OK, I take back some of what I said about Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. In a recent blog post I gushed about what a beautifully-written and engaging book it is, but that was when I’d only read about twenty percent of it. The engagingness starts to taper off after a while in the 477-page novel.
To be clear, I still think it’s a pretty good book overall, and I’m glad I read it. It brings up a lot of interesting issues about race in America. But it’s not quite the page-turning story I thought it would be. It starts to lose steam in the middle, and it drags by the end.
But, one thing I thought was fun about the book is that the main character, Ifemelu, is a professional blogger (as in she gets paid to blog…sigh…wouldn’t that be nice?), and the novel is interspersed with her blog posts about race in America.
I started reading Americanah in Mexico, and one of my friends there told me, “oh! I loved that book! I could not put it down!” (So maybe it is a page-turner for some people.) This is the same friend who, when I told her I wrote YA and middle-grade novels, asked me with great excitement, “oh! What was your favorite series as a kid?”
“Baby-sitter’s Club and Sweet Valley Twins,” I said without hesitation. Then we reminisced about the good old days, going into the B. Dalton bookstore at the mall to buy the latest Baby-sitter’s Club.
“Remember the Super Specials?” I asked.
“Oh my god… Yes!”
These were the extra-long books which, instead of being narrated by just one of the baby-sitters, had chapters alternately told by each of them. I remember in particular the Super Special in which the girls go to summer camp. There was a map of the camp at the beginning of the book, and each chapter began with a letter or postcard written by that chapter’s narrator, in her handwriting. (I distinctly remember that Stacey, the girl with diabetes, dotted her “i’s” with hearts.)
I don’t know about you, but I often find these sorts of “artifacts” (letters, emails, drawings, poems, blog posts) to be a fun and creative addition to a novel. In Americanah, for example, as things happen in Ifemelu’s life, we see them reflected in her blog posts, which then help to carry the theme of race and relationships throughout the novel.
There are a million examples of “artifacts” in novels, and they can be done well, or not. (The emails in Fifty Shades of Grey, for example, are boring and terrible, but then again I think that book is boring and terrible in general.)
An example of artifacts done well is the novel White Oleander by Janet Fitch; the main character’s mother is a poet in prison for murder, so every now and then we get one of the mother’s poems, or one of the letters she writes from prison.
In Beautiful Ruins, author Jess Walters incorporates dialogue from fictional plays, the lone chapter of a failed novel, and a passage from the memoir of one of the main characters into his sweeping novel about Italy and Hollywood in past and present day.
In Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl, we get drawings and sketches done by the narrator (but actually drawn by Pessl herself), as well as references in the form of footnotes. Pessl’s follow-up novel, the murder mystery Night Film, is filled with documents (like a missing person report) that the main character studies in his attempt to solve the case. And Pessl takes us into the digital age of artifacts as well; she created an interactive app with videos, audio files, and additional text to supplement the novel.
These little tidbits are fun for the reader. They help bring the characters to life. And, I suspect, it’s also fun for the author to create the artifacts. Janet Fitch gets to be both a poet and a novelist. Jess Walters gets to write prose and plays. And Marisha Pessl can show off her artistic talent as well as her novelistic capabilities.
For Adichie, she got to write a novel and a series of essays about race in America. Pretty sweet.
That’s one of the many great things about novels. It’s a form that can so easily incorporate other forms. If you’re a novelist and a poet, you can find a way to incorporate poetry into your novel. If you’re a novelist who loves music, you can name each chapter after a song title (like Lish McBride), or maybe even create an interactive app for your novel that contains a mix tape your character made or a playlist that accompanies the story.
I get excited about this sort of stuff — just imagine the possibilities! I could write a novel about a woman finding love through Internet dating and have each chapter begin with the online profile of a guy she dates. Or maybe I could write a novel about a Hollywood starlet, interspersed with the transcripts of her media interview or her Twitter feed. In fact, I could actually start a Twitter feed for my character. See what I mean? Creating these artifacts can be a fun way for a writer to stretch their creative muscles.