Need examples of overlapping conversations from fiction
July 16, 2014 12:32 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking for examples from fiction of multiple conversations happening at once, between at least three different people. The more complex the conversation, the better. Better still if it's from a known author.
posted by asher to Writing & Language (21 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
The opening scene of JR by William Gaddis is a nice example of this. You can dip into the 700 pages that follow at random to find others.
posted by otio at 12:43 PM on July 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

Tom Stoppard's Arcadia, my favorite play of all time, has overlapping scenes set in different time periods with overlapping conversations.
posted by Durin's Bane at 12:55 PM on July 16, 2014 [4 favorites]

Basically the entirety of Danielewski's The Fifty Year Sword would probably fit the bill.
posted by dorque at 1:00 PM on July 16, 2014

This happens several times in Zadie Smith's NW. The best example is probably the dinner party (a bit more than halfway through this excerpt).
posted by in a dark glassly at 1:10 PM on July 16, 2014

There were several in Confederacy of Dunces.
posted by michaelh at 1:11 PM on July 16, 2014

There are also incredibly intricate overlapping conversations in Act I of Stoppard's later play, Shipwreck (in the Coast of Utopia trilogy).
posted by willbaude at 1:14 PM on July 16, 2014

Alfred Bester's The Demolished Man has a couple of cases where people are having interwoven conversations at a party.
posted by mikurski at 1:20 PM on July 16, 2014

Caryl Churchhill's play Top Girls has a first scene that is nothing but overlapping conversations by many characters. It's insane to direct.
posted by xingcat at 1:25 PM on July 16, 2014

Gaddis' The Recognitions also has several party/pub scenes where multiple characters are talking at once.
posted by tofu_crouton at 1:35 PM on July 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

Will you take plays? A few days ago I was reading Mary Zimmerman's "Arabian Nights" and there's a bit in there where several characters are telling stories all at the same time, very carefully synchronized. Might be of interest.
posted by Stacey at 1:52 PM on July 16, 2014

You couldn't do better than At Swim Two Birds, which sometimes has conversations between legendary heroic characters, an author and his made-up characters, the author's family and landlady, and the old guys down the pub all mixed together.

At Swim-Two-Birds is a 1939 novel by Irish writer Brian O'Nolan, writing under the pseudonym Flann O'Brien. It is widely considered to be O'Brien's masterpiece, and one of the most sophisticated examples of metafiction....

At Swim-Two-Birds presents itself as a first-person story by an unnamed Irish student of literature. The student believes that "one beginning and one ending for a book was a thing I did not agree with", and he accordingly sets three apparently quite separate stories in motion.[2] The first concerns the Pooka MacPhellimey, "a member of the devil class".[2] The second is about a young man named John Furriskey, who turns out to be a fictional character created by another of the student's creations, Dermot Trellis, a cynical writer of Westerns. The third consists of the student's adaptations of Irish legends, mostly concerning Finn Mac Cool and Mad King Sweeney.

posted by glasseyes at 2:25 PM on July 16, 2014

This happens throughout Ulysses -- my own favorite is the Cyclops episode (Chap. 12), but there are plenty of others.
posted by scody at 2:34 PM on July 16, 2014

Chapter 3 of Brave New World shifts among several overlapping scenes and accelerates until, near the end, each line is from a different conversation.
posted by drdanger at 2:38 PM on July 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

The Waves, by Virginia Woolf.
posted by The corpse in the library at 2:43 PM on July 16, 2014

Most of the last chapter of "Larry's Party" consists of overlapping, interwoven conversations.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 2:45 PM on July 16, 2014

It's been a while since I read "The Corrections" by Jonathan Franzen, but I seem to recall multiple examples of overlapping multi-person conversations. Good luck!
posted by jjonajason at 3:25 PM on July 16, 2014

Some of the party scenes in Evelyn Waugh's Vile Bodies.
posted by betweenthebars at 4:04 PM on July 16, 2014

Stephenson's lesser known The Big U has a section like this, starting at page 202 in the Amazon Preview. (Searching for 202 doesn't work, but search for 'measure' and the section appears; scroll back a bit.) That part is marked out like a play but the rest of the book isn't.
posted by cobaltnine at 6:14 PM on July 16, 2014

Gaddis, Gaddis, Gaddis, as mentioned above. His The Recognitions is famous for its party scenes, which go on for many pages and jump from conversation to conversation.
posted by benito.strauss at 10:34 PM on July 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

This Tony Kushner's Angels in America scene (starting about four minutes into the video). Not fiction per se, but a play. I don't know if that counts for you.
posted by wrabbit at 11:48 PM on July 16, 2014

My favourite novel, Conversation in the Cathedral by Mario Vargas Llosa.
posted by night_train at 11:43 AM on July 21, 2014

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