by Vivian Wagner
I’ve been thinking lately about how we’re becoming more fragmented as readers and writers, and about how that might not be such a bad thing. We’re better able to cope with bits and pieces, better able to make sense of fractured, shattered prose. In Smarter Than you Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin, 2013), Clive Thompson argues that we’re adapting to new technologies, and that adaptation is making us better able to handle the realities of our digital culture. We’re constantly staring at small screens, so it makes sense that we’re learning to tell and understand stories that have been broken apart into the smallest possible components.
I’m fascinated by the way that a narrative can take shape through a series of such fragments. Recently, I read Joe Wilkins’s Far Enough: A Western in Fragments (Black Lawrence Press, 2015) and loved it. It might be composed of fragments, but it’s a fully alive, fully developed narrative. It tells the story of Willie Benson, a cowboy at a ranch in a fictional Western landscape. Each short-short chapter gives a glimpse into the lives of the book’s characters—including Benson, his rancher boss, and the rancher’s daughter.
This book shows how a book can be woven out of shards that have been chiseled off the heartstone of the West and assembled in such a way as to make sense, to tell a story. It’s a postmodern western, but it’s a western nonetheless. While I read the book on a hot summer day, sitting in my hammock here in a village at the Appalachian edge of the Midwest, I started thinking of Mark Twain and Richard Brautigan, of Sherman Alexie and Louise Erdrich, of all those strong regional voices that capture the spirit of various frontiers. This is the spirit of Wilkins’s book. He brings to life through fragments a time and a place, a contemporary West in which mothers die not from bear attacks but from meth overdoses, a world in which the river runs dry every summer, possibly the action of an angry god, but more plausibly because of climate change. And it’s able to tell these stories through brief snippets, paragraphs, and one- to two-page pieces linked only by a shared vision of the world they create.
We’re constantly staring at small screens, so it makes sense that we’re learning to tell and understand stories that have been broken apart into the smallest possible components.
There’s something about our culture, about our reading sensibility, that is coming around to fragmented stories. Certainly, they’ve been with us since at least the beginning of the twentieth century, with modernists like Gertrude Stein and T.S. Eliot, but they’ve come in and out of style. When the modernists first introduced such fragmentation, it seemed, perhaps, like a fad, a trend, something that we’d recover from and—by the middle of the twentieth century—largely did. But fragmentation is back, and now it just feels normal. Expected. No big deal. It’s as if our brains have changed. Our reading minds, trained by many small screens and endlessly changing and cascading digital tasks, have come to expect and even crave fragmentation. This kind of storytelling seems, oddly, more “real” than realism. Our reality is fragmented, and so such stories seem to just tell it like it is.
The fragments in Far Enough don’t ultimately feel, therefore, all that fragmented. Yes, they’re short and concise. And yes, they’re not strung together exactly as a traditional narrative would be. Rather, as in Abigail Thomas’s Safekeeping: Some True Stories from a Life, they’re loosely linked, even as each one stands alone. Every fragment in Wilkins’s book is titled with a phrase that derives from a sentence in the piece: “Free Beers Until Midnight,” “Twelve Kinds of Rock,” “Something Else Altogether.” But taken together, they tell a comprehensive narrative of life, death, and love, beginning with the ranch accident that sets the story in motion—Willie losing his thumb while branding steers—and ending with a long-awaited rainstorm of almost mythical proportions.
It’s a story that makes us care about the characters and the place they inhabit, and that caring is not any less real for the fragmented manner in which we get to know them. And in this way, the book’s fractured structure tells us something, both about the characters and about ourselves. Like the characters in Far Enough, our lives are made up of scattershot moments. But like those characters, we’re also living those lives, making meaning, and looking around the bend to see what comes next.