Learning to Re-Read the Novel

In Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719), often considered the first English novel (as we now define the term), the book opens with the words “I was born in the Year 1632, in the City of York, of a good Family...” and ends some two-hundred pages later without a single chapter break or exchange of dialogue. Though one of the most influential books written in English, everything about it now seems hopelessly old-fashioned and a tedious chore for the modern reader (weaned on YA lit, especially) to wade through. For this reason it appears less and less frequently on college syllabi, and not at all in the high school classroom, where it was once enjoyed a popularity similar to—and perhaps even rivaling—Harry Potter. 

And yet, the story has all the hallmarks of a modern fantasy tale: a man captured and sold into slavery; a daring escape which eventually leaves him shipwrecked on a deserted island; difficult, painstaking attempts to keep himself alive without a single soul to converse with; and ultimately, the invasion of his island by neighboring Cannibals—and the blood-thirsty Spanish! Crusoe, too, is the model of an engaging narrator: he is completely unreliable as he hides details, fudges facts, and proclaims a miraculous conversion only to forget it a few pages later. I honestly believe more adventure stories, unreliable narrators, and simply great novelists sailed out of Crusoe’s island than any other locale in print.

So why do readers have such problems with Robinson Crusoe? While the older language and slower pace is partly to blame, the most obvious reason is also the most visible: it no longer looks like a novel. Without chapters, most people won’t even wade through a 200-page novel, since we don’t know where to stop to take a breath. And how do characters talk to each other without dialogue quotes and tags? With Crusoe, the entire book is in the narrator’s voice, so he sums up dialogue or else apes their voices in his own, since the story is in the past, as is the dialogue (only the speaker is with us in the present, as we read the story). Defoe takes Crusoe as literally as possible, making the reader think that Crusoe is alive and telling the story right in front of you, on the spot, in a single evening. Indeed, the first editions of the novel omitted Defoe’s name entirely from the cover, attributing it to “Robinson Crusoe of York, Mariner.” How’s that for verisimilitude?  

While the early novel wasn’t even a novel, but a modified romance, a story of fiction with realistic embellishments, I’m not sure Defoe would have (or should have) changed a thing. With chapters Crusoe would become too fictionally distant, a work of art rather than a crude, on-the-spot narrative that seems to have washed up in a bottle on storm-tossed seas. The rambling, discursive nature of the work makes it read like an actual document; Defoe even includes Crusoe’s diary entries and his painstaking attempts to plant corn and later on, to discover the identity of a mysterious footprint in the sand (is he imagining it? Was it his own? Is it the Devil?). Even in 1719, Defoe wanted this to look like a real work and not a work of fiction, so he cleverly disguised it to look like a contemporary travel narrative. Readers largely took the bait, finding it the most readable, captivating, and miraculous story of life on the high seas. With a little effort, we can do the same, mindful of the skill it took Defoe (with almost no literary models) to create such a living-and-breathing hero, who in the end isn’t all that heroic.

Reading Robinson Crusoe makes me question the very mechanics of the modern novel itself. Does a novel need chapters? Dialogue? Short paragraphs? Modern language? Glossy covers? A genre? Crusoe frustrates almost all of our conventions of what a novel does, and yet continues to succeed as a work of art on its own terms. Yet imagine if someone tried to write a novel without chapters today? Or if a writer queried a literary agent and admitted, “my book has no genre...it creates its own genre.” For all our talk of diversity and experimentation, today’s readers are wildly orthodox when it comes to what we read and how we do it. It should follow a very rigid formula and basically hit all the marks we’ve come to expect...then we can look for things like novelty or innovation. And yet, form always follows function, so what if a story requires a dramatic break with the past? Wouldn’t some stories benefit from a single, continuous chapter?

For example, imagine a modern Crusoe story...a space pirate who becomes marooned on a hospitable, yet remote moon in a distant solar system. As his technology falls away, he’s forced to rely on the most rudimentary means of survival, including a simple notebook for his daily reflections and fears. In the end he perishes, and all that remains is his book—discovered a thousand years later by an entirely new race of creatures colonizing this forgotten moon. “We” become that race, puzzling over this strange, claustrophobic narrative. Who was this man? What chance did he have? Did he almost make it? Does he have a lesson to teach us from beyond time and space?

Chapters would break up the terror of his existence into ordered, predictable patterns. With each one we would know we’re getting closer to the end, or to some big plot development...after all, each chapter begins and ends with something happening. A series of relentless pages, however, is simply that—the possibility rather than the inevitability of drama. We have no idea what to expect, or when, or how it stops. Andy Weir’s The Martian captured something of this flavor in his terse, hilarious entries of a modern-day Crusoe trying to make something of his existence on Mars. I found every page of it riveting and exciting, since I had no idea where (or how) it ended. In some ways, it was disappointing when he introduced chapter breaks that took us back to Earth and into other people’s perspectives—it became a much more traditional novel. And yet, this had the effect of smashing two fictional worlds together: the realistic, anti-novel of Crusoe with today’s modern genre novel. Whether or not he did this consciously, it’s a bold experiment and only works because he dipped his toe into the waters of Crusoe’s island, at least temporarily.

I would like to read more novels that challenge how we read them...perhaps not drastically, or confusingly, but in small, subtle ways. Why not make dialogue look more natural, more as part of the narrative itself rather than a play script that intrudes upon the story proper? Could chapters function less as plot points or reading breaks than as the arbitrary creation of the narrator(s)? The joy of reading is the same as the thrill of adventure: you want to get where you’re going, but not right away, and not the way you expected. A book should make you lose your bearing a few pages in, so you temporarily worry, and even fear you might never reach the end. That’s how Robinson Crusoe always feels to me, like an adventure in danger of running aground—and it very nearly does several times, thanks not to Crusoe’s incompetence, but Defoe’s artistry. After all, the novel is “novel,” something new and unexpected: the better we think the we know it, the less we should.