Novel Idea

nov·el n. A fictitious prose narrative of book length, typically representing character and action with some degree of realism. Origin: from Italian novella (storia) ‘new (story)’, feminine of novello ‘new’, from Latin novellus, from novus ‘new’. (source)

A few weeks ago, I picked up a rather large book called Chopsticks: A Novel, by Jessica Anthony and Rodrigo Corral, that radically changed everything I ever thought about what makes a novel.


I was working one of my regular night shifts at the library, and I had just picked up some recently-returned YA books from the circulation room. This one caught my eye, truthfully, because of its size and because I recognized the type of pages it was made from. Really. I have a thing for a certain type of page material. They smell good, they feel good, they look good. So sue me.

I picked it up off the cart and began to read as I sat down to sort through another cart of books (but made it only a few pages before deciding to check it out…I was really excited about it). But was I reading? Because this book is full of photographs. It’s three two-page spreads of photos before you even get to words, and then it’s only about 50 words superimposed on top of another photo. It’s like a scrapbook (a few photos are actually of a scrapbook), with newspaper clippings and family photos and programs from old recitals. But it’s like a “normal” book in that it does contain prose, in quotations and in other forms. It’s like a graphic novel because the story is told with pictures. It’s an interactive book because youtube links are given as part of the story. It is so much all wrapped up in one little package.

The story focuses around Glory Fleming, a piano prodigy, who (SPOILERS) is apparently dealing with some sort of mental illness that causes delusions and leads her to play the Chopsticks Waltz over and over and over. Anyway, she meets a guy, Frank, who has a great influence in her life, and then she disappears mysteriously….

That’s basically all you need. Plus, telling more would spoil the fun of actually reading the book.

Back to my analysis:

As the old saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words. There are 272 pages in this book, says the internet. That’s worth at least 272,000 words. As a comparison, To Kill a Mockingbird contains 99,121 words, and War and Peace has 587,287 (source). But this book takes only about 30 minutes to finish, and yet I’m sure it required just as much planning and time and effort on the part of the authors (do art directors count as authors? Because I’m pretty sure they do in this book).

The format forces the reader to think through so much more than a typical novel ever could. While a typical novel does have an advantage in giving the reader “scope for the imagination” because the reader can imagine what characters and places look like (though there are some limits due to authorial descriptions), this one can give so much more. You know only a little bit of what the characters say, and have an incredibly biased perspective because the story is told, presumably, by the girl with the mental illness. And yet, the pictures are unbiased, because without Photoshop a photo doesn’t lie. So looking at what amounts to evidence, like in a police investigation, you have to fill in the gaps by yourself.

That also leads to another interesting phenomenon: there’s no clear answer to what actually happened. The reader can guess, but it’s really cool that it’s not just this Objective True Story. Isn’t that just like life? You only have as much information as you can gather with your senses, and you’re forced to reason through what you’ve got. If you had three people go to the same party and later recount what happened, you’d have three different stories. Not so different that each person told about a different event, but each recounting would have nuances not seen in the other stories. Because each person has different information going in to a particular event. Each person has different experiences which color their experience of everything following.

Words aren’t the only thing people use to communicate. Gestures, tone, facial expression, and even the way a person smells (even when we don’t think we’re smelling anything; e.g., pheromones) can communicate more than mere imperfect language. And even words are colored by prior experiences, so there’s even more to communication with words than we think. E.g., a reserved person might have a positive connotation associated with the word “quiet”; it might make them think of calm or something similar. A boisterous, outgoing person might associate a more negative connotation, something along the lines of “boring”. People communicate with all of their senses, combined with their memories and reason.

So are words sufficient to describe such a situation of mental illness? Probably not. You can’t ever explain with words the feelings of confusion and frustration and everything else to someone who has never been around a person with mental illness. A person with a mental illness couldn’t possibly fully explain with words what it’s like to live with it; after all, they don’t even know what it’s like to be “normal”. But simulating through pictures what this life is like might be able to explain so much more because it plants you right smack in the middle of the characters’ lives. Our traditional novel format isn’t one-size-fits-all; there are some things that just can’t be told in perfect prose.

The book declares itself to be a novel right in the title, and I wholeheartedly agree after giving it some thought. It’s fictitious, it contains prose, it tells a story. It’s definitely of book length. It’s got developed characters and action, and it’s perhaps the most realistic telling of a story I’ve ever seen. It’s a challenge to our usual perceptions, but it’s a novel just the same. And anyway, that’s what novels have always been: new. It’s what the word novel means (see the definition above if you don’t believe me).

Are words really so necessary?


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