The New Novel-In-Stories: What “Goon Squad” Taught Me About Linked Collections
Written By: Cynthia Romanowski
(originally published August 14, 2011
If you (like me) are an aspiring author unfortunate enough to write mostly short fiction then you’re probably aware of two things: 1) That publishers aren’t exactly jazzed about the idea of publishing short fiction collections from unknown authors and 2) A “novel in stories” is in some ways an attractive alternative to writing an actual novel.
Even if you aren’t a short story writer but rather an equally unknown budding novelist there is another appeal that the “novel in stories” offers to your camp specifically, and that is the idea of having not just one clunky manuscript to send all over town but an entire fist full of stand-alone chapters to pester countless lit mags and journals with. Which means more chances to have your writing snatched up and published before you’ve even started sending the entire thing out.
So the idea of writing a novel through a series of shorts like Jennifer Egan’s “A Visit From The Goon Squad” is not a bad idea to ponder, in fact based on my mini-obsession with this book there are actually a lot of advantages to writing a linked collection that seem pretty enticing for students of writing like myself who are still developing and honing their voice and style, and still grappling with what sort of subject matter to focus on. Here are a few of the things I’ve found that this format offers that the traditional novel sometimes cannot.
—But first! Here’s a brief video where Egan herself speaks about her goals of writing in this format and how she views the finished product.
Multiple Points of View
So if you watched the video, one of Egan’s three rules for the book was that each chapter had to be different from the others in terms of tone, mood and overall feel. Basically, she gave herself permission to go all over the place, there are stories in 1stperson, a variety of different close 3rd’s, the now notorious story told in Power Point and many other random variations throughout the book.
That is not to say that you couldn’t pull off something like this in a novel– anything is possible– but the linked collection or novel in stories definitely lends itself well to the idea of switching things up each chapter and experimenting with aspects of narrative that might not be tolerable for the entire length of a novel, like say 2nd person. This aspect of the format is extremely appealing to me as a new writer because while I do want to pull off a larger scale narrative and weave together and pull all those thematic and character threads, I also want to explore different characters, different narrative forms and this seems to be–if executed well–the best opportunity for both.
Effortless Geographical Leaps
A linked collection also opens up the opportunity for the author to take wild leaps into dramatically different settings. “A Visit From The Goon Squad” for example takes place in NYC, Africa, Naples, LA, San Francisco and the Middle East. Depending on the subject matter and character, most novels don’t allow this type of freedom or even if they do range in setting it can sometimes be jarring or gimmicky (think “Eat, Prey, Love”). But once again this spastic format of all out narrative anarchy that comes with the linked collection allows for and is even strengthened by such manic switch-ups.
The same goes for time. Egan leaps effortlessly through the past and present and in the very last story even gives us a glimpse into the near future. The ability to easily manipulate and compress time is another plus of the format. Which is interesting as it makes writing a multi-generational novel much easier and digestible since you don’t have to carry a reader through 400 pages of time (think Franzen) to get to the heart of a family of characters. Zooming in, and out again, and forward and back is almost expected.
Here is a hi-tech character map of the 18 reoccurring characters of “Goon Squad”
Pretty involved for a 270-page book right? Again if you watched the video posted above you heard Egan talk about “Goon Squad’s” accidental inception, how she would write a short story, introduce a peripheral character and then wonder about them so much that she’d write their story which would introduce another seemingly minor character and then feel compelled to also tell their story and on and on.
That is one of the most exciting things that happens as a sort of side effect while reading a linked collection, you never really know who’s important or who might show up again later on, so there is this great anticipation and tendency to really focus in on every character no matter how small just to be in on the connection down the line. In fact this whole little phenomenon is so satisfying that it’s almost like the author is establishing callbacks or inside jokes with the reader drawing them in and trusting them to connect the dots and be an active participant in the whole experience.
Skip Over Over-charted Areas
In Steve Almonds little book of essays “This Won’t Take But A Minute Honey,” he talks about the idea of “slowing down where it hurts” pointing out how new writers tend to gloss over the most interesting and uncomfortable moments for their characters. Sort of along the same lines with that, with all the jumping through time and space that the linked collection does, I would say this format offers writers the opportunity to “speed up where it’s been done.” Meaning that authors of this format have the option of skipping easily over certain scenes that seem to come up again and again in fiction, clichéd scenes that we’ve all seen too many of like: “the nervous first date,” “depressed guy gets fired,” “the perfect wedding,” “guy gets diagnosed with something horrible,” you get the idea.
An example of this idea at work in “Goon Squad” would be Egan’s decision to omit any specific scenes relating to the suicide of one of her young characters. While we don’t actually see this played out, we see the effect of the tragedy on the surrounding characters, so it doesn’t feel like a cop out. Depending on the linear nature of a more traditional novel, in some cases this would be a cop out, it would be the author failing to slow down where it hurts, but again in the case of a more loosely connected novel in stories you can get away with leaving out certain scenes that may seem major, even central to the plot. At least that’s what it seems like, then again I could be totally wrong on this (still trying to figure it out actually).
In conclusion I guess all of these things combined come out offering one thing and that is less commitment and in some ways less risk. Instead of having to commit to a small set of characters, one point of view, one major setting the linked collection format really allows you to be the opposite of monogamous. In fact you can be the Warren Jeff’s of fiction picking out all kinds of different plot lines, settings, characters and structures no matter how illegal that would be in a more traditional novel.
The linked collection is a way of going buck wild and exploring different ways of story telling and trying out new concepts of unity to tie everything together. So go ahead, sleep around, write a chapter in 1st person plural, then another in “To Do Lists”, and another in the POV of the family dog. You’re just starting out and like dating you won’t know what you like or what you’re good at till you fool around a little bit, so you might as well make the foolery count, and a novel in stories is the best way I can think of to do just that.
P.S. Here is a list of novels in stories/linked collections from a handout I got from a panel on the topic at AWP, this list is by no means comprehensive (and some people wouldn’t even categorize some of these as truly “linked”) but a good start nonetheless if you’re interested.
List of Linked Collections
Julia Alvarez, How The Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents
Jabari Asim, A Taste of Honey
Sherwood Anderson, Winesberg, Ohio
Dean Bakopoulous, Please Don’t Come Back from the Moon
Melissa Bank, The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing
Russell Banks, Trailerpark and The Sweet Hereafter
Djuana Barnes, Nightwood
Andrea Barrett, Ship Fever
Rebecca Barry, Later, at the Bar
Matt Bell, Wolf Parts
Wendell Berry, Fidelity
Belle Boggs, Mattaponi Queen
Ray Bradbury, The Illustrated Man
Robert Olen Butler, Tabloid Dreams and A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain
Dan Chaon, Among The Missing
Sandra Cisneros, The House On Mango Street
Evan S. Connell, Mr. Bridge and Mrs. Bridge
Justin Cronin, Mary and O’Neil
Ron Currie, Jr., God is Dead
Edwidge Danticat, The Dew Breaker
Cathy Day, The Circus in Winter
Junot Diaz, Drown and The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao
Harriet Doerr, Stones for Ibarra
Lesley Dormen, The Best Place to Be
Stuart Dybek, The Coast of Chicago and I Sailed with Magellan
Jennifer Egan, A Visit From The Goon Squad
Louise Erdrich, Love Medicine
Andrew Ervin, Extraordinary Renditions
William Faulkner, The Unvanquished and Go Down, Moses
Mavis Gallant, Varieties of Exile
Cristina Garcia, The Lady Matador’s Hotel
Clifford Garstang, In an Uncharted Country
Ellen Gilchrist, In the Land of Dreamy Dreams
Julia Glass, I See You Everywhere
Jean Harfenist, A Brief History of The Flood
Ernest Hemingway, In Our Time
Aleksandar Hemon, Love and Obstacles
Zora Neale Hurston, Mules and Men
Beverly Jensen, The Sisters from Hardscrabble Bay
Barb Johnson, More of this World or Maybe Another
Denis Johnson, Jesus’ Son
Edward P. Jones, Lost in the City and All Aunt Hagar’s Children
James Joyce, Dubliners
Maxine Hong Kingston, The Woman Warrior
Jamaica Kinkaid, Annie John
Marshall Klimasewiski, Tyrants (the three JunHee and Tanner stories)
Jhumpa Lahiri, “Once in a Lifetime,” “Year’s End” and “Going Ashore” (the Hema and Kaushik stories in Unaccustomed Earth)
Laila Lalami, Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits
Dylan Landis, Normal People Don’t Live Like This
John McNally, The Book of Ralph
Susan Minot, Monkeys
Lorrie Moore, Anagrams
David Phillip Mullins, Greetings from Below
Alice Munro, “Chance,” “Soon,” and “Silence” (three Juliet stories inRunaway) and The Beggar Maid: Stories of Flo and Rose
Sabrina Murray, The Caprices
Gloria Naylor, The Women of Brewster Street
Darlin’ Neal, Rattlesnakes and the Moon
Tim O’brien, The Things They Carried
Whitney Otto, How To Make An American Quilt
Donald Ray Pollock, Knockemstiff
Katherine Ann Porter, “Old Mortality” and “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” (from Pale Horse, Pale Rider)
Annie Proulx, Close Range, Bad Dirt, and Fine Just The Way It Is
Imad Rahman, I Dream of Microwaves
Ethel Rohan, Hard To Say
Anne Sanow, Triple Time
Elissa Schappell, Use Me
David Schickler, Kissing in Manhattan
Heather Sellers, Georgia Under Water
Joan Silber, Ideas of Heaven
Margot Singer, The Pale Settlement
John Steinbeck, Pastures of Heaven, Tortilla Flat, and The Red Pony
Elizabeth Strout, Olive Kitteridge
Mary Swan, The Boys in the Trees
Amy Tan, The Joy Luck Club
Jean Toomer, Cane
Susan Vreeland, Girl in Hyacinth Blue
Kate Walbert, Our Kind and A Short History of Women
Josh Weil, The New Valley
Eudora Welty, The Golden Apples
Thorton Wilder, The Bridge of San Luis Rey
Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway’s Party
Richard Wright, Uncle Tom’s Children
Paul Yoon, Once the Shore