But A Background On Which To Paint The Dreams: The Episodic Novel

Books and reading as we know it are changing and I think most contemporary readers can feel it. With the advent of eBooks, podcasts, the omnipresence of the Internet, the decline of bookstores, and, hell, even books themselves, there is a seismic shift occurring in what we’ve known as reading and literature. I believe as information and entertainment has become more and more immediate (hulu, reddit, google, facebook, netflix) readers have been less inclined to work through monster pieces of literature like War and Peace, Moby Dick, or Gravity’s Rainbow. And I’m among them; it took me almost a whole semester to get through Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree even though I obsessed and loved it. Alongside the decline of readership and reader’s attention span, or what Douglas Glover calls the rise of the “Post-Literate Age”, there has been a surge of a new form of media: the episodic television show. These shows—like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The Wire, The Walking Dead, Sons of Anarchy, and even way back to The Sopranos—are television programs unlike all which have come before. The shows largely act as long, serialized movies that can be watched stripped of each other but work better when watched chronologically. And these are great programs, acclaimed by both critics and viewers, and have risen in popularity as streaming content from the Internet has become almost effortless.

So what do these shows mean for reading and books? First of all, people will always love reading and that will likely never go away, while the form and classic structure of the books and novels might change. It’s my belief that has readers’ attention spans shorten and the demand for intense, segmented narratives rises in popular, novels will become more episodic in scope. Or should I say, will once again be episodic, as fragmented novels are no strangers in American literature. Sherwood Anderson’s classic Winesburg, Ohio is one of the most lauded novels of the early twentieth century and is essentially a collection of self-contained, linked stories about a character named George Willard as he grows up, gets a job, falls in love a few times, then eventually leaves the fictional Winesberg. Subsequently, the stories collected in the book read like a segmented narrative of George Willard’s upbringing rather than a linear, rising action based narrative. And Winesberg, Ohio is not alone in the cannon, as William Faulkner’s Light In August, John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, and, again, Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree are all composed of tense, short narratives that build on each other for a final effect.

With Junot Díaz receiving the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship and a Nation Book Award nod for his most recent story collection This Is How You Lose Her, it could be said that the reemergence of the episodic novel is already upon us. When I purchased Díaz’s new book, I honestly had no idea it was even a short story collection, as it wasn’t indicated on the cover. Before buying the book, I had only briefly glanced over some reviews and figured I’d give the book a try, considering the acclaim. Maybe I read too passively, but it wasn’t until I reached the midpoint of the book that I realized the book was indeed a short story collection and not a novel. I had no idea. Each story flowed so well and chronologically into the next that I thought the novel was just experimental and nonlinear, as almost all the stories are based on the same family and the upbringing of their two sons. Now, after having read the whole thing, I am still not convinced that Díaz didn’t intend it to be a novel. The pieces are obviously linked and each story adds an aspect to the ongoing narrative and the eventual ending that reading the stories apart wouldn’t make much sense and might seem half full. It be like trying to jump into Sons of Anarchy half way through season two, it just wouldn’t work as the viewer might be able to infer what’s incurring in a scene, but has no idea why any of the action is occurring. With all that said, I think This Is How You Lose Her is an amazing book, but am still bent on the idea that it’s more of a novel than story collection.

Some writers might balk at the idea of conforming their art for their readership, but I think the episodic novel would be a cool form to come into popularity, as the writer must appeal to the reader in both the short and long forms. Instead of idealizing the past, maybe we as readers should think that maybe we’re just now doing this whole novel thing correctly and that in fact Moby Dick and Pride and Prejudice are too long and cumbersome. I am in full favor of writers making the fewest amount of words go the furthest and trying to make each scene powerful and concise, as the episodic novel often demands.

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Literary Haunts of Chattanooga.

Most, if not all, great literature is specifically grounded in a certain place or geography. Think about it: Twain’s Mississippi River, Faulkner’s Jefferson, Cormac McCarthy’s American West, Joyce’s Dublin, Hemingway’s Paris, and more recently Annie Proulx’s Wyoming. Some places leave such an impression that artists cannot help but memorialize them in their work. With a flock of young writers and artists emerging in Chattanooga, one cannot help but think of what places in the city are distinct enough to be preserved in literature. Notice I’m not saying what places are “nice” or “pristine” enough for literature, as it’s not about how beautiful a place might be, but rather the individuality of the location. In a world of Chili’s, Applebee’s and Buffalo Wild Wings (here’s looking at you Chattanooga city leaders for letting those downtown), it’s nice to think that our little scenic city is still memorable for more than just its mountains and rock gardens. What follows is a list of places that are specific enough to Chattanooga to fit well within the pages of great literature.

1. The Mountain Opry

The Mountain Opry is unforgettable. Tucked away on Signal Mountain, each Friday night the Opry hosts live bluegrass music in what seems to be an old church or schoolhouse. Having been around as long as most Chattanoogans can remember, the Opry isn’t one of those revitalization projects put on by some community development none-profit group, but simply a bunch of old timers who really like picking out old tunes and don’t mind if people stop by and listen. The smell of popcorn wafts through the air, white haired seniors nod along to the music, children sip cokes, and teenagers lean into each other in the pews. The whole scene could fit well within the pages of Wendell Berry or William Gay novel. The best part of all, the Opry is always free.

2. Lamar’s Restaurant and Chrystal Lounge

While The Mountain Opry might be family friendly, Lamar’s has become known across Chattanooga for serving the strongest drinks in town. Located on the corner of MLK and Central, Lamar’s Chrystal Lounge boasts satin wallpaper, candles on each table, a killer jukebox, and a bartender that still wears a bowtie and pressed white shirt. While most bars downtown are slammed on the weekends, Lamar’s never feels too packed or too empty, filled with a wide array of people that keep the bar from being stale and predictable. It’s easy to imagine James Agee hunched over one of the back tables nursing bourbon if he were still around.

3. Wally’s

While few would claim Wally’s has the best food in town, it wouldn’t be a surprise for many to admit the diner is still their favorite place to eat in town; and for good reason. The food is fairly priced—less than five dollars for a full breakfast or dinner—, the service is sharp, everything’s clean, the coffee is strong, and the whole restaurant has that timeless aura that only a place that’s been around longer than your grandparents can muster. Wally’s could easily be the small town diner that Truman Capote details in In Cold Blood or one of the haunts in Sherwood Anderson’s classic Winesberg, Ohio.

4. T-Bones

The appeal of T-Bones is not what it is, but what it’s not. It’s a no frills, honest bar where normal people come to drink beer, listen to music, and maybe discuss football, fishing, politics, or The Rolling Stones. It’s not slummy enough to attract a swarm of art school students or polished enough for the entirety of UTC’s Greek life, as T-Bones instead welcomes whoever needs to get away for awhile while and just be around friends. Cormac McCarthy’s Bud Suttree and his gang of misfits would be right at home in a booth choking down BBQ tacos and bottles of High Life at T-Bones, and that’s a good thing.

Sweet Potato Pie and I Shut My Mouth: The Narrative Craft of Country Music.

As a writer, I often find myself delving into other mediums of art for inspiration, longing to improve my craft by taking cues from the masters of forms of media outside my own. Literature and film have always been close friends, swapping plots and characters freely, but often I find country music just as inspiring and insightful as some of my favorite books when crafting a story’s rhythm, imagery, tone, and setting. Listed are four songs with exceptionally good narratives and characters in which writers could take some cues.

  1. “Paradise”—John Prine

    Country music doesn’t get more literary than John Prine. For over thirty years now, Prine, a past Poet Laureate and Grammy winner, has been creating characters that have a vividness to rival some of Faulkner’s, but his most essential cut will always be “Paradise” from his first album. The narrator of the story, assumedly Prine, tells of taking trips as a child to his parents’ hometown, a place “beside the green river…where the air smells like snakes.” Reflecting on and longing for the places of youth has a long tradition in American literature, including in To Kill and Mockingbird and Huckleberry Finn, and “Paradise” taps into the same sentiment with the lines: “When I die, I’ll let my soul roll on up to the Rochester Dam, and I’ll be half way to heaven with paradise waiting, just five miles away from where ever I am.” “Paradise” is undeniably American in both theme and imagery, and is a song in which Prine secures himself as a master of words.

  2. “Bob”—Drive-By Truckers

    Creative writing professors often advise their students that good stories put the conflict in the beginning, and I can think of few better example than when “Bob” starts: “Bob goes to church every Sunday, every Sunday that the fish aren’t biting. Bob never has to get dinner with the preacher because Bob never bothered getting married.” Few stories and fewer songs start that compellingly. “Bob” fleshes out its protagonist so clearly that it’s almost intimidating how well and concisely it’s done. So much of a character is fleshed out by a simple line like “He likes to drink a beer or two every now and again, he always had more dogs than he ever had friends.” “Bob” is pure literary elegance.

  3. “Cold Water”—Tom Waits

    Ok, ok, ok. I know Tom Waits isn’t exactly a country artist, but is liberal use of slide guitar, Appalachian junkyard banjos, double bass, and tales of heartbreak and longing make him an honorary member in my personal Country Music Hall of Fame alongside Hank Williams, Willie Nelson, and The Carter Family. But no matter what genre of music is brave of enough to call Waits its own, the scenes of degradation and waste in “Cold Water” make it feel like a companion piece to John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row or Cormac McCarthy’s Suttrree, as all deal with squatters and ramblers struggling to stay afloat amongst urban decay. It’s also hard to top lines like: “I look forty-seven but I’m twenty-four. They’ve shooed me away from here every time before, but I’m watching TV in the window of a furniture store.”

  4. “Greenville”—Lucinda Williams

    Lucinda Williams is to country music what Flannery O’Connor is to the short story. Both womens’ work is so powerful and wonderfully jarring that it’s hard to imagine a time without them, as their influence on their respective mediums is so profound. Much like O’Connor’s work, “Greenville” is small tragedy coursing with both dark comic undertones and naked emotionalism. There are few better lines in contemporary country music than, “You drink hard liquor, come on strong, loose your temper whenever someone looks at you wrong.”