From ancient epic to 21st-century TV serials, long narratives with many characters have always engaged their audiences by providing a sense of connection among individuals, and by modeling the relationship between individuals and society. In this seminar, we’ll zero in on this aspect of storytelling’s cultural function, and put it to two kinds of test. First, historical: what kinds of communities or networks have novels of the last 100 years imagined into form? Does the sense of belonging inscribed in great fiction reflect real or imaginary social connections? The second test we’ll put to fiction has to do with a particular strain of contemporary narrative, the “hyperlink” story in which the worlds of the major characters intersect only tangentially, if at all. What to make of films and novels in which readers and viewers act as the central node in a network of dispersed characters who operate in isolation or boxed parallel? Can fiction still describe or enact connection in a world of niche marketing, social division, modern anomie, and intense technological mediation?
We’ll consider these questions in relation to several “network fictions,” including five recent films (Crash, Babel, Syriana, Traffic, and 21 Grams) and several recent novels (White Teeth by Zadie Smith, Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, Overstory by Richard Powers, and Candy House and A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan). We’ll also move back in time to explore one of the great novels of the last century, Virginia Woolf’s pocket masterpiece Mrs Dalloway. In that novel, Woolf explores brief flashes of sympathetic communion punctuating lonely trains of thought.
Graded work will include three short critical papers, weekly annotations of key passages, and an oral final exam.