Primarily a term associated with symphonic music, polyphony ("many voices") also describes a distinct form of fiction, one in which disparate voices contribute their unique perspectives to the telling of a single story. The voices need not be human, but might consist entirely of motifs that evolve throughout the narrative, and the work might even utilize a bevy of separate genres to help accomplish this. Cloud Atlas certainly qualifies as a polyphonic novel, as do William Faulkner's Absalom! Absalom! and Ken Kesey's Sometimes a Great Notion, and each of these works wears its complexity proudly. By contrast, Norman Mailer's The Executioner's Song (quite literally polyphonic, as it is based entirely on the recorded transcripts of all the actors involved in Gary Gilmore's drama) is sewn together in a more traditional way, without a single seam showing.
But is polyphonic structure possible, or even desirable, in the short story? James Baldwin's brilliant "Sonny's Blues" comes to mind. Much of this story—which might be considered a condensed novel—consists of a metaphorical dialogue between estranged brothers through a multiplicity of competing genres, including essay, epistolary form, historic digression and even music criticism. While these juxtapositions might have rendered the story as chaotic and atonal as free jazz, Baldwin holds them together by theme as well as the "music" of the narrator's voice. While Baldwin the essayist often wrote in the fiery cadence of the preacher he had once been, the narrator of "Sonny's Blues" adheres to a somber tone. In The Art of the Novel, writer Milan Kundera argues that this is because novelists think very differently than essayists; that while an essay seeks to shape a "Supreme Truth" in authoritative language, the universe of the novel lends itself only to the realm of hypothesis and play, "the single divining Truth decomposed into myriad relative truths parceled out by men."
In a polyphonic story, the nearest thing to a Supreme Truth is to be found in theme, to which all voices are subservient if a story is to fulfill what Kundera refers to as its "polyphonic potential." According to Kundera, "man desires a world where good and evil can be clearly distinguished, for he has an innate and irrepressible desire to judge before he understands." Such a world, however, is rarely available to him in the postmodern era. Postmodernism argues that, if there is a Supreme Truth at all, it is nearly impossible to hear amid the clamor of the world's competing voices. This creates no small measure of anxiety for human beings, for "in the absence of a Supreme Judge, the world suddenly appear[s] in its fearsome ambiguity." Because of this, Truth can best be discovered from the input of many different perspectives.
"Sonny's Blues" also concurs with Kundera's "Janacekian" imperative: "to rid the novel of the automatism of novelistic technique, of novelistic verbalism; to make it dense." Density in this regard represents a multi-layered story structure which rewards repeated readings, its complex inner workings cloaked in the illusion of simplicity. The unification of disparate voices in a polyphonic story, Kundera argues, "demands a technique of ellipsis, of condensation," a kind of dream logic where any one symbol can represent many things through amalgamations of combined elements. As such, condensation is invaluable to the short polyphonic story, for the artist faces a supremely difficult task in harnessing wildly disparate voices into the sublime artistic experience that polyphony aims to achieve.
Carefully controlled polyphony allows each voice its say, while theme binds them together to create a transcendent artistic statement. Like a symphony—with its variations, repetitions and dramatic juxtapositions—all voices "illuminate and explain one another as they explore the single theme, a single question." Embedded stories, as well as separate genres within a story, help to accomplish this. Thematically speaking, polyphonic stories are designed to conclude with a crescendo, which allows all voices to release their energetic potentials in a definitive statement; a transporting climax intended to lift the piece into the sublime. It is absolutely crucial that a polyphonic work yield a huge payoff, one that haunts you long after you've finished the story. Otherwise, the entire work collapses and the reader feels cheated, because polyphonic stories demand so much of the reader's intellectual and emotional investment.
Does every great story need to be polyphonic to be rich, transcendent and unforgettable? Of course not. Some stories are like great country songs and others like blasts of punk or swirls of psychedelia. But polyphonic stories achieve a kind of catharsis unheard of elsewhere—one that strikes a universal chord. They tap into the Collective Unconscious and push us toward a more inclusive and compassionate understanding of our shared condition as human beings. In attempting to universalize suffering and promote identification with all of humanity, Baldwin's "Sonny's Blues" openly courts friction and disparity. As Sonny muses, looking from his window at the streets below, "All that hatred and love and misery. It's a wonder it doesn't blow the avenue apart." Perhaps it is coincidence, but both The Executioner's Song and "Sonny's Blues" are ultimately about redemption.