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Robert Nagle

First, it's interesting that the picaresque has pretty much disappeared in the contemporary novel, which tends towards the formal, the baroque, the introspective.

The decline of the picaresque form may have something to do with the emphasis on character autonomy and the deemphasis on external forces (fate, the gods) from determining outcome.

On the other hand, perhaps when we say picareque, we are merely referring to more open-ended forms with episodic content. In that case, then we can point to TV shows and sitcoms as continuing the picaresque tradition.

I would group the picaresque/coincidence connection with the problem of the limits of fantasy. How much can a dreamer/fabulist get away with? And if literary coincidences have value in helping the reader/viewer to imagine the improbable or laugh at fate's silliness (see Candide), then they may very well reveal our own sense of helplessness combined with a desire to have our lives arranged as whimsically as certain literary characters. It may also reflect a discomfort with introspection. In this modern age of anomie, the individual reader may be uncomfortable with exploring characterization and emotions simply because solitude is dull and overdone. (I say this as someone who works in complete silence in a cubicle all day; when I come home, I am content with the shallowness of Cheers. It provides company and gets me out of myself).

Kundera has written about the picaresque character at several places (especially in his essay on Diderot's Jacques the Fatalist. Kundera talks about characterizations arising from actions or situations (something Kundera links to erotic adventurism) rather than from internal drives. This parallels (for me at least) people's affection for sitcom characters. The characters of the Friends TV show, for example, never have emotional depth, but the accumulation of backstory creates complex storylines in the 10th year. You can't help it.

One final thought. I am struck by how the recent renaissance of oral storytelling has resulted in looser narratives and an emphasis on natural flow of speech rather than the contemplation of a phrase. Later generations may look at 19th century craftsmen like Flaubert with awe combined with incomprehension.

Trent Walters

The picaresque became known as a lesser art form because it fails to resonate. Robert gives the example of Voltaire, a writer whom I love for wit and wisdom. One finds this spirit of picaresque alive and well in modern day genre novel satires through Robert Sheckley and in the more famous, later incarnated mirror image, Douglas Adams. One enjoys the story scene by scene, but the whole does not connect in a greater arc or, if it does, the arc is generally make-shift.

Modern art shapes do include coincidence. Without it, the structure may feel too rigid, but life is connected. It is a piece of a greater whole, which one sees most vibrantly in ecology. I've come to see even politics as a kind of necessary ecology that breaks when one side or the other is too rigidly adhered to. We exist in a delicate balance of creation/destruction, creativity/structure, life/death, and yin/yang that, to tip the scales, ruins whatever process you were seeking to perpetuate.

Trent Walters

By the way, I'll trade a dozen average, uninspired, blandly structured novels for one picaresque novel by Voltaire or Sheckley. Sheckley seems at his best in the short form, however, where he takes on a firmer shape. So I'm not dissing the picaresque or Sheckley, but it is because of the way art resonates that Sheckley will be better known for his short fiction.


I suspect the notion of a "formless" novel is going to mean different things to different people, but you might want to thumb through a copy of John Banville's first novel Nightspawn. The book doesn't ultimately work but it's an interesting attempt at what Banville described as "a betrayal of the reader's good faith in the writer's good faith." He goes on to describe it "as near to silence as I can get" but most interesting, he says this:

"I set out to subject as much pressure as I could bring to bear on [traditional nineteenth century concepts], while remaining within the rules. I made a wildly implausible plot. I brought in stock characters. I brought in a political theme ... precisely in order to make nothing of it. There are many reasons for proceeding this way but one of the principal ones was that I was interested to test, to bend close to breaking, the very curious relationship which exists between reader and author."

Not especially germane to picaresques, but an interesting meta-attempt at a formless novel.


This explanation would have more weight if it had treated the influence of Aristotle's Poetics on narrative fiction. Aristotle slammed the _deus ex machina_ ceceit, which is analogous to the idea of 'coincidence' in prose. Where does that fit in to the notion that the picaresque came first?

The development of drama was taking place before the prose story-tellers could even write, and it is surely reasonable to think that the early writers of prose placed themselves in the dramatic tradition, especially when you think of someone like Aphra Behn, who was a master playwright before she turned to writing prose.

Amardeep Singh

I think Simon's point about deus ex machina is quite right (though surely it would have had a Greek name... do we know what word Aristotle used?). Perhaps it's sensible to think of external/coincidence plots and internal/epiphany plots as dancing around each other in time.

In contemporary fiction, I think both devices are available, sometimes even in the course of a single story (The Sweet Hereafter).

Anyway, thanks for a great post on the picaresque. I learned a thing or two.

Dan Green

No more than I'm saying that the picaresque is inherently superior am I saying that it was somehow "first." Of course there were other approaches to storytelling, but the picaresque was the one that helped to get the novel going.


The greatest picaresque in 20th c. American literature is Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun. Simply peerless. Soldier in the Mist is also a fine picaresque by him.

This little book review is interesting in that it covers "metahistorical romance", which definitely incorporates the picaresque.


R. A. Rubin

I guess then in the last century, Kerouac stands alone. I prefer coincidence. It makes for healthier art. Our audience prefers it. Iowa doesn't care about an audience. They have tenure.


The author Jonathan Raban has some interesting points regarding coincidences in novels, as mentioned in this blog: "More interestingly, Raban returned to one of my favourite conceits of his: the novel-sized city...Noting how people sometimes poke fun at the ridiculous coincidences Dickens relied on when writing about mid-19thC London i.e. key protagonists accidently bumping into other key protagonists in the busy streets, thereby sprouting unlikely plotlines, Raban notes that the population of London at that time was 1.7m people. Seatlle now is 1.7m people. Raban's not totally serious point is that there may be an optimum size of city to generate the coincidences required to write a certain kind of novel"



But Flaubert, James, and Joyce *do* employ outrageous coincidence. It's just that the coincidences tend to be more fine-grained and thickly spread than in "Tom Jones" or "Oliver Twist", and to be harder for the protagonists to recognize and for the plot summaries to retell. The beauties of free indirect discourse rely on characters thinking and perceiving exactly the right things in exactly the right way to support the fiction's structure: ideally, there's a coincidence per phrase! In "Ulysses", Joyce carried the technique to such self-conscious extremes that it became the major source of comedy in itself, with the overt "plot" coincidences of the story dwarfed by comparison. Beckett's "stink of artifice" merely did Joyce shorter, and it seems to me that the acclaimed mainstream post-modernists have ever since comfortably dawdled in the cleared frontier.

Dan Green

Ray: I agree with you. "Coincidence" is just another way of saying "artifice," and ultimately all fiction is artifice.


I was struck by a similarity of description in your praise of the potential of the picaresque and Coetzee's near-dismissal of Augie March. Isn't Augie a picaresque?

Daniel Green

Yes, Augie March is a picaresque, but a very badly done one.

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