Susan Barker's The Incarnations is a page-turning novel that spans China's last 1,000 years through the reincarnations of its two main characters--from the Tang Dynasty, 632 C.E. to the People’s Republic of China, 1966. Barker, who masterfully layers different narratives in the novel, picks 10 novels with multiple narratives.
There are many reasons I love novels with multiple narratives. In novels where the events are filtered through the consciousness of a single ‘reliable’ narrator, I often wonder; is this the whole story? What could be missing here? Truth is often a multiplicity of perspectives, and sometimes the more viewpoints and versions of events there are, the closer the reader gets to an overarching truth. I like the element of mystery these books can sometimes involve, the way the cogs in the reader’s brain have to grind to figure out connections between the various narrative threads. Of course, there are multiple narrative novels that only lead the reader further into a labyrinth of confusion. But I always forgive a book for doing this, if the journey is captivating and fun.
1. 2666 by Roberto Bolano - Published in 2004, a year after Bolano’s death, 2666 is one of the most epic and ostentatious of multi-narrative tomes. At nearly 900 pages, 2666 is split into five sections revolving around two narrative nuclei; a series of grisly murders of young women in the Mexican border town of Santa Teresa, and the life and works of the reclusive German novelist, Benno von Archimboldi. The cast of characters range from bed-hopping European literary critics, a Chilean philosophy professor, an African-American journalist, detectives investigating the Santa Teresa murders and Archimboldi himself. Chaotic and hyperreal, digressive and impossible to define, the jury is out as to whether 2666 a masterpiece or a work of graphomaniacal excess. But, as the Chilean professor Amalfitano laments, ‘Now even bookish pharmacists are afraid to take on the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze the path into the unknown.’ 2666 is testament to Bolano’s utter fearlessness in this respect.
2. The Emigrants by W.G. Sebald - A world apart from 2666, every sentence in The Emigrants is lyrical, elegiac and precise. Weaving memoir with fiction and historical non-fiction, The Emigrants is divided between four characters; a German-Jewish painter Max Ferber, Sebald’s childhood teacher Paul Bereyter, Sebald’s great-uncle Ambrose Adelwarth, and Henry Selwyn, the ex-husband of his former landlord. The four men have exile and isolation in common, as well as a sadness that emanates from past traumas into their present lives. Accompanied by black and white photographs, The Emigrants is haunting and evocative, inducing a sense of melancholy that lingers long after the final page.
3. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz - Centered on the ill-fated de Leon family, blighted (according to the narrator, Yunior) by a multi-generational curse, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao moves back and forth between Oscar de Leon’s childhood in '70s and '80s New Jersey, to Oscar’s sister Lola’s teenage rebellion, to their mother Belico’s harsh life in Trujillo-era '50s and '60s Santo Domingo. Written by Yunior (a reluctant friend from Oscar’s student days at Rutgers) in energetic, idiosyncratically slangy prose, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is a tragicomic and exhilarating read.
4. Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann - Most of Let the Great World Spin is centered on the day in 1974 when Philippe Petit walked on a tightrope between the two towers of the World Trade Center, creating an astonishing spectacle that intersects with the lives of many of the novel’s multiple protagonists. In a dazzling feat of literary ventriloquism, McCann voices a cast of characters that spans every social strata in 1970s New York; from prostitutes and junkies in the Bronx, to dilettante artists in the West Village, to wealthy residents of the Upper East Side. Each character is convincingly drawn, but perhaps the most engaging character is New York City itself, as Let the Great World Spin evocatively captures the grime, crime and class divide in the '70s-era capital.
5. Five Star Billionaire by Tash Aw - Five Star Billionaire follows the fates and fortunes of four Malaysians in Shanghai; Phoebe, an economic migrant from a Malaysian village; Gary, a pop idol who damages his reputation in a Shanghai bar punch-up; Justin, a businessman suffering through a breakdown; and Yinghui, a businesswoman from a privileged Kuala Lumpur background, wooed by the mysterious Walter Chao (who narrates several chapters from a self-help book he authored, called Five Star Billionaire). Like New York City in Let the Great World Spin, Shanghai takes centre stage in Five Star Billionaire, as a city of wealth, opportunity and reinvention, but also manipulation and deceit, where fortunes can be made and lost in a very short space of time.
6. Great House by Nicole Krauss - Great House begins when a serious, introspective young novelist Nadia inherits a large desk from a Chilean poet called Daniel Varsky, who disappears after being arrested by Pinochet’s police. Nadia writes at the desk for decades, and when a mysterious woman claiming to be Varksy’s daughter appears and takes away the desk, Nadia’s world falls apart. Other narrators include an elderly Israeli lawyer, a man caring for his dying wife in London, and Izzy, an American student at Oxford, who narrates the story of Leah and Yoav Weisz – siblings whose antiques dealer father collects furniture stolen from Hungarian Jew’s during World War II. In Great House, Daniel Varsky’s desk exerts a mysterious power over the characters who, like in the works of Sebald, are haunted by a sadness that resonates from recent history.
7. If on a winter’s night a traveler by Italo Calvino - ‘You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter's night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought...’ So begins Calvino’s 1979 experimental work, the second person voice continuing as ‘you’ begin reading the novel, only to be interrupted after 32 pages because the rest of the book is missing. Frustrated, ‘you’ go to a bookshop to pick up another copy of Calvino’s novel, and meet a lovely bookshop assistant called Ludmilla. Unfortunately, the replacement novel also ends halfway through the first chapter, as does the next novel ‘you’ procure, and the next, as ‘you’ end up reading openings to ten different novels. Calvino does not completely deprive us of narrative continuity however, as a love story blossoms between ‘you’ and Ludmilla, with many insights into the nature of reading revealed along the way.
8. Ghostwritten by David Mitchell - It would be unthinkable to have a top ten list of multiple narrative novels that doesn’t include David Mitchell. Cloud Atlas is the most obvious choice, but I have opted for Mitchell’s slightly lesser known debut, Ghostwritten. A globalised multiplicity of voices and stories, the characters in Ghostwritten include a record store employee in Tokyo, a British banker in Hong Kong, an elderly woman living on a mountain in China, a gangster’s moll in Russia, and a jazz musician London. Though at first seemingly disparate, the stories are more linked than appears, as Ghostwritten hints at the chaotic interconnectedness of everything in a gripping, ingenious and genre-crossing read.
9. Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout - Bad-tempered, headstrong Olive Kitteridge is the central character in Strout’s 2008 ‘novel in stories.’ A tough, pragmatic and grouchy junior high school math teacher, Olive is not the most likeable character, but Strout portrays her with such humour, honesty and compassion, the reader is forgiving of Olive’s shortcomings. There are thirteen stories in Olive Kitteridge – some focused on Olive, some on the other residents of her small town community in Maine. Strout is masterful at depicting the strained, compromised nature of relationships (in particular, marriage), and the damage people can do to those they love most.
10. Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov - First published in 1962, Nabokov’s Pale Fire is a darkly comic novel of three intertwined narratives. First, the 999 line poem in four cantos, Pale Fire, written by the literature professor John Shade. Second, the foreword to the poem by Charles Kinbote, a neighbor and colleague of Shade’s (prior to his death), who then expounds upon his intimate friendship with John Shade in his extensive, digressive annotations of the poem. The final narrative is the tale of Charles the Beloved, king of Zembla, and his daring escape from his homeland with Soviet-backed revolutionaries in pursuit. The narratives of Pale Fire are tightly interwoven into Kinbote’s deliriously mad commentary, as the reader gradually grows to understand that Kinbote is the ultimate unreliable narrator, and his ‘friendship’ with John Shade is more sinister than it first appeared.