In reading the book "The Unfortunates," you are directed by the book's instructions to literally mix the chapters together, excepting the first and last chapter.

This creates an interesting phenomenon, where the story becomes very personalized to you. Additionally, somewhat oddly, it appears that the story works and flows well no matter how you shuffle it around.

Each part of the story is a short vignette, but it's not as though nothing happens in these sections. They're only vaguely disjoint, and it actually surprised me on many occasions when sections seemed to flow straight into each other. This is more than coincidence.

What techniques were employed in this book to make it so easily readable in random order?

  • I wouldn't have the patience to flip back and forth through a book like that :P – TrojanByAccident Jan 20 '17 at 3:00
  • @TrojanByAccident You actually physically shuffle the chapters together - only the chapters are bound, not the entire book! – user80 Jan 20 '17 at 3:02
  • Oh. That's... interesting. – TrojanByAccident Jan 20 '17 at 3:05
  • That sounds like an awesome idea for a book. Very Borgesian. – Rand al'Thor Jan 20 '17 at 4:00
  • 1
    It might be interesting to compare with a similar gimmick on a different scale: A Hundred Thousand Billion Poems. – Gilles 'SO- stop being evil' Feb 12 '17 at 16:01

The Unfortunates comprises 27 chapters. The first and last chapters are kept stationary, while the remaining 25 chapters are reflective vignettes shuffled into random order. The way that The Unfortunates maintains coherence in the face of complete "disorganization" effectively amounts to three things:

  • Reasonable bookending of the story. The intro sets the scene and establishes the book's tone and themes, and the ending closes them once the reader is in full knowledge of the vignettes.
  • Usually short vignettes, which leave questions of how the narrator got there and what they're doing there besides reflecting somewhat moot. We're not supposed to feel a need to ask such questions at all.
  • The topics of most of these vignettes are the narrator's thoughts, which are portrayed in a circuitous roundabout way that complements the shuffled order of the book.

The Unfortunates isn't a book that conveys plot. It doesn't conform to many of the accepted norms of Western writing, and through its rejection, manages to position itself such that the only thing that matters to each vignette is its emotional context.

On top of that, the narration within each vignette is, in some ways, also a facet of the nonlinearity. By making each individual vignette structurally nonlinear in its narration, the order in which they're read becomes a matter of which scene and which setting the reader encounters first. This ultimately isn't a jarring experience, because there's continuity established by the way the narrator goes about narrating.

Unlike most Western storytelling, the questions of "how did we get here?" and "what's going on?" and "who wants what; what's in their way?" just aren't relevant. These sorts of questions are the ones that are needed to establish a linear order in a book at all, and the removal of the need to ask those questions paves the way for nonlinearity.

This is part of the intentional design of the book, in calling itself an experimental novel. It's supposed to be presented in-text as a coherent story despite nonlinearity. But it's also presented on a meta-level as a challenge to the need for linear plot and many of the tropes of Western storytelling, while itself remaining within the comfort zone of the Western storytelling framework.

The technique, then, effectively boils down to it stripping away any of the questions one could ask that would lead to a need for linearity at all. That's what gives it much of its power as a presentation of emotion and thought alone.

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