Novel in Stories

By Susanne Carter

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s latest work, Before We Visit the Goddess (her 11th book of fiction—10 novels and one collection of short stories), could have been written as a traditional novel chronicling the experiences of three generations of Indian women in a linear fashion. Instead, Divakaruni chose to write her narrative in a novel-in-stories format, which gave her more flexibility and freedom as a writer. The result is a book I appreciated as much for its creative form as I did its characterizations of three strong women and their complex relationships and life experiences spanning two continents.

In Before We Visit the Goddess Divakaruni skips back and forth in time in unpredictable patterns, playing with time, as reviewer Vijayalakshmi Harish writes, and often allowing readers to “see the consequences of an action or a decision before we know what the action/decision is. This inversion of cause and effect makes for a compelling story-telling technique,” she writes.

Divakaruni also switches from first to third-person narration in Before We Visit the Goddess without warning, intermingling female and male characters, often within the same chapter. Yet, the narrative feels like it was written in a very controlled, deliberate fashion. All the varied pieces of the puzzle eventually come together in a unifying way, even if the underlying plan is not apparent.

It requires more concentration on the part of the reader to follow a nonlinear, unpredictable narrative like this than a more traditional novel. You cannot be a casual reader. But it is worth the effort. It helps you to appreciate the craft of writing so much more.

The Best of Both Genres

In an interview with the Scroll.In, Divakaruni talked about writing her first novel in stories:

I love this form, which seems to take the best of both: It has the amplitude of the novel and the sharp imagistic focus of short fiction. It is a wonderfully agile form. It is possible to leap over years – three generations, in this case – in this form in a way that would be awkward for me in a novel. . . . With writing linked stories, the challenge was to conceive of the overall arc, then decide which moments were best suited to amplification, and who should tell the story at that moment.

In her essay “Fiction 21c: The Novel in Stories” (Poets & Writers, July/August 2001), Laura Green writes that the novel-in-story form is the perfect genre for 21st century writers and readers who want an expansive Charles Dickens-type experience compacted within the time constraints of working out on a treadmill or riding the subway to work. Its “openness to multiplicity—of voice, of view, of cause and effect—makes the genre frequently moving and particularly appropriate to the moment.”

She elaborates:

The novel in stories compresses the span of its narrative by reducing it to its exemplary moments, rather than unrolling at length through detailed connections of cause and effect. The narrative of the novel in stories is less like a train, chugging evenly down the tracks through unfolding scenery, than like a news station’s traffic helicopter, zigzagging over the interlocking gridlines of highways, swooping into the dramatic image of the overturned truck or backed-up freeway ramp.

Short story writer Art Taylor writes that the beauty of the novel-in-stories genre is “the author’s freedom not to be bound by chronology or perspective or relentless plotting and yet still to fashion something that proves cohesive to a reader in some complex way.” The writer’s “careful construction and arrangement” of stories in the narrative need to coalesce “to form something greater than the simple sum of its parts.”

Writers’ Notes:

  1. If you want to experiment with writing in the novel-in-stories format, reading narratives in this genre is a good place to start. Before We Visit the Goddess and Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize winner, Olive Kitteridge, are both fine examples.
  1. Those who write in this genre need to embrace both forms—the novel and short story—and understand their particular virtues and challenges.
  1. The fact that the genre allows for flexibility and experimentation does not mean that writing a novel in stories does not require careful and deliberate planning. “You have to organize your stories not just in a workable order but with an eye toward a more significant overall design (character, plot, place, theme),” writes Art Taylor. “You have to orchestrate carefully both the junctions and—perhaps more importantly—the disjunctions between your stories (shift in tone, perspective, internal structure).”
  1. In a novel in stories, each story has the ability to stand alone and “take you to its own destination,” as Art Taylor writes, but a novel in stories “also delivers you to a whole nother place.”

Share with us…

Do you read books in the novel-in-stories format?