Back to Book Reviews

Back to Cercles


The Poetics of Fragmentation in Contemporary British and American Fiction

Edited by Vanessa Guignery and Wojciech Drag


Series in Literary Studies

Wilmington: Vernon Press: 2019

Hardcover. xxx+222 p. ISBN 978-1622736164. $61


Reviewed by Béatrice Trotignon

Université Paris Dauphine




Composed of 15 papers selected from an international conference on Fragmentary Writing held in Poland in 2017, The Poetics of Fragmentation offers an overview of the complex, varied, sometimes contradictory, character of fragmentation in British and American works of fiction since the 1990s.

The editors of the volume, Vanessa Guignery (École Normale Supérieure, Lyon) and Wojciech Drag (University of Wroclaw), provide an excellent introduction to the collection outlining a clear and useful background to the definition and evolving use, role and meaning of fragmentation through successive traditions and literary movements, with for instance the shifts from the perfect, closed aphorism of the French moralists, to the more open forms of German Romanticism reflecting the idealized infinite and the indeterminate, or its association to a sense of chaos with modernity's crisis of completeness, subject and meaning at a time of economic, social and technological upheavals, or postmodernism's radical sense of disconnection and contingency. They go over the possible distinctive categories of fragmentary writing, as well as their most common characteristics, such as “incompleteness, discontinuity and heterogeneity”, and their potential for challenging the status quo. The introduction also articulates the guiding question overhanging the whole volume, i.e. “whether contemporary forms of literary fragmentation constitute a return to the modernist episteme or the fragmented literature of exhaustion of the 1960s, mark a continuity with postmodernist aesthetics or signal a deviation from past models and an attempt to reflect today’s accelerated culture of social media and over-communication.”

Though not a panorama of contemporary fiction, the collection nevertheless manages to both sketch a general map of fragmentary fiction (taxonomies of forms and genres in printed or digital media, possible genealogies, legacies and ruptures, landmark critical works and so on), and make space for in-depth analyses of the works of some prominent figures such as J.G. Ballard, David Mitchell, Ali Smith, Julian Barnes, Jeanette Winterson, David Markson, David Shields, David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Safran Foer, Suzanne Treister or Thomas Ligotti. The names of many others who contributed to fragmentary forms crop up through the collection, giving a good idea of the vitality of fragmentary formats and a reservoir of titles for anyone interested in the landscape of British and American fiction currently or in the past.

The book is organized into four parts, each comprising three to five chapters, that aim at ordering the different types of approaches or materials that are broached in the articles: Part One: Forms of fragmentation: past and present; Part Two: The fragment and the whole; Part Three: Fragmentation in the age of crisis and Part Four: Multimodal and multimedial fragments. This does not preclude fruitful echoes and complementarity between the chapters across the different parts, as for instance with the three categories of fragmentation delineated by Merritt Moseley in the opening chapter “What is fragmentary fiction?”: the braid, the bricolage and the mosaic. The motif of the “mosaic” reappears in David Malcom's analysis of short stories; in Marcin Terszewski's description of J. G. Ballard's The Atrocity Exhibition as “a mosaic picture of modern culture” or in Alicia J. Rouverol's close reading of Ali Smith's Hotel World, emphasizing its use of a “braided structure” and “non-linear narrative excerpts juxtaposed in mosaic form”. There are other echoes across the volume, to list just a few: the definition of the novel (chapters 1, 9, 12), and the renewal of its form (chapters 5, 9, 12, 14) as it becomes a (sometimes unbound) object (chapters 1, 2, 12, 14); the impact of modern technology (chapters 1, 2, 9, 12, 13, 14); the relation of fragmentation to (alternative) realism or mimetism (chapters 1, 2, 5, 9, 10), the fiction and  non-fiction divide (chapters 7, 9), cut-ups (chapters 1, 6), rhetorical strategies like juxtaposition and parataxis (chapters 2, 8, 9); the reshaping of the reading experience (chapters 2, 9, 11, 12, 13, 14); haptics (chapters 12, 14), cinematic and filmic poetics (chapters 1, 4, 7, 8) or the specific reference to poetry (chapters 4, 8, 9). These simple examples showcase how the reader of the volume would certainly miss out the complementary and complex ways of studying fragmentation and its impacts if s/he read only a section or an isolated chapter. For this very reason, the absence of an index of selected key notions is the major shortcoming of the collection, all the more so as the chapters are not supplemented with an abstract or a list of key terms. This lack is partially compensated for by the introduction which mentions some of the main arguments of each chapter, draws possible links or divergences between them and sets a larger critical background. The other useful and original addition that partly makes up for this lack of index is Chapter 16, « Fragments of a postscript » by Alison Gibbons, who offers critical reflections on the whole volume through nineteen textual fragments that often show possible echoes or dissonances between the different chapters, and add further examples of fragmentary writing and critical literature on the topic.

Part One is more particularly set on classifying or identifying types of fragmentation. The first chapter, “What is fragmentary fiction?” by Merritt Moseley offers tentative definitions of fragmentariness, after reminding there is no such thing as absolute non-fragmentation in fiction. Works defined as fragmentary nevertheless must feel fragmented, be made up of fragments and / or be fragments in themselves. Moseley distinguishes fortuitous fragments (unfinished and incomplete works) from intentionally fragmented fictions: the numerous examples he summons range for the former category from the Epic of Gilgamesh to David Foster Wallace's The Pale King (2011), and for the latter from works that are “strenuously different from a novel” as Nabokov's Pale Fire (1962), to those “operating under the conventions of film” as Evelyn Waugh's Vile Bodies (1930) or such works that might be said to be “militantly fragmentary” as B.S. Johnson's unbound book in a box The Unfortunates (1969), J.G. Ballard's The Atrocity Exhibition favoring free association to capture the mind's randomness, or William S. Burrough's cut-ups combining randomness and intervention. Moseley then proceeds to delineate three categories that do not exhaustively cover the whole of fragmentary fiction, but echo a feature shared by more recent works that, as Moseley argues quoting Ted Gioia's words in “The Rise of the Fragmented Novel” (2013), “are holistic and coalescent,” resisting “disunity,” unlike the postmodernists who relied on fragmentation as a means of disjunction and dissolution. These three practices are the braid (“a series of distinct narrative projects which are interspersed with one another rather than offered in sequence), the bricolage (“works which are composed out of radically heterogeneous materials”) and the mosaic (“texts consisting of many narratives that are complete in themselves”), illustrated by three novels on the 2016 shortlist for the Man Booker Prize: Madeleine Thien's Do Not Say We Have Nothing, Graeme Macrae Burnet's His Bloody Project and David Szalay's All That Man Is. Though Moseley puts his three categories under the aegis of Ted Gioia to characterize recent fiction, it is not clear by the end of his chapter whether he does hold them as really distinctive of 21st-century fragmentary fiction for he lists many 20th-century works of fiction to fully illustrate them too. But his mapping gives the reader a wealth of relevant examples and scans a great number of guises adopted by fragmentary fiction.

The second chapter by Mariano D'Ambrosio examines yet another possible subcategory in fragmentary writing in the 21st century, that of polyphonic narratives, characterized by non-linearity and multiplicity on all levels: voices, narrators, textual fragments and typographical devices reshaping the reading experience. D'Ambrosio more particularly focuses his attention on composition, through the notion of liberature, introduced in 1999 by Polish author Zenon Fajfer and further developed by Katarzyna Bazarnik, to refer to “the organic bond between a text and its material book form,” making for self-reflexive novels adopting spatial forms or architectural structures. The article proceeds to focus on several polyphonic novels as House of Leaves (Mark Z. Danielewski), The People of Paper (Salvador Plascencia, 2006), The Body (Jenny Boully, 2002), S (Doug Dorst and J. J. Abrams, 2013) and The Absent Therapist (Will Eaves, 2014). While he clearly ties them to a long line of literary experimentation (Sterne, Borges, Nabokov) through multiple precise examples and close analysis of their structures, D'Ambrosio's statement about House of Leaves addressing “the impossibility to establish authenticity in the digital world” remains somewhat insufficiently illustrated. But on the whole he makes a clear case on the way these 21st-century fictions carry on “the Sternean and Scriblerian traditions,” embracing fragmentary polyphony and the materiality of the page “to grasp the globalized, fractured, plural world we live in”.

The third chapter by David Malcom examines the short-story's associations with brevity and fragmentariness and maps the various strategies used by writers, editors and publishers to “augment” it, whether through epiphany and epiklesis, expansion into compressed novels or the compilation of collections. After drawing a typology of collections, Malcom examines two collections of short fictions, Alan Garner's The Stone Book Quartet (1979) and Lydia Davis's Break it Down (1986), and analyses the ways fragmentariness is counterbalanced by coherence through narrative technique, linguistic patterns and underlying homogeneity of characters or settings.

This comes as an apt transition for Part Two, the five chapters of which tackle the complex relation between the fragment and the whole, each of them focusing on one author (J.G. Ballard, David Mitchell, Ali Smith, Julian Barnes and Jeannette Winterson). What better motif than that of the ruin to start off such a section with chapter four, in which Marcin Tereszewski analyzes the architectural fragment in J.G. Ballard's fiction, addressing “the relationship of the fragment as ruination to the concept of totality,” towards “distinguishing the contemporary fragment from its Romantic predecessor,” Calling on Maurice Blanchot's conception of fragmentation as a dynamic and poetic energy, Tereszewski focuses on J.G. Ballard's most explicit foray into experimental writing with The Atrocity Exhibition and explores the conflicted interpretation of fragments seen in turn as a nostalgic expression of the loss of a perfect whole, or as a celebration of liberation from an imposed totality, in order to stress Ballard's combination of both aspects. In his earlier catastrophe novels, the ruins can be seen “a reminder of an irretrievable past,” while in his later urban novels his representation of ruins “bring him closer to the transgressive element of the Gothic tradition” as is further illustrated in the analysis of Empire of the Sun, in which the totality appears as a construct, an illusion of a whole that was never real and that must be overturned. Ballard breaks from Romanticism and presents the ruin, not to express the infinite, but to “undercut the false image of totality imposed by nations, history or culture.”

The whole is yet again not something to be nostalgically mourned for in chapter five with Gerd Bayer's analysis of David Mitchell's use of fragmentation subsumed into or supplemented by a transtextuality that signals toward connection and timelessness by resolving mutually incompatible notions of fragmentation (signaling both towards “a lost wholeness and an as-yet unattained complexity”). Transtextuality is the means by which Mitchell replaces “the limitations of the individual book with the communication that ensues when various books relate to each other,” in a sort of rhizome by which the book becomes a mere crossroads “for an elusive book-to-come.”

This optimistic outlook on fragmentation might, at first, not be seen compatible with Ali Smith's novel Hotel World (2001), whose fragmentary writing in relation to globalization, as argued by Alicia J. Rouverol in chapter six, can be construed as a criticism of late capitalism. However, after a careful and convincing analysis of the fragmentary in structures (braided narratives, typographic gaps), non-linear narratives (questionnaires, clips, mosaic chapters) and language (fragments, elided letters) underlying the negative experience of globalization and the supermodern, Rouverol shows that the fragmentary (gaps, elision, communal narration) also expresses connectivity and cohesiveness of community, humanizing the non-places of the supermodern.

In chapter seven, Teresa Brus examines the relation of the fragment to the whole in terms of attraction and dispersion through the hybridity developed by Julian Barnes in his life-stories fusing “quintessentially essayistic impulses with the exacting framework of the short story”. Reading Levels of Life (2013), Brus describes its essay-story-memoir composite form, making for the interpenetration of “fragments of Nadar's singular experience” (his love life, his combination of aeronautics and photography) with Barnes' own “struggle with fractured life” after losing his wife. His interest in composite auto/biographical modes of writing, mixing fiction and non-fiction, stems from the tension between biographical details, anecdotes and resonant fragments with the overarching sense of finality brought by death, with many of his short stories in Cross Channel (1996), The Lemon Table (2004) and Pulse (2011) populated “by the elderly with a strong sense of an ending.” Fragments of memory, broken melodies, bits of history are “agents of delaying closure-referencing.”

Maria Antonietta Struzziero's careful close reading of Jeanette Winterson’s The Gap of Time in chapter eight offers a very detailed and convincing analysis of her stylistic choice of fragmentary writing, showing how it looks for a form of coherence and unity, with images of ruin, loss and death turned into a story of recovery and reunion. Fragmentation in the novel is inherently linked to intertextuality, with a re-appropriation and transformation of Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale, so much so that the novel turns into a fragment or “part of a distant whole to which it is related while being irreversibly separated from it.” It bears “the marks of a fragmentary mode that is articulated on the threshold between obedience to, and disruption of, the authority of Shakespeare's play.” There is a constant foregrounding of fragmentation, ranging from a collage effect of often juxtaposed palimpsestic quotations to a labyrinthine, polyphonic narrative “with multiple border-crossings of time, space and gender.” Disruptions of narrative linearity, frequent use of analepses, different typefaces make for structural fragmentation of the novel, while the rhetoric of the text shows stylistic fragmentation in sentence and paragraph breaks, syntactic dislocation and truncation, abnormally emphatic style of punctuation, irregular page layout, filmic montage techniques, rhythmic phrasing reaching the “incantatory intensity of poetry.” Digital forms reflecting the contemporary world are also drawn upon, mimicking “the postmodern aesthetics of the mash-up”. The ultimate goal is to “make it new” and subvert the original framework and make room for a counter-narrative that celebrates plurality.

Part Three picks up this notion of renewal through appropriation and fragmentation in chapter nine with Wojciech Drag's careful focus on collage manifestos, as driving forces for projects of the future with the discarding of conventional forms in David Markson’s This is Not a Novel (2010) and David Shields’s Reality Hunger (2011). The fiction and non-fiction divide is obliterated by both authors, who also favor compilations of “short, often elliptical statements set apart by empty spaces.” Drag provides in-depth exploration of structures, collage forms, strategies of appropriation or plagiarism and fragmentation at work in both (anti-)novels, and their impact of the reading experience, pushing the reader to become a virtual co-author of its meaning. Collage as a technique invented by the Cubists is reinvested in 21st-century literature to represent both the age's own experience of crisis and “the phenomenal experience of everyday life, marked by fragmentation, overproduction and media saturation.”

Another author seen as renewing the tools of experimental fiction through fragmentation is David Foster Wallace whose fiction is closely studied in chapter ten by Jaroslaw Hetman who argues that the writer uses the sense of brokenness typical of postmodernist fiction of the 1960s and 1970s with a different aim, so as to alleviate loneliness, oppose solipsism and bring together toward a neo-Platonic sense of possible transcendence. Arguing for “an aesthetic of fragmentation counterbalanced by the ethics of harmonious transcendence”, Hetman identifies three main types of fragmentation in Wallace's writing: brokenness as a mimetic technique echoing the compulsive repetition of addiction, which is subsumed in a mathematical organizing principle (a fractal), as illustrated by Infinite Jest; fragmentation as “a reflection on the solipsistic disconnection haunting post-capitalist societies,” in which a specific use and vision of language nevertheless allows for achieving some form of contact between human beings in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (1999); the unintended fragmentation of The Pale King (2011) resulting from Wallace's untimely death, counterbalanced by the relationship the author managed to forge with his readers.

In chapter 11, after establishing a specific theoretical psychoanalytical framework for analyzing trauma, Caroline Magnin links it to the mechanics of fragmentation in the narration of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005) by Jonathan Safran Foer. Ellipsis and excess, amnesia and hypermnesia, silence and logorrhea are the literary translations of the clinical phenomena of trauma and characterize the unstable fragmentary narrative in the novel. Inserted images also work as fragmenting devices evoking the sudden breaches specific to trauma, which the narration will attempt to stitch back together. Images of multiplicity abound, whether in the three narrative strands that remain unconnected despite the links between their respective narrators, or in the recurring motifs of the double and rhyming events, also typical of literary translations of trauma. The phenomenon of latency, heightening the disjunctive narrative, makes for deferred explanations or retrospective revelations. But fragmentation also enables escaping from authoritative, fixed meanings and provides creative tools for expression and interpretation, whether through the use of photographs, or coded and atomized messages that await deciphering.

The renewal of the novel and fiction in general is brought further in Part Four, with the focus on multimodality and multimediality, as literature pushes across the frontier of its traditional means, transgressing media boundaries and appropriating varied semiotic systems, such as digital media or music. In chapter twelve Grzegorz Maziarczyk comments on the impact of electronic means of information storage and dissemination, and studies several instances of fragmentation, in both print and digital forms. The novel, characterized by an inherent generic instability, cannot be considered as purely verbal with its use of devices of fragmentation that are materially and visually signaled and with its appropriation of “the affordances of other media.” The recent engagement in “the aesthetic of bookishness” intensifies the print tradition or imitates electronic textuality. The visual fragmentation at work (changing typeface, “verbo-visual” merging, unbound novels) is illustrated though the works of Graham Rawle, Mark Z. Danielewski, Steve Tomasula, B.S. Johnson, Marc Saporta, Abrams and Dorst. As for creators of digital fiction, some foreground “the medial singularity of the digital” that cannot transfer to print. They exploit the haptic engagement specific to the medium, like the touchscreen, the pinching and spreading gestures, the use of online resources. They favor more linear organization than past classics of electronic literature, and push fragmentation on the level of the interface by the “multimodal co-deployment of various semiotic resources”, sometimes leading to the temporal fragmentation of the act of reading (as in The Pickle Index by Eli Horowitz and Russell Quinn, 2015), the fragmentation of space (Entrances & Exits by Reif Larsen using Google Street View, 2016), the combination of fragmented sentences and fragmented indeterminate cognitive data (Pry by Danny Cannizzaro and Samantha Gorman, 2015). Others elect media convergence, in which the novel is expanded through transmediality (websites, iTunes podcasts, twitter accounts or tumblr blogs for characters) as in S (Abrams and Dorst), The Raw Shark Texts (Steven Hall, 2007), Night Film (Marisha Pessl, 2013). In extreme transmediality, the novel would become “only an element of a larger project designed to create a fragmentary, multi-faceted and multi-media representation of a particular fictional universe.”

Another example of multimodality is explored in chapter 13 by Zofia Kolbuszewska in her superb, in-depth analysis of Hexen 2.0 by Suzanne Treister, who is active in the field of the digital and new media and web art, combining art, science and technology. Her artistic project, assembling fragments, combine a Tarot cards pack, two exhibitions and an album, the latter being composed of an essay, historical diagrams, alchemical charts, cognitive maps linked to the 1946-1953 Macy Conferences on Cybernetics. By interrogating “links between the occult, the scientific research on communication and the workings of the human mind, as well as the military's investment in new technologies,” she invites one to uncover suppressed knowledge and unacknowledged connections, using visual set ups in relation to Memory Theaters and cabinets of curiosities and providing an archeology of knowledge. As such she leads and exploration of the epistemological dimension of fragmentation, as well as the role of incompleteness and fragmentation, feedback loops and autopoetic systems in communication.

In chapter 14, Côme Martin focuses on shuffle narratives in texts, comics and digital formats. Through eleven examples, he maps out a comprehensive overview of this “anti-form” in which chance plays a role in the ordering (and even discarding) of their segments. The media that are imitated range from “card games to the oracle to the puzzle.” He notes a resurgence of this experimental approach, which could be accounted for by the ease with which the digital produces computer-programmed chance. Shuffle narratives have an impact on the reading experience, inducing an element of co-authorship as well as haptic engagement, while their fragmentation leads them to explore themes “like fragmented memory, the reconstruction of the past, and painful and sometimes traumatic experiences,” or “the cognitive model of remembering and associating thought.” Structurally, they embody rhizomes, through their refusal of linear narratives, their questioning of the notion of beginnings and endings, and their potential infinity.

Chapter fifteen is the volume's final examination of a multimodal  practice built on fragmentation (both thematically and structurally) with Deborah Bridle's description of the literary and musical collaboration between Thomas Ligotti and Current 93 for In a Foreign Town, in a Foreign Land (1997), which combines four short stories with an experimental musical soundscape of four tracks, one for each story. Resonance and dissonance are the two main ways the text and the music interact to create a whole.




Cercles © 2020

All rights are reserved and no reproduction from this site for whatever purpose is permitted without the permission of the copyright owner.

Please contact us before using any material on this website.