This week is going to be a little different. Every time I look “Abstract Art” in my local library system’s catalogue, the novel Kaleidoscope by Brian Seznick comes up. The cover looks like an extreme close-up on a green eye with the white lettering across the pupil. I’ve been curious why that novel comes up with “abstract art” every time, so this week, I checked it out and read it.
Seznick explains the connection himself in an author’s note:
“During the first three months of the pandemic . . . I started making abstract art, perhaps because it felt like the world was shattering, so my art needed to do something similar. . . . I found myself ripping apart everything I’d already written. It was like the narrative was shattering along with everything else, and out of the shards a new book began to take shape. . . . That’s why I decided to call this new version of the book Kaleidoscope, because each of these elements, like bits of colored glass, turn and transform and rearrange themselves into something new.”Brian Seznick
I also finished S. by Doug Dorst and J.J. Abrams. You may recall that I first encountered S., or The Ship of Theseus while looking at unusual formats during RNLN of The Woman in the Library. I was taking my time reading it, reading a couple of pages of the text, then reading all the marginalia. But then I saw that two people are waiting for it at the library, so it will be due soon, so I started reading the text about a half chapter at a time them going back to the marginalia and that worked a lot better for me to get me into the story, though I must admit, after initially loving the concept, I found the result rather dull.
Both of these novels were very unconventional and yet, to me, had a lot in common. They both found ways to manipulate time, to have the past, present, and future exist in the same space, and they both explored the concept of identity, of knowing one’s identity, of a person’s ever-changing identity. And they both explore the fluidity of relationship.
Time & Space, Identity, and Relationship
In the sixth story, “The Abandoned House,” Seznick addresses Kaleidoscope‘s approach to time and space directly when James says,
“Most people think time is a machine that needs to be oiled and wound with a key. They think it’s something you control and maintain. But maybe it’s more wild than that. Maybe it’s bigger and stranger. Maybe time is uncontrollable, and endless, and … dangerous. Like a forest eating a house.”Brian Seznick
The order of the very short stories of the narrator and James moves like that: bigger and stranger and wild. In the first story James leaves and the narrator is accused of his murder, and in the second the narrator has become, or is a giant who can become invisible and James may be the name of a boy who gives him an apple. Later James is an imaginary friend, and in another story the narrator is a spirit.
Then how is this a novel?, you may ask. Or how are these the same characters?, you may wonder. Seznick does a great job of explaining this in “The Story of Mr. Gardner.” Mr. Gardner attempted to write the ultimate reference book. He started with defining an apple, and ended up with seventy-five thousand pieces of paper, still trying to finish his definition of an apple when he died.
“We had only a tiny fraction of everything he wrote in our possession, but the fragments included references to Greek myths, the origins of the universe, children’s fantasy novels, the quests of King Arthur’s knights, the creation of the periodic table, a man who found the entrance to a buried city behind a wall in his house, spaceships, ancient Egypt, mysterious castles, the invention of the kaleidoscope, and the knitted blankets of his childhood bed.
“It’s sad that Mr. Gardner died without finishing,” I said.
“I suppose,” said James. “But I think he may have discovered something interesting.”
I waited for James to continue. He gently placed his hand on top of the pile of papers, as if he was touching a living thing, and said, “The entire universe can be found inside an apple.”Brian Seznick
The stories in this novel are like those fractions of everything that define the narrator and James.
In S. the physical space of the book, the text, the footnotes, the inserts, and different colors of ink show the past, present, and future, overlapping on the page. In the text of The Ship of Theseus which is the novel that S. revolves around, time behaves differently on the ship than it does on land. In the section of Ship of Theseus called “Interlude: Toccata and Fugue in Free Time,” the character S. moves between the ship and land many times, slipping between times and spaces.
“When S. is on the orlop, with the pen’s nib flying over paper, with ink spattering over skin, fabric, wood, what emerges on the paper are flashes of image, lightning-strikes of sense-memories, fragmented impressions of events. They refuse to be strung into coherent, linear narrative no matter how consciously he tries to arrange them so; in fact, the more he tries, the more the pieces resist his efforts. Many feel as if they belong to his past, but others almost certainly belong to the lives of others . . . he transcribes a captain’s log of voyages he has never taken on a ship he has never boarded; he chronicles (confesses?) his murderous skulkings on terra firma , although these accounts drift away from fact, toward distortion and grotesquerie as he—a dazed but rapt Hephaestus—sits and sweats in the greasy orange glow, watching his hands as if they were not his own.”V. M. Straka
The marginalia references another of V. M. Straka’s fictional novels, but this can also be read as a description of S. as a whole.
At one point in The Ship of Theseus, the story addresses the philosophical question, or mental puzzle called “The Ship of Theseus.” S. finds a book that chronicles every change that has been made to the ship he is on, and poses the question to himself.
“On the first page is a charcoal drawing of his ship (no, he reminds himself, the ship on which I’ve been held)—or, rather, an earlier version of it, when it was a harmonious whole, a shipwright’s realization of a xebec that would fly across the main and leave sailors about other vessels dumbstruck with envy. With each page S. turns, he finds another drawing of the ship along with marginal notes cataloguing the changes it has undergone.
He flips forward, ten to twenty pages at a time. Again and again the ship sheds a feature and dons a new one, reinterpreted and remade. Some of these changes are noteworthy . . . each one seeming to widen the gap between what was intended and what turned out to be. . . .Are they the same ship? Intuition tells him they are, though perhaps he is being influenced by the fact that the pages are all held together within the same covers.”V. M. Straka
This made me think of the short short stories that make up Kaleidoscope, and all the postcards, letters, and marginalia that make up S. Are they novels because they are held together and presented as such? I think it’s more than that. Each of the authors used moments within the novels to explain how to read and appreciate them as novels.
Applying What I Learned
Though my novel is told chronologically, these novels got me thinking about all of the times in my MC’s life that affect what is happening in the present story and got me brainstorming.
Which times of Verity’s life play the largest roles in her present being?
Happy childhood, loving parents, happy home
Her dad gets shot in a random act of violence
Meets Memphis because forced bussing
Memphis uses Verity’s address so they can continue to go to same schools, Verity’s mom goes along with it when asked, but holds it over Memphis. Says if she ever gets called that Memphis is in trouble, she’ll tell them the truth. This starts Memphis’s resentment of Verity.
Middle School dramas / basketball / fascination with school shootings, random acts of violence
High School dramas / basketball / fascination with school shootings, random acts of violence / parties / dances
College : left town for the first time / felt a little fame from basketball / aches, pains, injuries?
Good relationships/ Bad relationships
Her mother getting sick
Leaving college to go to school closer to home to take care of mother
Taking the job as a cop
Becoming a detective
Solving her first big case
Pauline getting murdered
The restraining order / getting fired
Her mom dying
All of these things and more happen before the novel begins.
In Kaleidoscope, the two main characters—the first person narrator, and James take on many different personae.
I, the first person narrator is a boy, a giant, a man
James is an imaginary friend, a boy, the king of the moon
What are my MC’s different identities?
She is the store detective working a nine to five, going home, eating dinner, watching tv, going to bed, doing it again tomorrow Verity of the first paragraph of this novel.
She is the Verity of the present who goes through the events of the novel
She is jogger Verity
She is Memphis’s friend Verity
She is Verity who pretends to be like Memphis to get attention
She is daughter Verity, grieving for her mother
She is jobless Verity, grieving for her future
She is obsessive connection-making thinker Verity
She is detective Verity
She is police officer Verity
She is uncomfortable in her body tall Verity
She is in command of her body basketball player Verity
She is not Malibu Verity
By the end there, I was thinking about Barbie and all her different personae.
How do the events I listed that formed how Verity is in the present interact with her different identities? I think I’ll try writing some of the big events in Verity’s life from her point of view as they happened, then as a memory from the POV of a present identity. Once I’ve done that, I may want to re-evaluate my chronological telling. Is there a stronger way to use time, identity, and relationship in the way I tell my story?
This Week’s Surprise Connection
I checked out a book called The Writer’s Library by Nancy Pearl and Jeff Schwager, in which they talk to authors about the books that “made them think, brought them joy, and changed their lives.” I thought this might have some interesting insight for this study.
In the Foreword by Susan Orlean she says, “In Senegal, when someone dies, you say that his or her library has burned.” (Having lived in Senegal, I did not ever hear that, and have trouble imagining it, said, but some people in Senegal could say it.) But that’s not this week’s surprise connection. Later she says, “At last, I understood how much we all are our books. Their meaning to us doesn’t end when we close the last page. What we glean from them alters us permanently; it becomes part of who we are for as long as we live.”
After reading that, I started reading Kaleidoscope and in the third story “The Library,” I read
“I found one other thing from the wreck,” I told him. “A locked chest.”
The boy sat up. “Where is it now?”
I brought him the chest, and he opened it with the key he wore around his neck.
As he lifted the lid, we saw the trunk was full of seawater stained black with ink and glue. One by one the boy pulled out soaking, ruined books. They dissolved in his hands and he collapsed on the floor in tears.
“Tell me what they were,” I asked. “My father’s books,” he said. “He was teaching me from them. I loved reading these books and discussing them with him. Now he is gone, and so are all the things he knew. Everything is lost.”
It was as if the two texts were talking to each other.