Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Play's The Thing: A Look at Literary Gimmicks

Shakespeare had the ghost of Hamlet's murdered father appear to reveal his killer. Mr. Kafka starts a story with a dude named Gregor waking up to discover he's metamorphosized into a giant bug. And, more recently, Alice Sebold narrated an entire novel from the point of view of a murdered 14-year-old girl hanging out in heaven.

Literary gimmicks such as these are one of the highest risk/highest reward tricks in literature. If done right, the writer is hailed as a creative genius and and his/her work as groundbreaking. Done wrong, and the writer is marginalized as, well,  gimmicky — in the most negative connotation of the term.

Genre fiction (including fantasy) aside, let's define a literary gimmick broadly as something that could only happen (or be done) in fiction. Of course, this definition must come with the understanding that individual metaphysical and/or religious beliefs may drastically widen or narrow what's fictional and what's not. For instance, do you believe in ghosts?  How about an alien named Xenu?  Most of the literary gimmicks that work well, though, everyone will agree could not possibly occur in nature — and that's what makes them fun. For instance, The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak, which I'm about a third of the way through, is an entire novel narrated by a gentle Death, who hates the human notion of him as a dark-hooded, sickle-wielding maniac.

Opinions on whether a literary gimmick works will, of course, vary widely by reader. For strictly literal-minded readers, literary gimmicks are fantasy novels, and so will never be to their taste. For me, a gimmick works if it's clear why the writer made that choice — if it's a fundamental part of the way the novel must be told, and not just a writer showing off his/her supposed prowess.

I can't wait to hear from you about what gimmick-enhanced novels you've loved (or ones you've hated) and why or why not those gimmicks works. But first, here are a few that I've really enjoyed: 

1) Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn: A conversation between a man and a talking gorilla named Ishmael explores the relationship between humans and nature. Many fans (me included!) of this philosophical "novel of ideas" credit it as a logical foundation for the environmental movement. Man is made for the Earth, not the Earth for man, the book argues.

2) Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace: The trick here is a film called Infinite Jest that is so entertaining that those who watch it literally cannot stop. And so they die. This gimmick as well as the alternate reality future America (where years aren't numbered, they're sponsored — Year of the Trial-Size Dove Bar, e.g.) in which the novel is set provide a medium for Wallace to explore addiction in two separate ways: The traditional (drug and alcohol) and the more complex (our silly consumeristic, entertainment-driven culture). This brilliant 1,079-page behemoth is one of my favorite novels of all time.

3) The Time Traveler's Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger: You know this one by now — time-traveling Chicagoan Henry jumps back and forth through the various stages of his eventual lover, Clare's, life. It's one of the most imaginative and touching love stories you'll ever read. 

4) House of Leaves, by Mark Danielewski: This multi-layered, mind-blowing piece of postmodern meta-fiction has as its cornerstone a house that measures larger on the inside than the outside. Characters get trapped in an infinite labyrinth, the door to which is inside this house. These gimmicks and a documentary film-within-a-story give Danielewski a jumping off point for exploring the existential question of whether the world is just a construct of the mind. This book requires a lot of work, but is easily the coolest, hippest and most innovative book I've ever read.

Now it's your turn: What are some of your favorite literary gimmick novels? What was the gimmick and why did it work?  Alternatively (and perhaps more interestingly), what are some literary gimmick novels that didn't work?


  1. I absolutely positively 100% ADORED The Book Thief. It was outstanding and one of my favorite books ever... and that says something because I have a lot of 'favorites'. It's just outstanding. I love it so much and I managed to sell out my stores stock of the books in a weeks time because I couldn't get enough out of telling people about the book. I hope you enjoy it.

  2. I avoided reading the Time Traveler's Wife for a long time because I did not believe the author could make me suspend reality and get me to buy into the whole time traveling scheme. Wow, was I wrong. It was an amazing story and has become a favorite of mine.

  3. The Zero by Jess Walter had a gimmick where the guy has short term memory loss (similar to the movie Memento). A scene will break off suddenly and then the narrative will pick up in the middle of some completely different scenario. The protagonist is constantly scrambling to figure out what's going on all the time, all the while trying to appear to others like he knows what's happening. It was fascinating to read, but didn't quite come together in the end, I thought.

  4. @Erica H - I like it a lot so far - little slow to start, as Death set the scenes, but picking up quite rapidly.

    @Dana - I had the same reservations, I think a lot of folks did. Talk about one of the all-time gambles that paid off. Thanks for the comment!

    @Christy - That DOES sound fascinating. I loved Walter's The Financial Lives of the Poets - and actually just picked up The Zero a few weeks ago. I'm willing to risk the poor ending for Walter's wonderful style and what sounds like a rather imaginative read!

  5. Great topic, dude. And two of the books you mentioned were adapted into films (Lovely Bones, Time Travellers Wife), both of which were catastrophic failures.

  6. Great post! I'd never really thought of the successful vs. unsuccessful gimmicks... definitely got me scrolling through the books I've read. I just finished a book called Letter to My Daughter which was actually a 120-page letter written from mother to daughter, and it was fantastic. It's not the most original gimmick, but writing a 120-page letter is a risk, and it paid off.

    It is interesting that the gimmicks don't seem to translate to film - wonder why?

  7. +JMJ+

    Interesting topic! I'm not really into "gimmick novels," but I think one book I had to read for uni counts as one:

    Automated Alice by Jeff Noon -- It has something to do with Lewis Carroll's Alice continuing her adventures in a crazy world which includes a labyrinthine library Jose Luis Borges might get a real kick out of. If I remember correctly, she meets a character named Zenith O'Clock, who is supposed to be the author's "Gary Stu." (I mean, check out their names!)

    Unfortunately I don't recall enough about the story to say whether there was a real theme or whether it was all gimmick!

  8. Good topic,Greg-I loved the Time Traveler's Wife and did try to get into The Book Thief but no luck with that(still on one of my TBR piles,nonetheless).

    A few other "gimmick" titles that I wholeheartedly recommend:

    Ahab's Wife by Sena Jeter Naslund:A well written story that would hold up even without the linkage to Moby Dick. The book also comes with beautiful woodcut illustrations that add to the sense of time and place to the plot.

    Godmother by Carolyn Turgeon: It's a bittersweet look at the Cinderella story with a beautiful air of fantasy mixed with poetic despair.

    The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff: This novel blends the true history of Brigham Young's last recorded polygamous bride with a murder mystery involving modern day outlaw polygamists in Utah. Quite an eye opener and a heck of a read.

  9. I thought the gimmick in "The Book Thief" worked really well, even though I wasn't so fond of the book until about the last 75 pages.

    Audrey Niffenegger did another gimmicky one with "Her Fearful Symmetry," narrating partially from the point-of-view of the dead. I thought it worked really well, but others thought it was problematic.

  10. @Floyd - Yeah, TTW: The Movie was in my top 5 worst movies of 2009. Have no desire to see the Peter Jacksonized version of The Lovely Bones...

    @Kerry - Good thought on the idea of letters being a storytelling gimmick, too. That opens up this discussion to quite a few more books I hadn't thought of - The Egyptologist, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society, etc.

    @Enbrethiliel - Hadn't heard of that book before, but I'm intrigued. Thanks for the comment!

    @lady T - Thanks for the suggestions! I'd heard a ton of good things about The 19th Wife, but hadn't made it there yet. Sounds really good!

    @Michelle - Oh, I didn't know Her Fearful Symmetry included another dead narrator. The literary gimmick is becoming Niffenegger's signature, evidently!

  11. I LOVED The Book Thief AND The Time Traveler's Wife!!!! I felt extremely connected and part of the story. Very well done on both books. Genius!

  12. Thought of another one (actually, heard it on an NPR Books podcast today) -- The Interrogative Mood: A Novel? is written entirely in questions...

  13. I LOVED Ishmael when I first read it. I was so into it I went right out and bought the follow-up. I think it was called "My Ismael" or something like that - but that one did not resonate with me so much.

    It's funny, I didn't give the Time Traveler's Wife that high of a rating but I did actually find that book quite enjoyable.

  14. Another book that employs a kind of gimmick is Peony in Love by Lisa See. I won't say what it is exactly because I don't want to ruin it for those who may not have read it but let me just say that there was a point in the novel that had me going, "whoa! I can't believe the author just did that!" It was obvious that it was a big big risk and I knew from that point on I'd either hate the book or love it. It was so well done, I ended up loving it!

  15. I saw the Time Traveller's Wife first before I read the book and I agree that the book did better with the gimmick than the movie. One of the books by Diana Gabaldon also employs the time travelling gimmick very well.

  16. I think one of the best gimmicks that comes to mind is when Agatha Christi wrote a murder mystery in which the nice benign narrator did it! She was criticized at the time for doing this, but history shows this was one of literature's finest gimmicks.

  17. i recently read and LOVED geraldine brooks people of the book. i'm not sure if this qualifies as a gimmick - the story jumps through time from present to past to explain the stories of how an ancient book has come to have its marks and stains. i found this book amazing and actually liked the sub stories better than the present time story!

  18. @Mary - Yeah, I think part of the way a gimmick has to work is to really draw you in to the story more than a traditional storytelling method would. I agree that both TBT and TTW were quite successful!

    @Everybookandcranny - (great handle, btw) - Sadly, your assessment of My Ishmael seems to be the consensus, so I haven't been brave enough to try it. Thanks for the suggestion on Peony in Love - that novel seems to be one of those word-of-mouth best-sellers. Thanks for the comment!

    @Myne - Yeah, so disappointed in the movie. Good call on the Outlander books - haven't read any of them, but I know they're very popular!

    @SariJ - Now, that's a neat trick!

    @mummazappa - Sure, that counts! Sounds interesting...

  19. I adored The Book Thief and the Time Traveler's Wife, the second being my favorite book of all time. The movie was quite a let down though.

    Lionel Shriver's book "The Post Birthday World" used the gimmick of telling what happens to a woman in two alternate realities if one choice she made was different. There was only 1 chapter 1, but then 2 versions of every chapter after that. This gimmick was a huge success in my opinion and I couldn't get enough of that book!

    Great idea for a post!

  20. yeah it's a great book i recommend it.

    also, i've given your blog an award, you can check it out at my blog here, not sure if you are really into awards but i love following your blog and wanted to do my bit to help others find it too :-)

  21. I'm a bit late to the party, but what about gimmicky titles? This week I'm showcasing books with titles that utterly draw you in. Some of my favorites: You Shall Know Our Velocity by Dave Eggers, Meet My Maker the Mad Molecule by JP Donleavy, The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril by Paul Malmont and the book I'm reading, The Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England by Brock Clark.

  22. Well I am listening to the audio book Lolita and that is kinda gimmicky because the narrator, Humbert Humbert, is telling the story through his written statement to the jury that will be deciding if he is guilty of a crime.

    I have to agree that The Book Thief pulled of gimmicky quite well as did Time Travelers Wife.

    I agree with Ahab's Wife as well (that would fall into the category of Wicked, or Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister) as the main character in those books are very minor characters in other well known stories.

    Good topic Greg!! Keep them coming!!

  23. GREAT post! How much are you loving Death and his little side notes right now? Such a good book.
    Yes, it is a huge risk, and I really appreciate it when someone takes it and pulls it off.
    I agree with the person who said Peony in Love; it's sort of a subtle gimmick (compared to Death). I would add any with non-traditional narrators (mentally) like The Sound and the Fury or The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (which is unbelievably fantastic). Also, my absolute favorite living author, David Mitchell, is fantastic at this. He's written 4 books, and they are all incredible:
    1) Ghostwritten is about a spirit that is able to travel bodies through touch (think the movie Fallen) and you get to experience these completely different people (in personality, culture, etc) and how the stories all kind of weave together through this one being, who really has a story of its own.
    2) Cloud Atlas is perhaps one of the most breathtaking things I've ever read. There are 6 stories that seem completely disparate, and you read 1, get 1/2 through, and it stops. Just abruptly, and moves on to the next, and you want to SCREAM. This goes on until the middle, when things start making sense and linking together, and the way it unfolds from there gives me goosebumps, its so brilliant. I don't want to give anything away, but it is he best book by a living author, IMO. Incredible, with an incredibly *risky* gimmick that paid off big time.
    3) number9dream is about a Japanese boy who's in Tokyo, sort of on a mission, but with a very fertile imagination, and it alternated between what's really going on and his bizarre worlds he creates from himself. So fun and funny and powerful. On my list of top faves.
    4) Black Swan Green is told by a young British boy who has a stutter, but who wants to be a poet. I don't know how to describe the gimmick, as such, other than to say it's beautiful and lyrical and a nice twist on the coming-of-age genre.

  24. Um, I should proofread before I post comments. Just saying. But I think you get the point.

  25. @Misty - Thanks for all the suggestions! I'd heard lots of good things about Cloud Atlas, but had no idea that the starting and stopping idea was the storytelling gimmick. And, yes, I loved Death's little side notes - added SO much to his voice. Pitch perfect!

  26. I'm with Misty on the David Mitchell books. They are incredible!

    I generally love gimmick books. Though I had always thought of them as high concept.

  27. I think you're right, Lenore. Actually, the two are probably one and the same, but just deserve one term more than the other depending on how successful the author was...

  28. I just finished The Book Thief and loved it, but doesn't seem like it qualifies under the definition of a gimmick since it is a true story, which I found hard to believe upon learning this after reading this book-it was just so compelling and I don't usually like non-fiction.

  29. Sorry, I am thinking The Man Who Loved Books Too Much, both this and The Book Thief have been on the pile together for awhile and they have come to be the same book in my mind-but I definitely suggest taking a look at it-great book.

  30. I'm in agreement with the comments on Cloud Atlas, would you allow talking cats as a gimmick, if so can I throw Haruki Murakami into the collection.