Back in March 2013, EJ Koh visited Smart Girls talking about her writing philosophy and her debut novel. Since then, Koh and her novel, Red, have been growing a commercial following and critical acclaim.
I was fascinated by a recent literary review that proclaimed Koh’s novel as “new writing for a new world.” There were a lot of interesting ideas in his review (included in its entirety below).
De we need a new narrative style?
The reviewer eloquently compared Koh’s pacing, dialogue, and narrative style with the modern media such as gaming narratives, game-based features, Saturday morning cartoons, and internet media. The reference to cartoons might be a bit dated (probably more up to date to reference graphic novels), but it did make me think about the expectations of generation accustomed to these newer media formats that weren’t around thirty years ago.
The reviewer, Arthur Seefahrt said:
“Red is a literary style mash-up, which truly captures the Internet generation’s need to have everything all at once; streaming, in palatable clips. It is important for writers to reach out in an effort to make the great stories relatable to the current zeitgeist. Red is an Internet novel.”
I don’t doubt that these new formats have changed the way contemporary generations process visual information. I’m always amazed watching my adult son play video games. I can’t follow half of what is going on in the game and he is able to divide his attention between player vs player action, overall game space action, an extensive inventory of items to buy and select and put to use, all while strategizing for the best outcome. And then there is the movie he’s watching and the chat going on in a sub-window. His brain has been trained to deal with all this rapid, simultaneous information. My brain cries mercy in seconds.
So, yes I concede there may be different expectations in general, but do these expectations apply to the novel form? A very interesting questions.
Is change happening?
I can also concede that literary and commercial taste in fiction changes over time–not so much in story but in storytelling narrative style. You only have to pick up A Tale of Two Cities to draw that conclusion. Should novels of today be working harder to adapt to these changes?
I think it is probably already underway in novels like Red, but even more so in novels in the Young Adult and New Adult markets. Similar changes can be seen in a less striking form in the contemporary novels of authors like Dan Brown, known for short chapters and a choppy, fast narrative.
Should novel fans be worried?
I’m sure some of us fear that this is a move toward something less than what we love and know as the novel today. But Seefahrt also called Red “a book written by a poet for a generation of gamers.” Wow! What a thought. Poetry is a highly distilled and beautiful literary form. Could these changes transform the novel into something more eloquent and concise? Or will these different forms be added into the mix beside the existing forms, each serving a different unique and valuable purpose? I sure hope so.
WHAT DO YOU THINK?
Review of Red by EJ Koh, reviewed by by Arthur Seefahrt
EJ Koh’s novel Red is truly a document of the twenty first century, employing various styles and techniques ranging from lyrical poetry to manga dialogue. The book itself contains a story of archetypes. Red is a revisioning of the classical hero’s journey, sharing similarities with The Epic of Gilgamesh and The Aeneid but presented with the narrative style of Final Fantasy VII. The characters are these epic creatures that bend time and space and manipulate energy and will with their consciousness and yet engage in colloquial dialogue and slang akin to Jos Whedon’s manipulation of the vampire archetype in Buffy.
The plot of the novel moves along rapidly and slows down to impart exposition and strategic intervals. In many ways Koh’s clever use of video-game-esque dialogue allows the reader to maintain the intensity and directness of the Red’s pace and energy, while, like many RPG’s, imparting expositional information to the reader. The casual style of the dialogue forces the reader to accept the worlds as they are presented, and draws the reader’s focus back to the archetypal narrative. This allows readers to passively engage in world building. Some terms and objects that are used are never fully explained, but that adds to a sense of a full world, with laws and creatures beyond that of our own.
Red is an action driven story of a girl named Sera, who must face the stages of grief after the death of her mother. The book is broken into sections as her perspective shifts in relationship to the loss. Perhaps this is an intentional allusion to Faulkner’s division of chapter and perspective, perhaps not, but it effectively helps the reader to connect Sera’s struggle, without burdening them with lengthy descriptions of setting and establishment of a slowly changing milieu. The book moves cinematically, shifting from scene to scene like a series of montages or a Saturday morning cartoon.
EJ Koh is making conscious decisions to blend these styles and has developed a narrative voice that is unfamiliar and fun. She has put existential dilemma, theology, philosophy, and science, into conversation with each other. Red is a literary style mash-up, which truly captures the Internet generation’s need to have everything all at once; streaming, in palatable clips. It is important for writers to reach out in an effort to make the great stories relatable to the current zeitgeist. Red is an Internet novel. It satisfies in the way one can feel satisfied watching a fantasy TV series, yet presents such a classical story one cannot help but feel connected and compelled by the quest: Truly a book written by a poet for a generation of gamers.
In the end classification is meaningless, and that is the point. This is not only evidenced by the books narrative structure and style choices, but is also reinforced by the content, but without the pretense of over-constructed cleverness. It is strange, fun, and exploratory. EJ Koh is forging into new territory. Call it Alt Lit, call it an Internet novel, call it what you will. It is new writing for a new world.
Arthur Seefahrt is a Chair’s Fellow with an MFA at Columbia University in New York. He lives alone in the wilderness. He is a writer, artist, and experimental musician. Follow him here.