Traditionally, novels tend to have a single central character, the focus of the action — the protagonist. All other players in the drama are ancillary, even peripheral. The trajectory happens to — and centers upon — a single person.
Yet in this quickened era — the epoch of text and email and social media — events affect many people simultaneously, en masse and all at once.
By and large, fiction has not kept up with the contemporary change of pace. Music and the visual arts have been more advanced in this regard. Since Marcel Duchamp and Cubism, painting and sculpture have sought to represent — and to not represent (e.g. abstraction, conceptual art, etc.) — the multiple cacophonies of the rapid world. As far back as 1952, John Cage’s “4’33″” represents the apotheosis of radical music, stemming from the dissonant and atonal movements of the earlier 20th Century, not to be outdone by jazz or rock.
Despite the radicalism of other art forms, most contemporary literature, especially American literature, remains rooted in the forms of the 19th Century. Seemingly skipping glibly by the advances of Beckett and Jean Genet, Donald Barthelme and Pierre Guyotat, Ron Sukenick or even John Dos Passos, writers such as Jonathan Franzen (and most others atop the literary bestseller lists) revert to the forms of Flaubert and Balzac and Henry James. Perfect perhaps for 1900; less fitting for 2015.
Meanwhile, many other current writers (usually published by the small presses) now seek a new form for new times, just as Alain Robbe-Grillet and others did more than 50 years ago with the nouveau roman.
I am by no means alone, but I am certainly among those writers looking for new ways and means to reflect our times.
I have published five books of fiction in the U.S. – three have been translated into French and published in France, with my 4th due out there in 2016. Not a single one of my books has a single narrator or even a solo protagonist. I’m not sure this is on purpose, really; but a choral voice is what comes out of my pen.
Urban life seems to me to be marked by a multitude of occurrences, of discontinuous incidents and syncopated rhythms. Traditional narrative arc works well for certain kinds of portrayals. But not necessarily for the jumble of urban living, especially living on or close to the streets. Indeed there a lot of unintended consequences in contemporary life on both large and small scales. I try to approximate the discontinuity with short, stark vignettes that I hope, when taken together, add up to more than the sum of their parts.
I don’t want to write in a trendy way or to mimic social media conventions, but I do want to try to find new means to communicate.
In a French review of my first novel (Angry Nights in English; Sur Les Nerfs in French), critic Frederic Fontes called the book an “unidentifiable literary object.” The description was a compliment, and I took it to be so.
In English language reviews of my second book, Common Criminals, novelist Barry Graham wrote: “…this is not life as we normally read about it in books — this is life as we actually live it.” (Detroit Metro Times) …. and Matt Roberson, in an insightful essay for The American Book Review, called the texts: “… Shocking and shockingly strong pieces.”
Stories and pieces — but what is the book as a whole?
When pressed, I describe myself as an “experimental realist.”
What I mean by that term is that I try to write in the rhythm of my times — in the way that the gangster rap group NWA depicted Los Angeles and Compton in the late 1980s and early 1990s – in musical idiom that matched their reality.
In other words, I am trying to find new forms. In a sense, it harks back once again to Duchamp — the found object, objet trouvé. Now — in words, not pictures — that means hard, fast, and staccato.
In a Rain Taxi review of Unintended Consequences (my 4th book), Canadian novelist Jeff Bursey wrote that the texts told the tale of Everyman, limning the stories of the seldom-heard, and often-neglected “Greek Chorus,” rather than the well-known stories of Oedipus or Antigone.
In yet another review of the (same) book, Tony Rodríguez wrote: “… (Fondation) doesn’t level the playing field with books found in a similar genre. Plainly stated, (he) aggressively razes the genre (crime writing, literary) and seemingly creates something new.” (East Bay Examiner)
In my view, these critics get it. Indeed they nail it dead on. I am not trying to write traditional — or even “postmodern” — novels, and I am not writing “short stories.”
The idea that animates my work is the notion of a “collective novel” — in French, “un roman du collectif.” From my vantage point — in the inner city of Los Angeles — the “new, new novel” should not be the story of a single protagonist, not the tale of one man or woman — but rather the fictional “biography of a place,” a tale of a tribe, the Iliad more so than the Odyssey — Las Meninas, by both Velasquez AND Picasso. Not either/or; rather both/and.
In my view, the post-realist book of fiction is an “ensemble novel” — a collage, owing more to Alberto Burri and Robert Rauschenberg than to Henry James.
Twentieth century French novelist Raymond Queneau opined that all Western literature was derived from either The Iliad or The Odyssey. Despite the fact that we are so clearly now living in an Iliad world, our literature largely ignores the vast number of ordinary men and woman playing at the corners of the stage.
The contemporary British poet Alice Oswald has written a book of poems based on The Iliad – only she has removed the central conflict between Achilles and Agamemnon and retained only the stories of the lives and deaths of the bit players. In The Guardian (U.K.) review of Oswald’s book (Memorial: An Excavation of The Iliad), critic Sarah Crown writes: “In [Oswald’s] version, the absence of the monolithic main characters leaves the histories of the foot soldiers who died in their shadows exposed and gleaming, like rocks at low tide.”
In a time of historic economic inequality and the deaths of countless poor people in worldwide wars, both civil and international, it is indeed time for the chorus to have its say. To paraphrase Barry Graham, it’s life as we live it now.
Mass Migration of the Homeless (Novel Excerpt)
They packed up their tents and their cardboard boxes and everything they owned, all now and all at once, and they began to move. They put their things in shopping carts and in backpacks and in anything else mobile and nothing else changed except they were on a march. The dirt brown smog still blocked the San Gabriel Mountains and there was of course still no way to see the sea.
“Who said for us to go?”
“It is time to go.”
Later, no one could say where those voices came from.
Yet no one ceased to follow the sourceless command.
Dare is an awkward word, one destined to ambiguity and the ash heap. Doubt fares better. Nonetheless doubt in complete abeyance causes stirrings still.
At each step something was left behind: a shoe, a blanket, a memento mori, gravestones at Old Granary. Samuel Sewall is my hero.
From ashes to ashes, from dust to dust is no more than the 1st Law of Thermodynamics and vice versa.
But the shopping carts continue to roll.
The Army of the Ragged crosses Central Avenue and soon approaches Main, barricades at the gates, barbarians hard to find.
The trucks full of immigrants dispatched to gather back the stolen shopping carts meet resistance around Broadway and have no choice but to turn around.
The dreadlocked blonde girl is cuter than most. We stop along the route, pause along the pathway.
“What prompted this march?” I ask stiffly.
Through one bend of earshot and through the same refraction of the honeybee’s eye, she says, “We must move on.”
Another listen, ears bent 90 degrees, and she says, “I don’t know.”
Either way, the caravan approaches Main Street.
People are drinking Veuve Cliquot at Pete’s Café. The widow watches warily.
The LAPD intervenes.
But there is no time to go home, no turning back.
Godel is triumphant.
The parking meters are full of remnants, stuffed with memorabilia.
Soon to be capped, the contents captured for all time.
The migrants do not get to Flower Street, let alone Figueroa. They magically turn up at MacArthur Park.
Shopping carts are unpacked, tents are reassembled.
Police presence vacates as the sun sets, officers off to greener pastures.
Clara Bow dances at the Park Pavilion.
We fuck in the dark hotel. Nobody’s paid the electric bill, nor for running water. Darkness is so romantic, candlelight hard to find. Moonlight is scarce. Her thighs are so pale they shine.
The tent I pitch is not my own.
Though not studied by Darwin to my knowledge, crows are said to be the smartest birds. I rarely fear the ravens that gather on the electric wires and perch on the telephone lines. O’Casey’s crows steal hen-house eggs with impunity. Is it blue or rose, Picasso’s “Woman with a Crow” of 1904? Or right in between? Crows crack open nuts using traffic, deploying signals — stop, go, walk, don’t walk. This in Sendai, Japan. While across a thousand seas, Betty bends a wire. Not to mention New Caledonia.
Gleb returns home, to Dasha, but all is gone, all has changed, everything gone to shit. Livestock roam the streets, factories barren, most men dead, all life ravaged. I want to live in Pleasant Colony. I know what I am talking about, dammit!
The Eviction (Short Story)
It’s the last night
She has a bottle of wine
Helicopters fly above us
I worry and struggle to respond
The bank and the realtor
Elections and evictions
Sand scrapes my face
In the last night in my backyard
I love her
Tonight is different
Divorce shows on TV
Looking at the news
I hear your point
Earlier she’d gone to the salon
The Exodus from Saigon
Better than now
She comes close to me
The Abbot in full control
We did not prepare
The Marshals arrive in the morning
I cannot get hard
Monks and morning
Stars require night
We will not live here anymore
Limits approach zero
I drink her wine
Light dawns over darkness
No reason the night should end
She has my cock in her mouth
I try to prolong
Not the moment but the history
My mother says we can stay with her
Mother’s nails are long
She has her price
Sequester is approaching
I can pay her bill
The Borgias didn’t last
Real estate in the desert
I love my mother
I love my wife
The Ganges is an end game
I stagger to the stereo
Lou Reed, the Gap Band, Tame Impala, Cody Chrdnutt
Will the pawn shop pay?
She pulls her pants down
She takes off her bra
She talks dirty about my mothers fingernails
I cannot help myself
The truck comes in the morning
I can’t come prematurely
A Catalogue of deaths in the desert
I’ve always hated sand
Sleeping in the truck
Both looking at the sky
The stars invisible
Streetlights blurring light
Is she mine?
I have books and plants
I’m sad about the Children’s Crusade
Savanrola was not all bad
She makes love to me
We have a home no more.
Mistaken, misbegotten (Short Story)
Mistaken, misbegotten —
They gather in the parking lot.
The streetlights flicker on and off,
The power almost gone.
She looks at me like Circe;
I chew the plant leaves of my own accord.
She tells me the victory at Plataea still weighs heavily on her mind;
I let her know that I have stopped thinking about it .
The flavors are all pungent now;
Everybody here has wished for adoption —
At one time or another,
We move inside to darkness,
Then some lights turn on, though darkly, dimly.
I once was lost at sea, she says;
“Can I buy you a drink?” I ask.
As a soldier, I never surrendered.
Perhaps my time has come.
She will drink with me but I can never touch her;
I tap her glass with mine.
Out there: the sounds of gunfire;
Here it seems quiet perhaps.
The band begins to play.
She pulls out a knife.
“Will you die for me?”
“Yes,” I say.
We are not in Spain or France, but the music is basque:
Alboka, Txistu and tambourine.
She motions me to stand and I do;
She dances beside me without touching me, and I follow her lead.
Time is decades earlier;
I don’t want to know where I am.
Her dark hair is much shorter than mine;
Her long nails glisten in the inconsistent light.
I believe in infinite divisibility, the definition of atom notwithstanding —
She has me now.
I try to find things to say;
We order another bottle of wine.
“You know that you’re remanded to me tonight?” She says.
“I know,” I say.
I pay our bill;
We leave into darkness and night.
Larry Fondation is the author of five books of fiction, all set primarily in the Los Angeles inner city. Three of his books are illustrated by London-based artist Kate Ruth. He has written for publications as diverse as Flaunt Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, Fiction International and the Harvard Business Review. He is a recipient of a Christopher Isherwood Fiction Fellowship. In French translation, his work was nominated for SNCF’s 2013 Prix du Polar.