How does the form of a novel reflect the world in which it appears? This is a perennial question, and one that consumes all those pearl-clutching voices currently clamouring about the death of the novel. (This in their current iteration; people have been talking about the death of the novel ever since there have been novels to putatively eulogize.) As a linear, text-based medium, the argument goes, the novel is irrelevant to a 21st-century society that is fluid and predominantly image focused. The traditional psychological novel gets character wrong because it remains mired in a Henry Jamesian attitude incapable of conveying the multitude of external stimuli – from the internet, advertising, corporate and governmental propaganda – that assault us daily, influencing, and even altering, our mental patterns and responses to the world around us.
But this assumes a static medium, whereas the novel has proved remarkably protean. Modernism emerged as a response to what early 20th-century artists saw as the limitations of Romanticism and naturalism when confronted by the wholesale devastation resulting from the Industrial Revolution and the First World War. In a mechanized era of global conflict, imaginative writers jettisoned the so-called well-made novels of John Galsworthy and his ilk in favour of works that appeared fractured and fragmented. As the poetry of Shelley and Keats gave way to “The Waste Land,” so too did the novels of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Joyce, and Woolf search for different ways of conveying lived reality on the page.
Modernism eventually ceded ground to postmodernism, and postmodernism to whatever came after. (Post-postmodernism?) John Barth and Thomas Pynchon were followed by Bret Easton Ellis and Tao Lin. The House of the Seven Gables begat The Haunting of Hill House, which in turn begat House of Leaves. Each innovation pushed the novel’s form in different directions in response to different social and historical exigencies from the outside world.
The novel has never stopped evolving, but the 21st century has provided the form with unique challenges. While the Modernists could fragment their style and sentences on the surface, the deep structure remained in what was, after all, still a long-form prose genre. The dominant medium of the new millennium – the internet – prioritizes clickbait and hyperlinks and promotes a horizontal kind of reading rather than deep, vertical immersion in a lengthy prose work. This seems antithetical to the production of novels which, regardless of their surface technique, seem perched in opposition to the attention economy online.
In its specific formal approach, U.K. writer Rebecca Watson’s debut novel, little scratch, acts as a kind of bridge between Modernism and our current culture of distraction. While typographically the book may resemble a collage or a work of visual poetry, its deep structure is remarkably conservative: like Joyce’s Ulysses, the book takes place over the course of a single day, and Watson helpfully makes her narrator a low-level office drone, which gives her ample opportunity to check the time on various clocks – as she’s navigating the crowds of a morning commute through London (“checking phone 08:20 got time walking walking walking … walking 08:20 walking walking”) or anxiously waiting for the work day to end (“staring 17:53 / intensely 17:53 / at my 17:53 / clock 17:53 / ! 17:54 / thank you 17:54”).
The narrator of little scratch is an unnamed Millennial everywoman; the lack of punctuation or capitalization throughout the book renders her interior monologue into an approximation of the tumbling, cascading thoughts that crowd her busy mind as she goes about the mundanities of her day. She works as an assistant in a newsroom, collating papers, answering phones, and booking lunch and travel appointments for the journalists. She is also an aspiring writer who hasn’t produced anything in years; she recalls with disdain her adolescent attempts at poetry, simultaneously castigating her former self (for sentimentality) and her current self (for not feeling capable of writing anything at all). She has a boyfriend, referred to inconsistently as “my him“ and – less frequently – “my he”; she worries about not hearing from him via text and about whether or not the emojis she sent him were appropriate or might be misunderstood.
The story unfolds over a single Friday. The narrator awakes with a hangover, travels to work, goes through her day at the office, meets up with her him at a poetry reading, goes to dinner, a pub, then home, where they have sex and fall asleep.
This apparently unremarkable day is undercut on two levels. The first is the presentation of the prose itself, which is delivered in fragments and overlapping columns that mirror the narrator’s scattered and overstimulated thought processes. She tries to decipher an old note on her phone, eventually coming up with “a fireworks display is the PERFECT ANALOGY FOR SEX!” (and almost immediately thereafter thinking, “this is astute! profound (?) no one has ever thought this before surely”). She ponders the peculiar washroom etiquette of not allowing a stallmate to hear one relieving oneself and indulges in digressive tangents about her relationship to art: “it’s not that I don’t like art, naturally, it’s just, I can’t like it all, and I don’t have the reputation that allows me to be selective, to walk into a room and examine this one, and this one, cursory glance at the rest, shake head and move on.”
But underneath all the quotidian detritus of a typical day in a media-saturated lifestyle, a current of anxiety is brewing, leading to the second level on which the story unfolds. The title refers to the narrator’s habit of scratching herself, particularly behind her knees – a spot she assumes to be an abscess and therefore she has convinced herself she is scratching at nothing. (Googling the name for the backs of the knees, she discovers the scientific designation “popliteal fossa,” also known as “the kneepit.”) She becomes flustered any time a man seems to be walking behind or alongside her as she makes her way in the street, and she appears irritable and hypervigilant at work.
As the novel progresses, the nature of the narrator’s anxiety evolves from what at first seems to be a typical urban Millennial’s angst at being overqualified, overworked, and undervalued to something much more insidious. Her habitual scratching, it becomes clear, results from a deep psychological wound that finds its metaphorical resonance in the scabs that develop over her broken skin – scabs she is continually scratching off.
The cause of the narrator’s trauma is a sexual violation – she has been raped, and the final stages of the novel involve her inner turmoil in trying to decide whether to tell her boyfriend about the circumstances of the assault. (The poetry reading triggers a PTSD-induced episode and on the bicycle ride home the narrator engages in an interior battle about how – or indeed if – to divulge what she has endured during and after the attack.) Her inability to vocalize her experience is an ironic counterpoint to the rest of the novel, which is typified by a non-stop cascade of her internal monologue responding to events and people – both major and minor – she confronts over the course of her day.
The typographical layout of this interior monologue is occasionally confusing: visual graphics (of a clock face, for example) sometimes take a while to parse, and duelling columns meant to indicate simultaneous stimuli give way jarringly to broken lines intended to be read from left to right straight across the page. But for the most part, the collage-like type and unbroken narration serve as an effective visual and aural representation of the accelerated, over-caffeinated pace of modern life and its attendant inputs. Watson’s technical approach mimics the anxiety, hyper-awareness, and, in many cases, boredom of 21st-century existence, while also laying bare the psyche of a fully recognizable woman trying to maintain her composure while struggling with everyday demands and the repercussions from a violent trauma.
It is obviously too soon to tell whether little scratch represents the future – or one possible future – of the novel as a form. But it does indicate that, far from dead or dying, the novel is continuing to morph into interesting and innovative contours, employing language and syntax mined from texting apps, public transit announcements, and other artifacts from the superconnected 21st century. Far from remaining complacent, writers like Watson are pushing the novel in different directions, forging it into new and interesting shapes.