggested that he would have more creative influence over a cable TV series with "an almost feature-film budget" than he would over a feature-film script with almost any director. "They said to me that what I should really think about is a TV series, because what has happened in America is that the quality – or the writing quality – of movies has gone down the plughole," he added.

Rushdie is not the only writer with a trophy case full of major literary awards who is considering the cable television series as a platform for their work.  In April, fiction writer Jennifer Egan  reportedly closed a deal with HBO to adapt her 2011 Pulitzer Prize and National Book Critics Circle Award winning "A Visit From the Goon Squad" (Alfred A. Knopf) into a dramatic series.

While not an avowedly "experimental" novel, Egan's book does employ over dozen central and peripheral narrators telling a series of "entangled stories" that move back and forth in time focusing on the lives of two principal characters--a male record producer and his younger female assistant--through five decades of personal and societal change that becomes something of a mediation on how we experience time itself (one of her models was Proust's "In Search of Lost Time") using a form Egan sometimes refers to as "polyphonic narrative."

This past Sunday, Egan was a featured guest on the Wisconsin Public Radio series "To the Best of Our Knowledge" in a program exploring non-linear approaches to storytelling called Novel Novels. Among the highlights of interviewer Steve Paulson's 17-minute discussion with Egan are her explanation of how familiarity with the genre of the 1970s rock concept album--she mentions David Bowie's "Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars" and The Who's "Tommy" and "Quadrophenia"-- helped her shape a collage-type narrative in which widely disparate pieces contribute to some larger sense of a non-sequential theme or movement quite apart from the individual voices and stories.

Her decision to write one character's story in the form of a transliterated PowerPoint presentation is one of the most talked about innovations of the book, but in this interview Egan discusses how the mock-professional formalism of the piece paradoxically serves a vehicle for strong emotional content she might otherwise have difficulty conveying in a way that was not stylized or sentimental.

As she elaborates, the ostensible subject of the character's somewhat obsessive PowerPoint presentation is the function of pauses in rock 'n' roll songs.  The method of its presentation involves establishing a counterpoint between discrete moments of individualized anecdotal experience and the pauses during which we process that information.  That now-familiar method of organizing information mirrors the book's structure and makes us acutely aware of the passage of time, not merely as a "theme" of the book, but also as a fundamental condition of the process of our reading it.

When the 2011 Pulitzer fiction committee recently hailed Egan's book as "an inventive investigation of growing up and growing old in the digital age, displaying a big-hearted curiosity about cultural change at warp speed" they were also implicitly making an admission about how rapidly technological change has altered our contemporary ideas about human consciousness, point-of-view, and even our subjective experience of time over the past half century.  They might have added--although they didn't--that fiction and the novel as a genre have struggled to keep pace.

Literature's job, in some sense, is to reflect those changes in human consciousness, even as it reminds us that our mortality is an unalterable fact.  As Egan has made a point of saying, readers who credit her with "reinventing the novel" should take a serious second look at the truly radical narrative innovations of Cervantes, Sterne, Joyce, Gertrude Stein and Virginia Woolf.  Still, the widespread praise and acceptance "A Visit From the Goon Squad" has received is an indication that contemporary readers are less resistant to new narrative forms than the mainstream publishing industry has long maintained.

--R.D. Pohl  

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