“My Chivalric Fiasco” Is, Sadly, One

image via Harper's Magazine

I'm always leery of stories, or novels, written in what's purported to be "a daring break from old-fashioned literary stylism," or "a new stylistic voice," and this is why:

All too often, one of two things happen in such stories –

  1. The style isn't thought through well enough to coherently complement story, or
  2. Said style overwhelms said story.

The September 2011 issue of Harper's Magazine carries a story, "My Chivalric Fiasco" by George Saunders, a story that obviously projects such a "daring new style." The story is a simple one, perhaps only a vignette; it's beside the point here, so I won't dwell on that.

"Fiasco" starts inventively enough – and entertainingly enough – in a style similar to the text of a play, and in the voice of a bleary-eyed totally radical duuude.  This works extremely well in scene, but when Saunders takes us to his form of narrative, the style quickly flounders. 

Then his primary character, protagonist, in this case, takes a chivalric pill of some sort. His voice enters a mental vortex for a moment and then takes on a faux-Shakespearean tone, which to this reader hardly works at all, i.e., the story becomes completely lost in Saunders' wordplay. This morphing of voice and style is clearly premeditated to play up the chivalric aspect of the story, but I have to wonder why the author chose this strategy over a stylistic one that worked so well at story's onset. 

And finally, the author goes on to more or less explain his story, and at this point the medieval style bcomes a complete shambles as the voice of a hyper-cynical, hard-bitten twenty-something takes over to carry us to the finish line. 

It's well and good for a writer to showcase his/her chops in a newly devised mode of storytelling, but I don't think it's overly conservative thinking to expect coherence of style in support of story. And I'm flexible enough to follow along as a style within a story changes radically, but it should (once again) be donein a viable way in the context of story. Further, it's to the beneficience of literature for writers to experiment, but all too often stories such as "Fiasco," become exactly that – because style isn't the thing – story is.


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