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L.A. Times Book Prize winner Jennifer Egan and other fiction writers debate the boundaries of form

April 30, 2011 |  1:32 pm

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"Breaking Boundaries," one of the first panels of the festival Saturday morning, featured four authors who flirt with the boundaries of form. Benjamin Hale, Olga Grushin, L.A. Times Book Prize-fiction finalist Frederick Reiken and L.A. Times Book Prize-fiction winner Jennifer Egan have not written traditional novels, if you can even call the books "novels" in the first place.

Tellingly, Hale’s book, "The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore," narrated by a chimp "in love with humanity," is probably the most conventional novel in the group. Based on true events, Grushin’s "The Line" tells the story of a Soviet family who waits in line for a year for tickets to see conductor Igor Stravinsky. Their alternating perspectives are interwoven with dreams in what Grushin calls a "universal fairy tale."

Both Reiken and Egan describe their books -- "Day for Night" and Pulitzer-prize winning "A Visit From the Goon Squad," respectively -- as linked story collections rather than novels. Egan didn't even allow the word "novel" to appear on the hardcover edition of the book (though the word has since been added to the paperback).

Moderator and "local guy" Richard Rayner had each author read selections from their work and then opened the discussion posing the question: "Is it the job of fiction to explore its own form?" Egan pointed out that, throughout the history of the novel, writers like Miguel de Cervantes and Laurence Sterne have played with form. Yet more than one author on the panel stressed that they did not set out to write something "formally interesting." Egan starts with a time and place, recognizing some complex stories need to be told from different points of view. As Rayner observed, story sometimes drives form.

Asked whether he thinks the times we live in influence form, Reiken said that while he's obviously a product of our "fragmented but paradoxically connectible" culture, his use of form is not conscious but rather intuitive. His book was partly inspired by the story of 500 Jewish intellectuals killed during the Holocaust after being convinced they were to be hired as archivists. He imagined a scenario in which one or two of the men survived. The origin of Hale’s "epic bildungsroman" came as he sat in Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo surrounded by snow, reading and watching the monkeys. Grushin’s book, compared by one reviewer to "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" by Roald Dahl because of its magic ticket similarity, tried to answer the question, "What would make you stand in line for a year?"

The question of form, however, cannot be answered simply with a magic ticket. Egan probably summed it up best: Form should allow you to "do what needs to be done in the freest way possible."

-- Chris Daley

Photo: Jennifer Egan at her Brooklyn home in April. Credit: Jennifer S. Altman /For the Times

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