The world moves faster these days. From political sound bites to the latest teen idol (who is it this week?) to the rolling scenes of music videos, things come, things go, other things take their place and then they, too, go.
But literature, good literature, is meant for savoring. It lingers. Touches. Whispers. Long after the written words are gone from view, they play music in our minds. Herein lies the conundrum. How can twenty-first century literature be fitted to a world that moves faster, to a public who wants and expects a crashing avalanche of continuous enticement?
One answer: Literary cubism.
The Eleventh Edition of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary offers a definition of cubism that describes an artistic style of abstract structure which simultaneously displays multiple aspects of the same object in fragmented form.
The “same object” in that working definition is my story. The “multiple aspects” and fragmented forms which I display include poems, e-mail messages, personal notes and legal documents, to name a few. And, yes, there’s room and necessity for blocks of traditional prose in literary cubism.
Cubist writing is liberating. It adds to a writer’s toolbox for telling his or her story. We’ve always had description and dialogue to set scenes, to build moods, and to create consistent, compelling characters. It feels good to now have the text of an e-mail message to do any or all of those things. We can also tap into poems, personal notes, grocery lists, and any other form of written media. These can all be used to great effect to show a lifestyle, to define a character’s motives and psyche, or to paint the tensions and emotional contours of a relationship.
As I said before – liberating.
Enough about theories of liberated lingual expression; how does literary cubism play out in application? Pretty well. In a nutshell, “Resolution 786” tells the story of a philosophical, emotionally wounded American engineer who finds himself in combat operations in the Iraq War while simultaneously trying the Lord for crimes against humanity in a courtroom setting. Literary cubism made it possible to create the tapestry of a unified experience across these wildly disparate settings, an experience of spiritual self-realization in the context of a physical realization of human mortality. Cubism gave me license to develop this multi-pronged storyline and to build my central themes using a variety of literary media presented from the perspectives of many different characters. Indeed, one vignette consists mostly of a set of e-mail messages written by the mothers, wives, daughters, lovers and girlfriends of the soldiers fighting in Iraq. In writing that part of the novel, I was struck by the blunt directness with which an author can develop characters and define relationships through e-mail messages.
But as much license as literary cubism bestows, there are still some “Do Not Drive” lanes on this literary highway. Do not use incorrect grammar, spelling or punctuation (unless you’re Cummings “sketching” a poem onto the page). Do not use flat, un-interesting prose. And, whatever you do, do not let your focus stray from telling a good story. The grandest literary artistry is for naught if you fail to tell a good story.
Yes, with literary cubism, you run risk of having your storyline devolve into un-integrated snippets of plot and story, but you run the same risk in traditional prose. Re-writing, revising and re-imaging enhance the integration of your multiple media. And as one of the characters in Resolution 786 explains while defending against the criticism of realism in Kafka’s The Metamorphosis:
“I don’t think The Metamorphosis really happened. Samsa didn’t turn into an insect. If he had turned into an insect, he would have stopped considering his own consciousness. No, Samsa became a human being who was trapped inside an insect, which is fundamentally different than becoming an insect. And as far as being realistic, if a work of artistic expression doesn’t have a traditional structure, that doesn’t mean that, taken as a whole, it doesn’t still have some valuable or otherwise instructive form or substance.”
So go ahead and wake up an insect. Go ahead and put the Lord on trial. And feel free to use a cubist structure through it all.
I find literary cubism to be a sharp, fresh and consistently interesting method for constructing novels. Considering how fast our world moves today, how flashed and multi-variant our entertainment media and tastes are, I’m surprised that more writers don’t use cubism. It’s an ideal structure for story telling in the twenty-first century.