Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Playing with structure

I'm a little embarrassed to admit I first put A Visit from the Goon Squad on my to read list because I thought it was a literary novel about the mafia. What can I say, I think the mob is endlessly fascinating! By the time I figured out it was actually about the music industry, author Jennifer Egan had won the Pulitzer Prize, and was waging a battle against sexism in book reviews (including Time magazine, who celebrated her Pulitzer win by putting Jonathan Franzen on their cover), and even though I can't say I'm much interested in the music industry, I was interested in reading Egan.

And even though there were no mobsters in the entire book (the goon squad is a metaphor for time), and I read the book a few months ago, it's lingered on in my mind. As I said in my Goodreads review:

"Each chapter takes place in a different time period, with a different point of view character, yet each chapter comments on the others, provides context for characters' pasts or futures, and circles around the story's main themes of history, destiny, and change. On top of all that, Egan frequently plays with structure, telling one chapter in second person, another solely in power point slides, a third makes heavy use of futuristic text-speak. While I never found the book a page-turner, I was in awe. I have no idea how Egan managed to pull all this off. How does an author create a meaningful, thought-provoking and gut-punching chapter all in power points?! Or a totally sympathetic point of view character in a few lines? Beautifully written, and definitely worth a re-read to fully understand how all the characters intersect and to desperately try and study Egan's masterful craft."

I'm especially still thinking about that Power Point chapter (you can see it in its entirety on Egan's website under "Great Rock and Roll Pauses"), and its 12-year-old narrator, who can't communicate with her family, and worries they're falling away from each other, and can only truly express her feelings through her computer diary, showing arrows and graphs and ven diagrams. I know plenty of kids like her, who are more comfortable changing the font color and background images on a slide than writing an essay. And I totally believed in her and was moved by her story.

And it got me thinking about playing with structure. Why don't I do that more often? Of course, done poorly, it's just intellectual snobbery. But when structure reflects a character's personality and emotions--that's gold.

Speaking of playing with structure, I'm also a big fan of e. e. cummings' poetry. Have you seen this one?


l(a
le
af
fa
ll
s)
one
l
iness

For those of you unfamiliar with e. e. cummings, read down, inside and outside the parentheses, to get "a leaf falls" and "loneliness". Somehow the structure and the spacing, and that line with the word "one," convey so much more than those single words.

Egan and Cummings challenge me to play with structure in my own writing. Have you ever done anything unique with your writing structure? Did it work? And any other examples of poignant structure that need to go on my to-read list?

8 comments:

  1. What a wonderful, wonderful post, Anne! I now have two more authors on my "to be read" list! I am so intrigued by different kinds of structure in books and poetry. Thanks so much for sharing this!

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    1. Oh, you're welcome, Becky! Thanks so much for stopping by! I'm always happy to share good reads! And e. e. cummings is a LONG TIME favorite!

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  2. I love that structure. I also like to do unusual structure in my books as well. I think it really affects the reader how the text is formatted on the page.

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    1. Yes! Have you ever read House of Leaves? That's another great novel with unique formatting.

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  3. I love when authors play with structure in a way that enhances the story. I've been a little boring with structure thus far, but I hope to one day write a story that would benefit from s more exciting format.

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    1. Yes! Some stories (most, probably) it's just not needed, but I hope we can keep our eyes open in our future writing for the story that it would really enhance.

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  4. I used to experiment with structure, but now not so much.

    I have the book on my wishlist.

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    1. Yeah, my current book doesn't really play with structure either. Maybe that's something we can look forward to when we're more established writers who don't have to worry about market strictures? ;)

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