Saturday, December 18, 2004

And the Term is . . . Congeries

I have decided to call the kind of novel I mean a “congeries.” The Random House Unabridged (2nd ed.) defines the term as “a collection of items or parts in one mass,” and derives it ultimately from the Latin congerere, to collect, heap up. Since the word connotes both a single unity and the distinct identity of dissimilar constituent parts, it’s in.

What distinguishes a congeries novel from a story collection that is set in a single imaginative universe (as John Varley and others have done) or from a sequence of stories that has continuing characters (like Spider Robinson’s Callahan series) is the combination of individual integrity of the parts -- they are not merely chapters -- and the unitary shape of the whole. The end result should be like a wall in the Barnes Museum, where each canvas is a discrete work of art, but their arrangement creates a unique and greater effect.

Hard and fast borders are impossible to draw. The sections of Isaac Asimov’s “I, Robot” all deal not only with emerging robot technology but with a single individual, Susan Calvin. But the sections deal with Calvin at non-continuous periods of her life; we don’t get a full portrait. The stories are told from slightly different points of view, and the reader is definitely left with a sense of a series of glimpses that leave questions unanswered. That sense of lacunae, a deliberate artistic tactic, is a sign of the congeries. “I, Robot” may be a borderline case, but I would say that it qualifies.

That, I think, is the truly distinguishing trait of the congeries novel, a first-rate one, anyway: the sense that its crucial constituents include the gaps between the existing sections, the tension in the field of force these disparate elements exert. Gene Wolfe’s “The Fifth Head of Cerberus” (a brilliant novel) does this, as does “Pavane” and “The Seedling Stars.” (“China Mountain Zhang” is a fine novel, but it does not greatly exploit these particular traits.)

So what characterizes the congeries novel is the disparate nature of its makeup, the tension between these levels of organization, and the sense that the intervals between sections possess a force and weight of their own. (Notice how all of these characterize, say, “The Waste Land.”) Which is to say, the congeries novel is a thoroughly Modernist phenomenon.


Blogger Madeleine Robins said...

I thought of this subject this afternoon, Greg. I was at my writers' workshop at the Newark Library (just down the street from Fremont) and passed a display with a sign that said "Novels of Short Stories." A quick look at the display suggested that these were not expansions (or "novelizations") of shorter works, but novels comprised of shorter pieces. (A few anthologies had crept into the display too. I'm not certain the librarians themselves were completely clear on what they were displaying).

I much prefer "congeries novel" to "novel of short stories."

6:07 PM  
Blogger Derryl Murphy said...

But will it fly in Peoria? Frankly, I can't think of a better term (this will of course set your teeth on edge, but Vera N. apparently wrote a book like this, her Compass Rose book, which IIRC she termed a "mosaic" novel), and easily defer to your judgement in this, but the fish ain't gonna bite. It doesn't have that sound bite simplicity.

I think Allen Steele's Coyote would fall under this rubric as well.


11:40 PM  
Blogger Maureen McHugh said...

"That, I think, is the truly distinguishing trait of the congeries novel, a first-rate one, anyway: the sense that its crucial constituents include the gaps between the existing sections..."

Joan Didion said, in writing either Play It As It Lays or The Book of Common Prayer, that she wanted a novel in which much of the important action happened off the page. I am wondering if The Book of Common Prayer, which I would never think of as a congeries, might not still be working this tension.

Am I understanding this right?

9:02 AM  
Blogger Gregory Feeley said...

Maureen, the tension you cite Didion as mentioning -- where absent elements seem to exert a pull of their own -- is a very Modernist phenomenon. There are elliptical passages, and elements that function implicitly rather than explicitly, in nineteenth century fiction, of course, but the overt discontinuities Didion speak of represented something new. Rudyard Kipling's "Mrs. Bathurst" (1904), which could be said to be the first Modernist prose work in English, shows this, as Kipling's (and others') earlier work did not.

So while you can find book-length sequences of linked short stories earlier than that -- to keep with Kipling, there is "Stalky & Co." in 1899 -- the links are linear and unbroken, which you do not see in "In Our Time" and "Go Down, Moses."

Whether Allen Steele's Coyote series qualifies or not depends, I guess, on the rigorousness of one's definition. Allen's five or six novelettes about a continuing figure proved long enough to make up a book, and so duly appeared as one, but it seems more like "Stalky & Co." than "The Fifth Head of Cerberus" or "Icehenge." Allen is an old-fashioned writer, straight narratives with nothing fancy, and all this stuff about gaps and lacunae isn't his style.

11:00 AM  
Blogger Gregory Feeley said...

Thomas Mallon, reviewing a new novel by Louis Auchincloss in Sunday's NY Times Book Review, says that the work "is really no more a novel than earlier Auchincloss offerings like 'The Book Class' or 'Fellow Passengers,' each a necklace of character cameos given unity by a shared narrator or milieu." He seems to be suggesting that the volume is a collection of stories linked by a unifying element (in this case, the successive generations of one family), and that to be a "novel," the degree of unity needs to be greater.

Mallon sounds a bit prescriptive -- reviewers for the NYTBR have become terrible prigs -- but if you ignore his implication that what Auchincloss has produced is something =less= than a novel, his suggestion is not incompatible with what I have been saying. A book can be a collection of linked stories, or it can be an episodic novel whose chapters have sufficient unity to have been first published separately (such as Faulkner's "The Unvanquished"), and both are just dandy, but the form I call a congeries hovers somewhere in between.

5:34 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Where would something like Timothy Zahn's _Cobra_ (or for that matter, Bujold's _Borders of Infinity_) fit in?


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