Is literary analysis something that ought to be reserved for a particular type of book? It’s a significant question, because implicit in it is a questioning of the fundamental purpose of literary analysis. This is a debate that fascinates me, but rather than exploring it in the abstract, I want to take a work of incredibly popular modern fiction, and subject it to some serious, if tentative, analysis. The book I want to take is One Day by David Nicholls: it is well on its way to reaching one million sales this year in the UK alone, but simultaneously its original structure provides a entry-point for analysis.
The originality of the book is chiefly found in this unique structure: the book follows the lives of protagonists Emma and Dexter on the same date across 20 years. Nicholls himself said that he wanted to create the sense of ‘a photo album, so that the characters seem to change, yet remain the same’. However this snapshot approach is undermined by the fact that (as critical reviewers have pointed out) each chapter tends to begin with each character recounting what has happened in the preceding twelve months.
Saturday, 30 June 2012
In terms of plot, it might have been written at any point. Rob, a record store owner, has recently split up with girlfriend Laura, and goes through (as one of his ex-girlfriends puts it) ‘some kind of what-does-it-all-mean thing’, with Laura lurking all the while in the background, and Rob himself lurking just outside her house.
In amongst the broadly conventionally realist field of Northern Irish fiction, Briege Duffaud's debut novel stands out as a remarkable effort to use the novel form to demonstrate the fractious nature of the Troubles.
Published in 1993, prior to the end of the Troubles, it is perhaps unsurprising the content of the novel is bleak. A novelist, Maureen Murphy, is attempting to tell the story of a pair of star-crossed lovers from her home town, an effort which is hindered both by the scarcity of evidence and the strong feelings the tale evokes. Meanwhile the descendants of the original lovers are interacting once more in the context of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland.
(contains some spoilers)
Prior to this I’ve had mixed feelings about Dickens. Bleak House is a fantastic book, with a brilliant cast of characters, targeted and effective satire and an extraordinarily complicated plot that all comes together for an excellent finish. Little Dorrit is similar, but crumbles at the end, and the characters never quite reach Bleak House levels. Oliver Twist was ok, but the plot was a little too contrived, and Nancy aside the characters fell on just the wrong side of caricature. Great Expectations I hated, mainly because of a deep-seated loathing of Pip, and the ridiculous incredulity of Magwitch as a character. With the decision of who to study as a ‘Special Author’ next year looming, A Tale of Two Cities was given the make-or-break position in my Dickensian life.
Luckily for Dickens (I like to think he has a particular posthumous interest in whether he is studied by undergraduates, and consequently has a fierce ongoing ghostly war with Virginia Woolf…), the novel is outstanding. It uses its historical setting (the French Revolution) to just the right extent: it creates an epic backdrop to the action, but never in a way that seems forced. The emotional tone is excellent, and the story is such that I stayed up until 2am finishing it.
On one level, Edward Rutherfurd’s Dublin succeeds as a collection of well-executed, if somewhat conventional narratives, linked together slightly tenuously by the inter-generational connections between the characters. On another level it raises some really challenging questions about how we view history.
First the stories. The book, like Rutherfurd’s other works, follows an episodic structure. Each section is set in a different time period of Dublin’s history, from the pre-Christian era through to the Reformation. The same family’s appear in each episode to give a further sense of continuity, but other than that each episode is almost completely distinct. As mentioned, the stories themselves rarely depart from very conventional plotlines. We have star-crossed lovers, ongoing mistakenly-held grudges, treachery, smuggling and more. Each episode is granted only a couple of hundred pages and increasingly they encompass a wide range of characters, so logistical limitations are clearly a factor in the complexity of plotlines.