What's novel is not the story, but how it's told

Fiction writers are finding new ways to tell familiar stories

May 06, 2013|Susan Reimer

When it comes to books, I guess you could call me a voracious listener.

I have been commuting about an hour to and from work for more than 30 years, and during that time I bet I've listened to a couple of thousand books. First on tape, now on compact discs.

If you had to sit in traffic that long every day — and it is worst on a Friday in summer, when everyone is trying to cross the Bay Bridge — you'd listen to anything that might distract you, too. And I have delved into a wide range of titles, from history to historical fiction to murder mysteries to true crime.

I am partial to the novels about the matriarch's last summer at the seaside cottage that has been in the family for generations, during which she remembers her life and its dramas and scandals and then dies just after Labor Day, floating into the heavenly embrace of her long-dead lover.

But frankly, I will listen to anything, and recently that has taken me down some weird alleys. Fiction, it seems, isn't about telling an interesting story anymore. Fiction is in love with how it tells that story, the artifice from which the story unfolds.

"The Art of Racing in the Rain" by Garth Stein tells the story of an up-and-coming race car driver whose wife dies unexpectedly and who then enters a three-year battle with her parents over the custody of their daughter. And it is told from the perspective of his dog, Enzo, who has learned what he knows about the human condition by watching a lot of television.

Reflecting on his life with Denny and Zoe and all he has learned, Enzo anticipates his approaching death with confidence because he believes he will come back as a man.

I have read all of Jon Katz, who has made something of a cottage industry for himself writing with great sympathy about dogs. But this is a dog writing about his human with great sympathy. OK, different. But not radically.

Not long after, I read "Gone Girl" by Gillian Flynn, a taut thriller about a toxic marriage told in alternating diary entries by the husband and the wife, and with a twisted ending. You find yourself racing through the book to find out what the two of them already know. Again, the structure of the novel almost trumps the story.

The structure of Ian McEwan's "Sweet Tooth" does trump the story, and in a very big way. A 1970s college recruit to England's equivalent of the CIA becomes the lover of one of her "assets." But as the novel enters the final chapter, you are forced to rethink the entire story because you suddenly realize who is telling it. This isn't a surprise ending, it is a upheaval of an ending. Again, the story is the vehicle for the structure.

And finally, "The Dinner," by Herman Koch. Two brothers and their wives meet for dinner to discuss troubling developments around their teenage sons. And as each course arrives at this pretentious restaurant — and the book is divided by the courses — we learn more dark secrets about these families. Set in Holland and written in Dutch, it loses nothing in its English translation because secrets, weaknesses and misery can be found on any family menu.

All of these books succeeded in more than transporting this bored commuter from her spot in a traffic jam. These stories stayed with me for much longer than any about the cranky matriarchs at the family's sagging beach house, because of how they were told.

And while I pay homage to the authors for their inventions, I wondered more than once if we are running out of stories in the world and so must find new ways to tell them.

Susan Reimer's column appears Mondays and Thursdays. She can be reached at susan.reimer@baltsun and @SusanReimer on Twitter.com.

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