We all share in one another . . . we're interconnected. So if you take good care of yourself, you're taking care of everyone, and if you take good care of others, you're taking care of yourself . . . since all are linked. (p. 45)
One might say that this is the doctrine, and the order, the inherent structure, of the linked narrative (or, in film, "hyperlink cinema"): the idea of interconnectedness as sustenance, a way of maintaining the whole, as though mutual participation is the only necessary ingredient in the proliferation and dissemination of meaning. In literature as in film, the "hyperlink" narrative has become a tool with which to examine thematic content best explored through repetition. For example, Brian Francis Slattery's recent novel Spaceman Blues: A Love Song is a linked narrative involving a host of characters all experiencing the end of the world, or individual ends to individual worlds, while making stands and taking journeys in the name of life and love, and it works because the balance between the characters is beautifully rendered by an artist capable of achieving a maximum impact simply by spreading out, coming at the central narrative from a variety of directions. David Mitchell has also achieved wonderful things using this technique in Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas.
In film, the various efforts at hyperlink cinema have produced mixed results. Magnolia, written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson (1999), presents a web of characters dealing with loss and the possibility of redemption, their individual stories ultimately linking up to one another subtly and tragically, while Paul Haggis's Crash (2005) famously explores race relations in Los Angeles by presenting various intercut short narratives that ultimately cohere, albeit heavy-handedly, to present the notion that racism is bad, we should all just learn to love each other already, etc. The strength of Magnolia over Crash, then, is all in the breadth of vision, the fact that Anderson's choice of the linked narrative allows us to more deeply penetrate his thematic space, while Haggis uses each additional storyline as an extra nail to be hammered, deeply and irrevocably, into our skulls.
Susan Palwick's large, sprawling, futuristic third novel is a linked narrative insofar as each of its characters presents a version of a larger story, which only becomes coherent after the individual stories come together. Roberta Danton and Meredith Walford are young girls who are both hospitalized at the same time with a mysterious, plaguelike disease called CV and who both, to the surprise of everyone, survive, even while their infected parents do not. They then go on to live very different lives—Roberta as an orphan who goes through life aimlessly and unhappily, Meredith as an unbelievably rich idealist who suffers obsessive tendencies as a side effect of having had CV—and are able to forget that they ever met, until they become linked once again when Roberta, many years later, becomes the teacher of Meredith's extremely troubled adopted son, Nicholas, also a CV survivor. There are various peripheral characters, each of whom contributes their own story and participates in this epic. Although it takes place decades in the future, Shelter is surprisingly old-fashioned, almost Steinbeckian in its attention to detail while chronicling what is essentially a family history—a domestic drama, a story about connectedness and the building of a family through the action of simply participating in the same narrative, playing a part in the same story.
The novel begins with a literal appeal for shelter, as young Roberta is stuck in isolation with CV, kept away from her parents and thus from home, safety, the possibility of comfort; "she wanted to be hugged by arms she knew, not by terry-cloth-covered bots or by doctors in spacesuits" (p. 11). This, however, is a shelter that will forever be denied, for her parents do not survive their own bouts with the disease. Similarly, Meredith loses her father to CV while surviving her own stay in isolation, and in losing their trust in the reliability of shelter, the two girls grow up with the deeply instilled desire to provide shelter to others—a desire which ultimately, after various side journeys into the complications of surviving CV and the unconscious replication of their "isolation" in a variety of ways throughout their lives, leads them to Nicholas. Meredith adopts Nicholas and Roberta ends up being his teacher, and both women are implicated in the effort to hide Nicholas's disturbing tendencies (a deeply rooted fear of "monsters," which leads to extremely violent treatment of animals) from the authorities. They do this in order to save him from being brainwiped, a procedure commonly used to deal with criminals and aberrant civilians which renders the victim completely without memory, forced to relearn everything about being human. The fact that Nicholas is also a CV survivor allows the women to identify with him and thus try desperately to shelter him—to keep him from those who wish to brainwipe him—in an effort to provide the shelter that was not afforded them in their own times of need.
The theme of shelter manifests itself in various ways throughout the novel, and is often recognized and blatantly discussed by the characters. And when I say often, I mean all the time. The novel succeeds in showing, rather than telling, the many ways that shelter has become the major preoccupation of the narrative, and then it goes and tells us anyway. One of the more notable and effective passages, however, occurs when Kevin, Meredith's future husband, is discussing one of his obsessions:
"Architecture, of course. Shelter. How people take a dream of comfort and turn it into a building, someplace they can live, someplace they'll be happy. Not that it ever works. You design your dream house, and then once you build it you realize that the roof leaks and there isn't enough closet space, and anyhow the shape of your dreams has changed, but you'll just have to settle for what you have, because you don't have the money to build another house and may not even have the money to remodel. Plus the taxes keep going up." (p. 237)
This passage aptly identifies the novel's preoccupation with the characters' fleeting relationships to shelter as a physical presence, the key to happiness. It also mimics the way the plot will ultimately unfold, as no matter how hard the characters try, shelter will prove to always be just out of reach. "Utopia's a journey, not a destination" is Meredith's response to Kevin's impassioned speech, a comment which characterizes the novel's development to a place of quiet reflection rather than simply an end point of happiness or tragedy; the things which these characters yearn for may remain forever elusive, but the idea of yearning for them, of seeking them out, provides meaning and structure for their lives and allows the action of the novel to move forward.
The plot is filled with conspiracy and drama, and covers a lot of ground—three decades, give or take—allowing for the total immersion effect that certain works of genre fiction manage to create. Palwick has built a rich and complex possible future, complete with political and religious systems, rapid and extraordinary technological advancement, and all the moral polarization that naturally follows such developments. However, as a narrative composed of the stories of various linked characters, it ultimately falls short of what it could have been; there's too much Crash, not enough Magnolia. We hear the characters discuss the same things over and over again, drilling the themes into our heads rather than complicating them, simplifying what could have been a wonderfully complex, thoughtful, and provocative work. There's some really interesting stuff here: many of the peripheral characters are beautifully drawn (my favorites being Zephyr Expanding Cosmos, a performance artist whose pieces involve a literal army of robots, and Fred, an artificial intelligence who suffers just as much as the human protagonists do); the idea of memory, both personal and collective, is explored deeply and poignantly, specifically with regards to the threat of brainwiping and the development of technology which records all of a person's memories in order to create an online "version" of the person after his/her death; and there is some biting criticism of the culture of celebrity and the ways in which it might develop. I just wish the characters themselves would have added more to the richly complex environment in which they were placed.
But the best part of the novel comes at the very end, with an extremely affecting climax that also rings true to Palwick's thematic preoccupations, as the characters are all joined together in one place to finally face what has become of them—and learn exactly what their shared history has meant. In other words, they find out what kind of narrative they have actually produced, and what all the links actually are. And the very last sentence of this very long book will break your heart, and make everything worth it.
Richard Larson is a recent graduate of Hunter College, and he currently lives in New York City. His stories have appeared in Pindeldyboz, Electric Velocipede, and others. He blogs at rlarson.typepad.com.