As early as 1964 Marshall McLuhan observed, “As early as 1830 the French poet [Alphonse de] Lamartine had said, ‘The book arrives too late,’ drawing attention to the fact that the book and the newspaper are quite different forms.” With the news cycle smaller and faster than ever—think quantum rather than Newtonian physics—now seems like a strange time for the resurgence of serial fiction in news media. How can the novel, that tortoise of literary forms, keep pace with the current events hare? Nevertheless, since last September The New York Times Magazine has been publishing weekly episodes of genre fiction by Elmore Leonard, Patricia Cornwell, and now, Scott Turow, with Michael Chabon on deck. London’s The Observer has been publishing short fiction and a serial novel by Ronan Bennett titled Zugzwang, and Slate has started running installments of The Unbinding, a novel by Walter Kirn.
Gerald Marzorati, editor of the Times magazine, originated the so-called Funny Pages department to be a modern, 21st-century evocation of the Sunday supplements published in the Hearst papers at the turn of the last century. “The news is dark,” says Marzorati, “and the Funny Pages aren’t all that funny, but they are a distraction, a foil, a different flavor.”
The section comprises a comic, for many weeks drawn by Chris Ware and now by Jaime Hernandez, blandly funny essays, and excerpts from new novels by bestselling genre authors. (“This is not a vibrant time for short literary fiction,” asserts Marzorati.) At Risk, a Cornwell procedural starring a police detective with a “body that looks sculpted of creamy stone” ordered to investigate a 20-year-old murder at the behest of a svelte and ambitious district attorney, concluded disappointingly in the April 16 issue with a revelation lifted from stale Martha Stewart headlines. It is worth noting that the magazine waits for completed manuscripts before agreeing to publish, a precaution not taken in Victorian times of the serial novel, when the ink was still wet on the page on the new installments as they were being typeset. “That’s not the way to get the best writing,” Marzorati argues. “Today’s writers’ schedules are more frantic than Trollope’s was.”
Bennett’s chess novel Zugzwang takes place in 1914 in St. Petersburg. As historical fiction, it occupies a square at a clear remove from the news, and the separation is further established by first-person narration. Unlike the Times magazine novels, Zugzwang is written on deadline for The Observer, and the risk taken by the author flavors the reading experience. “I am an obsessive editor of my own work,” Bennett (author of The Catastrophist and Havoc, in Its Third Year) says. “So for me serialization was particularly daunting. I only ever have a very vague idea of how the novel will end, and that’s still true—halfway through with Zugzwang.”
The narrator is a psychiatrist caught in a web of student revolutionaries, corrupt police officers, and chess champions. Every chapter is full of anachronistically Raymond Chandleresque poetics (“I lived in a city built on a marsh stiffened with the bones of a hundred thousand serfs who died of starvation, disease and cruelty in its construction”) and succulent pulp (“The first thing he used your office for was to make his bombs. The second thing was to make love to Catherine,” is how the psychiatrist learns of the relationship between his daughter and a murdered revolutionary). Bennett was promised complete freedom of language, and the appearance of cunt in the Sunday magazine of a major newspaper demonstrates its contemporary (and non-American) sensibility. Nevertheless, Zugzwang manages to harken back to the novel’s premodern heyday, reawakening the fun of getting hooked on a story and then having to wait for the next installment.
Kirn, author of Thumbsucker and Mission to America, also views serialization as a way of recapturing the urgency of what could be called the adolescence of the novel. “I’m restoring the novel’s inner tendency,” he says, “It’s like what Dickens did, working without a net.” He is, however, working with the Net, and The Unbinding is newsworthy both as Internet novel and as serial novel. The title hints at the height of its ambition with regard to books. Slate designed the pages, each of which bears the heading “login ID: // accepted. password: // accepted. / _browse files_” to support the atmosphere of surveillance by the Web. Why the headings should remain over entries 10 and 11, which consist of handwritten correspondence sent by snail mail, is not clear, though perhaps an explanation will surface later in the project. It was the author’s idea to provide 32 green dots showing the reader’s progress.
The Unbinding concerns a surveillance company called AidSat whose representatives are known as angels, one of whom identifies “a volunteer strike force of the unaware executing a plot that they can’t fathom.” The atmosphere is thick with intrigue, but the elliptical story fails to create suspense. To extend the writing-without-a-net metaphor, Kirn completes some impressive backflips but plummets to the circus floor a few times, most obviously in entry 9 when he links to Sven Birkerts’s Boston Globe essay about his project. Even if readers disagree with the critic’s ponderous dismissal, it still deflates the moment. As another critic, I get to obsess about a literary puzzle all my own: What do I have to say to get Kirn to link to my review too?
It’s beside the point to say that readers are already overloaded with the task of following a multitude of ongoing story lines in the news: the Valerie Plame leak, steroid use in Major League Baseball, the rebuilding of the World Trade Center, the celebrity romances, and so on. But news stories inevitably disappoint us as stories. Sometimes the lag between installments is too great to sustain interest, and sometimes there’s not enough time between them and not enough suspense is created. With serial fiction, the updates are made on a helpfully predictable schedule, even if the plots are full of twists.
When they appear as books, Cornwell, Kirn, and Bennett’s novels won’t necessarily appeal to the same readers, but they all bear the hallmarks of the thriller genre. Victims are in trouble, heroes take risks, and villains overreach. As genre fiction, they provide focus to the distracted, patterns to the confused, comfort to the beleaguered. In other words, good news for anyone who reads the papers.
Mark Swartz is the author of the novels Instant Karma (2002) and H2O (forthcoming).