I am a sucker for a book about a group. What reminded me of this was Joanna Smith Rakoff's A Fortunate Age, her homage to Mary McCarthy's endlessly re-readable The Group. And then, too, it makes me think of Couples by John Updike, in many ways a slimy and hostile exploration of the suburban '60s but also pleasurable for its revolving lens, zooming voyeuristically from house to house, secret to secret. (I know there are many more group novels — so feel free to remind me and add to my library list.)
Maybe this voyeurism is half the fun of the group novel. A novel with one narrator has its own pleasures and they too are voyeuristic — well, novels are inherently voyeuristic, so this conclusion is not exactly rocket science. But my point is that while a more tightly focused cast of characters allows the reader to sit in on a little world, perched on a shoulder throughout, in a big group novel we also get to sit in on the characters' voyeuristic glimpses into each other's worlds as well. This too, I am a sucker for: the polished surface these people present to each other; their companions murmuring out of the corners of their mouths that they know a few things the other characters don't all know; watching them begin to glimpse the cracks threading through the surfaces; and then sometimes we know a bit more about the underbelly of a person's world than her fellow characters do, and other times we learn at the same time they do that A is actually broke, B is in love with C, and C is moving to Tel Aviv, and the shiver of recognition and surprise is equal in our fictional and real-life spines.Maybe the secret to a fine group novel is just that: the secrets.
But other traits work well enough that they turn up again and again. Like the new kid, the outsider. In A Fortunate Age (it's freshest in my head, so I'll talk about that, with apologies to Mary McCarthy) it's the odious Caitlin, who first appears living in purposeful, thoroughly unnecessary, and ideologically driven squalor, but later turns up married to an internet mogul, neatly mantled in nanny, gems, and massive English pram. She's awful, but she has her moments too — an outsider who every now and again delivers a truth the others are too inside to see. In Couples, it's Foxy, who moves to town, pregnant, with her uptight husband Ken (he, too, proves to be odious — odium is a useful trait for characters in the periphery of such books, whether it announces itself immediately or, more satisfyingly, comes as a bit of a surprise later on), draws the attentions and affection of the crew of suburban couples, and turns out to be a lot more fiery and faceted than she seems at first, when she was all gravid delicacy and Episcopalianism. There is a reason these tropes work so well, in real life as well as in books. Who hasn't invited a new person to a dinner party with the usual crowd and either felt a renewed shininess or a harshly revealed horror at who we all really are and how we all routinely behave? Anyway, there is good reason that someone said there are only two or three plots in all of literature, and that one — maybe my favorite — is "A stranger comes to town."
Another crucial trait: you have to get these people all together a few times. The natural time is the beginning and the end, of course, which makes it the most difficult to pull off naturally, because the reader is likely picking up on your intentions and thinking, "That's right, shove them all in a room, bring in that jackass Caitlin, and let's go to town." To me this seems like the most fun of all, the chance to let people ebb and flow through the narrative frame, appearing from afar and darting closer, being drunk, being prissy, being ill-mannered, being lovelorn. What's the other writing class trope — how do you write about a boring dinner party and make it interesting? I never could wrap my head around this concept, because to me there is nothing more wonderful than a bad party. On the page, of course; in real life I always hear myself saying inane things about noodles and watching in dissociated horror. But on the page a boring dinner party is a chance for so much more: a chance to see people not living up to their social bargains, bargains we don't even know we hold dear until someone has the temerity not to bother. There's probably a whole novel right there.
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Michelle Wildgen is the author of the novels But Not for Long and You're Not You and editor of the anthology Food and Booze. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, O, the Oprah Magazine, Best New American Voices, Best Food Writing, and various anthologies and journals. A senior editor at Tin House Magazine, she lives in Madison, Wisconsin.
Books mentioned in this post
Michelle Wildgen is the author of But Not for Long