Written by Kevin LaTorre
Conventional views of literature value the immersive effect of a story, so much so that most writers would accept “believable world building” as a high compliment. But what happens when novelists choose to remind the reader that the pages are fiction, consciously devised by someone real? In that instance, the form of the novel—its selected arrangement— becomes as important as the novel’s story.
Including metafictional commentary can be a gamble for some readers: if the novel’s world admits to being fiction, they may lose the emotional connection to the characters in the novel, and, perhaps, interest in the book. On the other hand, other readers, such as co-editor of Psychopomp journal, Sequoia Nagamatsu, find that “reality, physical, metaphysical, mental, and emotional reality is rarely neat, linear, and contained.” As such, readers may find that experimental forms more faithfully depict the fragmented, unknowable spaces of our lives, and would read the text more gratefully because of the choice. To these readers, interrupting the conventional “immersion” through experimental presentation best highlights the content, especially if that content involves suffering.
One experimentally-arranged form is the epistolary novel, meaning a story compiled from characters’ letters or diary entries, where there is sometimes one narrator, but often multiple. Bram Stoker’s 1897 Dracula is the example of the epistolary genre, and thus the reference point for all others. Jonathan Russell Clark in Read It Forward refers to it as “exemplary epistolary,” as it presents letters, journal entries, and telegrams as tools with which to unspool its plot. But in Dracula, the reader can trust the characters to give the objective truth of the tale. Every word Jonathan Harker, Dr. Seward, and other characters write reflects their absolute goodness as they pursue the absolute evil of the vampire. The modern narrative trends of form, especially the post-modern dissatisfaction with simplified, moral narratives, provide no such luxury to the reader.
Joseph O’Connor’s 2004 Star of the Sea pushes the boundaries of the epistolary genre, its experimental form rejecting the reliable narration of a conventional structure to attempt a fragmented portrayal of the Irish Famine in 1847. Like Dracula, it records a dastardly mystery of murder and vengeance which the characters investigate. Like Dracula, its form uses various disjointed sources to tell the story, though Star is more historical fiction than horror. But the diversity of of its records intentionally grows overwhelming: the plot unfolds from an arrangement of prose passages, period cartoons, captain’s records, letter excerpts, newspaper columns, and even a few bars of transcribed sheet music. The depiction of the novel’s narrator, the fictional American columnist Grantley Dixon, adds to the unconventional mode of storytelling—he is proven thoroughly unreliable by page thirty. A form of so much uncertainty, whose faulty narrator has to reconcile varied sources, calls into question whether traditional historical fiction can accurately depict the pain of the Irish Famine. Recounting any historical event is inherently troublesome because records must reconcile various perspectives, including those which historically have been ignored. But retelling the Great Famine of 1845–49 for an Irish audience is especially tricky due to the remaining memory of its trauma. Bearing this damage in mind, O’Connor does not presume to definitively depict his country’s most horrific period. His larger point, woven throughout a narrative which suggests storytelling itself is fallible, is that words can fail to communicate horrors, and that fiction must adapt.
Form adapting to trauma is a step towards honoring it; what’s broken necessarily deserves to be told with broken terms.
Accordingly, O’Connor refuses the more linear narrative usually seen in historical fiction. A smooth organization of the jagged history would feel forced: arranging fragments from disagreeing perspectives emphasizes the underlying turmoil, even if it can’t quite be stated. His text openly admits that the Famine’s lived horror is inexpressible. Dixon (the fictional author, to keep track) visits a workhouse full of starving Irish peasants, and he notes that “an artist had been seated at an easel, trying to draw whatever was happening inside[…] He was weeping very quietly as he tried to draw[…] His hands were trembling as they attempted to form shapes.” The artist cannot bring himself to recreate what he sees, prompting the question of whether he should. Is his art a capable medium for the subject? And, by extension, are our novels adequate either? Since at least last century’s modernism, writers have struggled with the question of whether language can accurately communicate our splintered, brutal reality. O’Connor introduces this dilemma through Dixon, who concludes that he “had no words for [the Famine],” and more concerningly, that “[n]obody did.” O’Connor complicates this view held by his character, as his form does allow for language’s fallibility when it rejects glossy fictionalization for a pieced-together novel sometimes at odds with itself. But O’Connor still tries to accommodate the inexpressible suffering by utilizing the epistolary form to address it.
Engaging with the Famine’s deeply-rooted horrors requires the form to both simulate and respect them. A historical fiction mystery ignorant to the Famine’s severely complex history would be tone-deaf. Extraordinary histories require extraordinary ways of being told, to account for all of their fractured, unspeakable contents. Form adapting to trauma is a step towards honoring it; what’s broken necessarily deserves to be told with broken terms. Eimar McBride’s 2013 novel, A Girl is a Half-formed Thing, demonstrates a harrowing, beautiful example of this form-to-content agreement. Her book harnesses misspelling, puzzle-piece syntax, and stunted one-word phrases to create the disrupted mind of her abused narrator, every word building the bildungsroman story per the narrator’s terms. O’Connor does for Ireland’s national trauma what McBride did for the personal: adapt a classic genre to best tell the story of suffering.
Thus, not only does Star of the Sea’s form emulate the inherent challenges of attempting to retell traumatic history, it pushes the boundaries of the epistolary form to allow for them. O’Connor suggests that art doesn’t need to definitively portray pain, but that it should consciously strive to respect it with every feature of its form. The epistolary novel, used by Dracula to recreate one absolute horror, manages in Star of the Sea to acknowledge a host of horrors from Irish history. O’Connor’s stylistic adjustments and in-text commentary help the reader to infer that many more nightmares remain, acknowledged but unstated in the space language cannot address.
In my first reading of the novel, I did my best to ignore what I could see of the strange form. For me, the disagreements of a dozen sources were distractions from what I thought to be an immersive revenge story. But the novel deserves a closer look, one which reveals that every “distraction” expresses the content more truthfully than any character or plot device could. A conventional reading would have obscured O’Connor’s commentary on his craft and his country: Star of the Sea needs to challenge us to be true to its pain.
Photo found on Joseph O’Connor’s Website