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Narrative Form and the Digital Age by Eoin Byrne

Submitted by site_editor on Fri, 2017-03-10 10:02

During a recent session of the Contemporary Irish Writing Reading Group (CIWRG) at NUI Galway, we mused over the position of the long novel in contemporary culture. In an era defined by the relatively passive act of binge-watching TV boxsets and streamed media, we postulated that the only reason someone would finish a novel in excess of 500 hundred pages was the result of some strange kind of literary Stockholm syndrome. Having invested both time and money into a book, the 21st century reader would finish the seemingly anachronistic cultural artefact to defy assumptions that the novel is indeed dead in the age of incessant digital consumption.

As facetious as that may seem, the impact of the internet and digital media on contemporary literary production is a topic of discussion we often find ourselves returning to in the CIWRG. While the internet has resulted in more people reading and writing on a daily basis than ever before in history, it has simultaneously challenged our expectations of what now constitutes reading and writing. The constant typing, scanning of screens, and the myriad tabs that clutter our browsers have made the acts of reading and writing in the digital age more easily consumable and ephemeral than in the past. The question poses itself quite easily: what can this mean for the function of the novel? How can textual narrative accommodate a mess that seems louder and more ubiquitous than ever before?

For over half a century now, the debate has persisted as to the relevance of the novel as a suitable form with which to document modern experience. With each successive technological advancement, from radio to television and onto the internet, the death of the novel has been declared as imminent. And yet, despite all of these forebodings, the form remains here with us. It is of the novel’s inherent nature to change, adapt, and mould itself around the age in which it is produced. We currently find ourselves in the paradoxical situation of a ‘global village’: undoubtedly connected and yet simultaneously divorced from our neighbours. How prose is meant to deal with such an ontological conundrum is perhaps out of our reach: we are, after all, blinded by our propinquity to current events. But there is much to be said for beginning to trace the elements that influence cultural production in our digital age, before the more measured judgements of future scholarship can be made.

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Kevin Barry is one writer who has pondered at length about the impact our internet addictions are having on the way we construct our prose. In his essay, 'The skin of anxiety', Barry muses about how his exposure to the internet has resulted in many of his prose pieces becoming increasingly fragmentary and fractured, as he can no longer ‘replicate on the page the impression or sensation of consecutive, concentrated thought’. If fragmentary narratives were used by the modernists to highlight the limitations of past omniscient narrative modes in the modern industrialised and urbanised world, perhaps the contemporaneous use of fragmented forms is a similar aesthetic response to lived experience in the digital age, where waking reality is inevitably intertwined with the lives we lead in ‘The Cloud’. The resurgence of the short story form in the past decade and the emergence of what I would term the ‘polyphonic’ novel in Irish literature arguably stem as much – if not more so – from the realities of literary production in the digital age as they do from cultural transformations in the Post-Celtic Tiger period.

Since the 2008 financial crash, it is reasonable to suggest that there has been something of a renaissance or boom in contemporary Irish writing. From the vibrant literary magazine and independent publishing house scene, to the renewed international interest in Irish language literature thanks to recent translations, Irish literary space seems to be enjoying unprecedented levels of attention and focus. A prominent force behind such literary rejuvenation has been The Stinging Fly magazine, and its particular emphasis on the short story form. Their roll call of acclaimed writers is particularly impressive, with the likes of Kevin Barry, Mary Costello, Colin Barrett, Danielle McLaughlin, and Claire-Louise Bennett coming through their ranks. That the short story has been integral to the current upsurge in Irish letters is perhaps no surprise, with Ireland having a particularly rich short story tradition. Seán Ó Faoláin’s famous contention that Ireland lacked the ‘complex social machinery’ for longer narrative forms and Frank O’Connor’s remarks about the form’s focus on ‘submerged population groups’ conceivably have as much validity when applied to Ireland in the post-Celtic Tiger period, as they did when applied to the fractured cultural space inherited in Ireland’s postcolonial moment. While the condensed, pithy, and fractured modes of expression provided by the short story form may well be socially symbolic of Ireland’s current historical moment, perhaps more germane to the resurgence of the form’s popularity in recent years is the fact that a short story may be ‘consumed’ much more conveniently and speedily than longer prose forms such as the novel. If the written word must now compete with other more alluring modes of art, the short story form may feasibly help it sustain an audience into the future.

That the short story form would experience renewed interest in the digital age is really of little wonder. Indeed, its concise, condensed nature makes it ideal for an era when information is consumed quickly, constantly, and then swiftly discarded. In many regards, it is the novel where we find the most interesting ramifications of the digital age on contemporary literary production. To return to the idea of ‘literary Stockholm syndrome’ that I mentioned at the beginning of this piece, there can be no doubting that we experience the world more and more in fragmentary terms. The idea of a long novel with a sprawling, sustained, and unified narrative may seem antiquated when so many of the texts we consume today are fragmented and transient. In my own opinion, some of the most innovative Irish novels of recent years to capture lived experience in the digital age could be best described as 'polyphonic': novels that appear to be fragmentary and splintered at first glance, but end up being bound by a sense of cohesion or unity, the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.

Mike McCormack’s Notes from a Coma (2005), though now over a decade old, is a prudent example of this polyphonic approach to prose. The supplementary narrative provided by the text’s footnotes is not too dissimilar to the manner by which the internet provides a concurrent commentary to daily life. Furthermore, as the footnotes are often wont to do throughout the text, the novel provides a striking example of how the internet can subtly oust our own narrative of reality, blurring the lines between what is real or virtual, true or false. As the novel progresses, it becomes increasingly difficult to divorce the main textual narrative from the information provided by the footnotes. To have one without the other seems implausible by the novel’s end, much like how going ‘offline’ may seem unimaginable to many of us today.

Keith Ridgway’s Hawthorn & Child (2012) and Donal Ryan’s The Spinning Heart (2012) are further examples of novels weaving multiple narrative threads together, and while they may appear to be extremely fragmentary, they in fact possess an odd sense of collective coherence. Both works could arguably be considered short story collections, if it were not for the subtle hints of interconnectedness that bond the various narrative elements together. Another pertinent example of this polyphonic approach to prose narrative is Claire-Louise Bennett’s Pond (2015). The difficulty for critics in classifying this text as a novel or a short story collection will no doubt continue for years to come, but what cannot be doubted is the uneasy sense of union that ties her stories together.

We could, of course, put these narrative departures down to the experimental turn in Irish prose in recent years. The fact that the Goldsmith Prize for experimental literature has been won by Eimear McBride, Kevin Barry, and Mike McCormack since its inception in 2013 is proof enough. But to view these narrative transformations as a response to how the digital age has influenced literary production is equally as rewarding. The impinging effect that the internet has had on our lives has led to the paradoxical state of being separated from those around us and yet assuredly linked to them due to technology. At a time when two people may sit in the same room and not speak, but can communicate through various digital channels, a narrative approach that aims for complete cohesion does not seem adequate anymore, nor does one that is fragmented beyond comprehension. Perhaps we have reached a metaxy of sorts, where our narratives may be simultaneously fractured and unified. The approaches taken by the authors mentioned above should be considered as relevant and fitting examples of how to accommodate this unique mess of our age.

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Much of what I have outlined is conjecture and speculation, and will undoubtedly remain so until sufficient time has passed to make better judgement. But as we move forward, with technological advancements once the stuff of science fiction becoming realities, I feel one thing will remain certain. Readers and writers will always exist. The means by which they read and write will inevitably change. And like the novel as a form, we should be ready to adapt and adjust accordingly.

 

Eoin Byrne is an Irish Research Council and Hardiman Research Scholar at the Centre for Irish Studies, NUI Galway, and a graduate of UCD's MA in Anglo-Irish Literature and Drama. His PhD research is a comparative literary study, examining narrative experimentation in the writings of Máirtín Ó Cadhain, Samuel Beckett, and Brian O’Nolan. He also convenes the Contemporary Irish Writing Reading Group at NUI Galway.