Renata Adler dedicated Speedboat (1976) and Pitch Dark(1981) for “A.” and “B.,” and like two LP sides, the novels, newly reissued by New York Review Books, are variations in a radical approach to fiction. They diametrically oppose E.M. Forster’s formulation that narrative is causation—not “merely” A happened, then B happened, but A caused B. Adler puts A next to X, with no apparent causal connection or temporal sequence. Many characters appear only once. But episodes’ consistent sentence structure and types of characters create a coherent tone. Its effect is hypnotic.
The fourteen stories in Alice Munro’s latest collection, Dear Life, are terser than her stories of a decade ago. Her 2001 collection, Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, nearly identical in length, contained only nine. Many of the new stories trace characteristically oblique paths. Munro draws opening scenes with particular details that seem intended to alert the reader to crucial moments and relationships, and then, instead of continuing those relationships chronologically, she sidesteps to previous events, or heads off in directions not initially suggested. Some stories traverse so many years that their openings, while always fitting, no longer seem the only possible entry points. Often, sections slip into others by association rather than cause and effect or chronology; in “Gravel,” a dog, mentioned in passing, turns out to be central.
Early in Catherine Chung’s debut novel, Forgotten Country, the narrator’s mother and aunt, as girls in Korea soon after the war, come upon an unexploded bomb in the woods.
“It can’t go off now, can it?” her mother asks.
“Of course it can,” the sister answers. “It happens all the time, don’t you know anything?”
The bomb does not go off, and the sisters make up afterward, and when the elder sister goes to university, she is taken in the night by North Korean agents and never heard from again.
Forgotten Country is unrelenting with such reversals, but with such calm assurance that I had the sense of being borne along on a great river whose pace was not immediately apparent for its scale. There are few moments that cascade into edge-of-one’s-seat crisis; I soon learned to read every page at the edge of my seat, for what is liable to happen when the bombs don’t go off.
A novel’s content is inextricable from the experience of its presentation: the order of events, what the reader knows about characters, whether the reader is looking ahead toward consequence or backward for explanation. In Tessa Hadley’s Orange Prize-longlisted The London Train, by the time that Cora, the estranged wife of a high-ranking British civil servant, experiences the “physical closeness” of her seatmate between Cardiff and Paddington Station, “mingled with her awareness of herself, as if there’d been brandy in the coffee they drank,” Cora’s is not the only awareness which Hadley has altered.
Initially, The London Train may strike readers of domestic realism as known territory. Paul, a literary critic who would have preferred to be known as a novelist, has received news of his mother’s death. He arrives at her nursing home too late to view her body, a fumble that will come to seem characteristic as the funeral and aftermath illuminate him and his family through their response to crisis. The funeral also occasions contact with Paul’s ex-wife, who is concerned about their elder daughter, who has left university and will divulge only that she is safe and has moved in with friends.