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Charles Simmons, Wrinkles

Charles Simmons' Wrinkles is an unusual book. Not that there's anything particularly unusual about the basic storyline - boy grows up, marries, has extramarital affairs, divorces, has some professional success, drinks too much, confronts aging and death in himself and others. What's unusual is the structure - forty-plus chapters of roughly four pages each, with each chapter consisting of a single paragraph which presents one aspect of the protagonist's life (career, sex, neighborhood, etc.) as it changes throughout his life - from childhood through young adulthood (both in past tense), to middle age (in present tense - the protagonist is roughly in his fifties at the time of narration) and then old age (in future tense, as he anticipates what will happen to him later).

The effect of this method is unsettling, as if the protagonist's life is being lived over and over again through the narrow prism of its various aspects. I imagine this book as being a series of circles - the reader witnesses the cycle of the protagonist's life again and again. The narrative method benefits the book as a means of livening up what is admittedly a very ordinary plot, presenting an unremarkable life in a fresh and innovative way. On the other hand, however, it makes the narrative very fragmentary; despite the focus being entirely on the protagonist, with the ancillary characters being mere sketches, I never got a fully clear portrait of him: when his parents died, exactly what his corporate career involved, who were the various women in his life, and what his writing (yes, he's also a writer) was all about. Arranged in a conventional manner, all of these fragments might very well have presented a full portrait of the man; however, that conventional portrait might have well have been neither interesting nor compelling. So in that sense, the narrative method works. And I'm not sure the method would have worked with a complex plot at all - it might have rendered the story all but incomprehensible - so the structure is a good fit with this basic story.

All in all, Wrinkles was a fascinating read - not necessarily a great book, but one which uses a very interesting approach to storytelling.

(Incidentally, I came across the book after it was featured at The Neglected Books Page, an excellent site which spotlights out-of-print or otherwise forgotten books. Despite Wrinkles having been published by the esteemed Farrar, Strauss and Giroux and a finalist for the National Book Award in 1978, the book is out of print and Simmons appears to have disappeared off the face of the earth - I couldn't much biographical info about him online other than a one-sentence entry at Wikipedia. If anyone out there has more background on the author, please leave a comment below.)

January 27, 2009 in Books | Permalink