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Nothing New Under the Sun, Or at the Bookstore, either

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In an interview posted online, Kirby Gann used the word “bildungsroman” to describe his first novel, The Barbarian Parade. You can’t just go dropping that word anywhere. I had to look it up. Having done so, I can say that the word’s very existence saddens me. First of all, I spelled it wrong twice trying to type it. It doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, or keyboard for that matter. In context, says Gann, “I was living overseas when writing my first novel, THE BARBARIAN PARADE, which for the most part is the typical bildungsroman that authors start with….”

Definition: A coming of age story; a story concerned with the maturation or self-development of the main character.

There are worse words connected with it, sub-genres of the bildungsroman which get more specific about how, exactly, the protagonist matures, words like: Entwicklungsroman; Erziehungsroman; and Kunstlerroman. There’s not much need to go into what they mean. You’ll just forget as soon as I tell you.

That the bildungsroman is a typical first novel can be taken in a couple of ways, depending on your level of pessimism. So my first novel is one of these, and it is typical, though I didn’t know it. In one sense, typical means run-of-the-mill. In another, if you’re an upbeat kind of person, it can mean the traditional (maybe even correct) starting point. Gann seems to mean it in the latter sense, even if it still carries an undertone of flippancy, as though this typical first step is a path by which you arrive at your sophomore novel, for which you receive a tepid review from Publisher’s Weekly. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with the bildungsroman—Gann acknowledges that by writing one—it’s just that every writer writes one, just as every writer farts and dies eventually.

It’s just been done to death, apparently, so much that they have a really hard word for it. And since they have a really hard word for it, they must also have a distinct structure for it, which is likely taught at a much more difficult school than I went to. In fact, everything in literature seems to have a structure, and those structures are handed down generation after generation and become so natural and unquestioned that we hardly know where to begin to explain why—if you’re very familiar with the structures—we’re no longer surprised by anything written. Stories have structures and essays have structures (well, this one doesn’t, but there’s a reason for that), and novels have structures. Sentences and word-pairings, too. The structures are there to add order to reality, to give us something to teach.

And to give us something we can point to as “typical.” In movies, they call these structures “formulas,” but they’re made of the same basic elements: the arc of the story, the rising action, the climax, the denouement (because sometimes French is preferable to German). Throw in some foreshadowing, a complication and twist and you have the recipe to satisfy any discerning lover of the story as well as the critic, whose opinion in general should be worth very little.

So far we lack direction in our essay, and a thesis, which no doubt can make the reader uncomfortable. If so, I’ll toss you a line. Here’s the thesis: All these rules were made up by literature teachers and publishers and are useful only in the sense that we either a.) can tell stories very uniformly, and therefore similarly, or b.) can point to a story and marvel at how true to form or tradition it really is. I suppose there is a comfort in predictable structures, and a value in it (you might, for example, love a particular tradition), but it seems somehow backwards to complain about lack of originality while fully expecting a writer to conform.

Okay, back to Gann. There are countless angles from which to approach a critical essay on Our Napoleon in Rags, none of which really adds to the overall literary conversation, nor to my proficiency in essay writing. I can address the exquisite writing, how Romeo refers to his mother as “a waddling barrage of used Christian debris” (58), or how breathtaking it is how Gann sums up themes in various ways and from various viewpoints. I can write about how deep and wide his character development is (and wow, that character development!), about how he pits masculine and feminine approaches against one another (133), about the skill with which he builds to a climax, or about how rich and felt the symbolism is. In truth, Kirby Gann’s skill as a writer is astonishing and he makes me jealous as a writer, which is the highest compliment I can give him. But which, among all those topics, have you not read before? And though I can say all these wonderful things about him and this book (which I loved), I was rarely surprised at what happened because I have become so accustomed to the rules of storytelling. Spoiler alert: I knew Romeo would be impotent when it really counted (89). I knew Mather would be killed by cops (166). I knew Haycraft Keebler would attempt to become a martyr (203).

I was surprised, though, that he didn’t succeed. That was pleasant. That was perfect, actually, a bitter-sweet, depressing and satisfying ending. Kudos to Gann for pulling it off despite the restraints of story structures.

Publisher’s Weekly gave Gann the equivalent of a pat on the head and an A for effort, saying his characters lacked realism—which is what readers need to feel emotionally connected—and that it failed to achieve its goals. Who made up the rule that (all) readers need realistic characters to emotionally connect? Publisher’s Weekly is my guess, where I must assume The Lord of the Rings or anything by Stephen King have not yet made their appearance. Second, it is unclear of whose goals the critic was speaking: Gann’s or the critic’s?

Alright, the point: There may be commonalities in great literature which have led scholars over the years to dissect them into reproducible chunks for easy teaching. The mass effect though, as the market is flooded with higher numbers of writers and storytellers this century, is that it will take something less traditional to really leave a mark on the whole of literature. So reinforcing the concreted constructs of this is how you tell a story may do us a disservice. It’s time to put the old structures to rest for a while and innovate, lest we all get caught in an endless loop of the same old story.


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