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Writing the Polyphonic Novel
Author: Paul Williams
Dr Paul Williams draws on his own experience in writing Cokcrako, a novel that evolved into a polyphonic form, discussing the successive choices he made in telling the story of a young Australian academic working in South Africa and researching a legendary African writer whose identity proves to be an illusion


The journey to finding the right voice for a novel can be an arduous one. My novel Cokcraco (2013) took fifteen years and many layers to complete. The only way to resolve the issue of voice in this book was to create a multi-layered narrative in which contradictory voices emerged to create a polyphonic whole. 

The polyphonic or dialogic novel is nothing new. Mikhail Bakhtin borrowed the phrase from a musical concept referring to the diversity of voices in Dostoyevsky’s novels. Recently, there has been a resurgence of novels of this type that play with simultaneity, contradiction, and the empty space between voices, echoing our post-modern, multi-tasking reading practice.

Cokcraco is an inadvertent polyphonic novel whose layers of discourse evolved during the fifteen-year writing process and the author’s struggle to find its “voice”. This paper will examine the complex process of writing the polyphonic novel and highlighting its potential value in today’s multiplicitous climate.

Keywords: multi-tasking, polyphony, creative writing, Bakhtin, multigraphic, contrapuntal, graphomania, Cokcraco, African literature.

New Technology

It is called multi-tasking. Students sit in a lecture theatre, plugged into their iPhones. They are also listening to the lecture, looking at the PowerPoint slides, slouching in front of a laptop which feeds them Facebook news. And they are also texting. They can flip over to playing a game too when bored. The lecturer at the front of the hall rails against what he calls such antisocial behaviour, admonishing them to close their laptops, pull the plugs out of their ears, turn off their mobiles and concentrate on the monotask at hand.

Surprised, hurt even, they say they are listening. They’re googling a reference; they’re writing a sentence of a new story that pops into their head because of something he said—they’re checking out the new Creative Writing website to look at the assessment criteria he has just mentioned. And they’re texting their friends a running commentary of the lecture.

It is more than simply multi-tasking: it is a way of experiencing and interacting with the world. It is a stand too against the authority of a monologous voice.

Hamlet Psyched was recently staged at the University of the Sunshine Coast by our drama students, an adaptation of the Shakespearean tragedy which involved (as well as the conventional live performance) three large screens where text messages, scenes and clips flashed throughout the performance. Actors were on their mobiles for much of the play, the audience was subjected to constant upstaging by other actors and mini-scenes, and at one point the three screens projected live camera footage taken by the actors of the performance itself so that it could be seen in quadruplicate. Did this bother the audience who had to multi task? No, this was the point: to situate Hamlet in a contemporary multimedia milieu a modern audience understood. [1]

From the novel too, we have come to expect a more fluid, democratic pluralism of voice. 


The word “polyphonic” is a musical term, referring to simultaneous lines of independent melody making a whole. Most music is polyphonic, but it has come to mean a complex interweaving of melodies associated with counterpoint, for example, Bach’s fugues, where each part is written against the other, intertwining, playing off the main melodic line, sometimes playing it in reverse, harmonizing at opportune moments.

In a novel, polyphony is in most cases metaphorical, as is the term “voice”. According to David Lodge, a polyphonic novel is a “novel in which a variety of conflicting ideological positions are given a voice and set in play both between and within individual speaking subjects, without being placed and judged by an authoritative authorial voice” (Lodge 1990: 86). Polyphony is nothing new. Mikhail Bakhtin coined the phrase “the polyphonic novel” in his 1934 paper “Discourse of the Novel”. Polyphony is, he argues, a feature of narrative, which includes a diversity of points of view and voices. The use of heteroglossia (many tongues or voices) gives the novel its power in that it supports the coexistence of, and conflict between, different types of speech: the speech of characters, the speech of narrators, and even the speech of the author. Bakhtin’s heteroglossia is “another’s speech in another’s language, serving to express authorial intentions but in a refracted way” (Bakhtin 1981: 324).

This is in opposition to “monologism” (single-thought discourse; or “homophony”) where “one transcendental perspective or consciousness integrates the entire field, and thus integrates all the signifying practices, ideologies, values and desires that are deemed significant. Anything irrelevant to this perspective is deemed superfluous or irrelevant in general” (Robinson 2011 n.p.). We usually think of the “integrated single consciousness” as the author and speak of him/her as such: “the author is trying to say…. what the author means here is….”

In a monological novel, characters are the author’s mouthpiece and exist solely to transmit the author’s ideology. In polyphonic novels, however, voices interact, and even rebel. Bakhtin’s notion of polyphony goes much further than I want to take it in this paper, but it may be worth noting that Bakhtin’s ideas rest on his view that “language is not simply a means to communicate information monologically” (Robinson 2011 n.p.). Because language is a social field, rather than simply a descriptive connector, language “illuminates some aspects of an object and obscures others” (2011 n.p.), and these social ways of seeing are always contested, in dialogue, and changing.”

The Contemporary Polyphonic Novel

In a sense, all novels are by their very definition polyphonic, but I would like to distinguish Bakhtinian polyphony in a conventional novel from a more experimental, multigraphic novel: I would like to argue that the contemporary polyphonic novel has to be seen in the light of Lyotard’s petit recits that discredit meta-narratives, and following this, Charles Jenck’s “double coding” as well as Linda Hutcheon’s idea that postmodern works are inherently double or contradictory (that two opposite truths can be held readily at the same time: “postmodernism is principally an ironic mode, which simultaneously says or does one thing and another” (Hutcheon 1988: 16).

The contemporary polyphonic novel, in all its forms (the composite novel, the hybrid, the multigraphic novel) pushes Bakhtin’s notions of heterglossia beyond a harmony of multiple voices. Writers (and their multitasking readers) are now embracing simultaneity, contradiction, the empty space between voices, cacophony and multimedia intrusions into the genre. The polyphonous novel reflects new technology, plays with it, reflects on it, rails against it. Voice is no longer a metaphor. Form, format, genre and multimedia have extended its meaning to encompass more than just the author’s style or persona. The postmodern polyphonic novel allows a multitasking operation which deliberately flouts authorial control or linguistic stability, celebrates discord and irruption of any monologic voice.

For example, J.M. Coetzee’s recent polyphonic novel, Diary of a Bad Year, is divided into three narratives that occur simultaneously on the same page, in three horizontal layers. The primary text along the top of the page, “Strong opinions” is a recognizable academic essay, an intellectual discourse, disembodied and objective: “In the popular music of the twentieth century, there has been a new found rootedness in body-experience” (Coetzee 2008: 136). This discourse is undermined by the second strand of narrative, which is the narrator’s emotional self-doubts, his account of his disruptive feelings for a woman whom he recruits to type his work, and who criticizes, even belittles his “strong opinions”: “What has begun to change since I moved into the orbit of Anya is not my opinions themselves so much as my opinion of my opinions” (ibid.). The third strand of narrative is even more disruptive—the dialogue between the woman and her husband who plan to rob the narrator of his money, and silence his strong opinions once and for all: “Have you thought this through properly, Alan? I say. Have you thought it through, and are you sure you want to proceed?” (ibid.).

What makes this a modern polyphonic novel is the reader’s dilemma: do we read the strands simultaneously? Where is the author? The narrator? What narrative is untold between strands?  The form of the novel disrupts any conventional linear reading pattern, and will not allow a monologic reading. We are constantly multitasking, flickering from one strand to the other, comparing, contrasting, and page turning. 

The modern reader should not be distressed by this undermining of the authorial voice, used as s/he is to contradiction, disruption, and simultaneous, competing discourse. Consider, for example, how used we are to comments on blogs, and to reading counter narratives on twitter during television debates.

J. M. Coetzee calls these battling narrative strands in his work “counter voices” that allow a dialogic space between protagonists, author and reader.

Writers are used to being in control of the text and don’t resign it easily. But my resistance is not only a matter of protecting a phantasmatic omnipotence. Writing is not free expression. There is a true sense in which writing is dialogic: a matter of awakening the countervoices in oneself and embarking upon speech with them. It is some measure of a writer’s seriousness whether he does evoke/invoke those countervoices in himself, that is, step down from the position of what Lacan calls “the subject supposed to know.” (Attwell 1992: 65)

Multigraphic Novel

The examples given so far are not really multigraphic novels or stories. Multigraphic novels have “real” voices, where readers can click a link and hear a clip, or a song, or a voice-over, or a counterpoint to the narrative, where they can interact with the narrative by choosing a plot path, or tweeting a response.

Speaking at the Great Writing Conference in London in 2013, Nigel Krauth argued for the “multigraphic” novel, the novel of the future that embraces new technology and its multiplicitous discourses in terms of form and interactivity. A multigraphic novel will mimic our multitasking habits of the classroom as we listen, Google, engage in side narratives, watch visual text and follow seemingly contradictory strands of discourses all at once.

Competing voices can be added to texts with a visual component, interactive and live links (for eBooks) and audio soundtrack, but even in a standard print text such disruptive voices can be suggested in a variety of ways, signalled by font changes, format differences or intrusion of other genres. For example, many students in my creative writing courses write multi-voiced stories that are layered with intrusive “voices”. Here is a sample from a first year creative writing student, Lachlan Haycock’s “Edge” which uses experimental typography and multiple discourses in order to explore Bipolar Affective Disorder:


And here is a third year student’s story, Tracey White’s “Blackbird”, a complex palimpsest where one story of slavery and oppression is overlaid with another, almost illegible, embedded ghost story:

Jennifer Egan’s composite novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad (2011), employs a variety of forms, styles and viewpoints to create a pastiche of many voices. The novel “distill[s] a medley out of its polyphonic, sometimes deliberately cacophonous voices” says one reviewer. Egan switches from first to second to third person, from past to present tense, from traditional forms of narrative to reportage to graphics to text speak. The penultimate chapter, for example, is a PowerPoint slide show (Egan 2011: 257):


PowerPoint media, a form of abbreviated note taking/lecture distillation, accentuates spaces in the narrative, and as Sarah Churchill points out, it is these gaps that speak the loudest:

Alison’s brother is obsessed with pauses in rock songs. Those pauses, like the spaces between PowerPoint slides, become a metaphor for the gaps between what we mean and what we say, or the apparently unbridgeable distance between family members. (Churchill 2011, n.p.).

Egan’s final chapter is entitled “Pure Language” and contains sections of pure text speak:

tel me hEs betr in prsn
nevr met
4 rEl??
#@&* (Egan 2011: 334)

Such polyphonic novels reflect our multi-tasking functions, mirroring our fragmented and schizophrenic (another metaphor) new century.

Milan Kundera and the Contrapuntal Novel

Kundera’s novels take the musical metaphor of polyphony seriously, and imitate symphonies, employ counterpoint, harmony, fugues, and jarring discord. In The Art of the Novel (1988) Kundera describes his work as “novelistic counterpoint” and “polyhistory,” using the play of different kinds of writing – essay, dream, narrative – in a single text. He argues that the polyphonic novel began with the contrapuntal dissonance in Don Quixote, but insists that new variations, such as “chronologic displacement” revitalizes this form and allows resonances that rise above the individual protagonist and author’s monolithic hold on the meaning of the text, creating what he calls  a “suprapersonal wisdom” (Meisel 1988: 13). Kundera’s polyphonic novels are strategies for surmounting one’s sense of entrapment in events outside one’s control or even awareness. 

In an interview for The Paris Review in 1988, Kundera outlines how he based his series of polyphonic novels (including The Joke, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting and The Unbearable Lightness of Being) on the musical metaphor of the symphony, counterpoint and the fugue. First he suggests that the novel by its very nature needs to be an experiment with voice and should be multi genre: “the novel ha[s] tremendous synthetic power, that it could be poetry, fantasy, philosophy, aphorism, and essay all rolled into one” (Salmon 1988, n.p.). But the use of such devices should not be purely for the sake of innovation or gimmickry. Kundera insists that the polyphonic must be defined as “that which brings together every device and every form of knowledge in order to shed light on existence” (1988, n.p.).

Further, he suggests that “in order to make the novel into a polyhistorical illumination of existence, the writer needs to master the technique of ellipsis, the art of condensation.” For Kundera, ellipsis means getting “directly to the heart of things”. He cites a Czech composer  Leoš Janácek, who uses “brutal juxtaposition instead of transitions; repetition instead of variation—and always straight to the heart of things” (1988, n.p.).

Kundera suggests that “the basic requirements of novelistic counterpoint are: (1) the equality of the various elements, (2) the indivisibility of the whole [and] the key to a new way of putting together a narrative [is to] let both unfold simultaneously” (1988, n.p.).

I am not sure we can ever move away from metaphor here. Simultaneity would mean that the voices speak concurrently. But of course they cannot be read concurrently. I was tempted to write this paper in columns, with two or three strands of voices competing for your attention, but you would not read them simultaneously anyway. Even Coetzee’s Diary of a Bad Year can only suggest simultaneity, but has to be read in a monolinear way.



The first time I realized that my novel Cokcraco (2013) was polyphonic was after its publication, when I read the reviews:

Cokcraco feels like a novel that is in constant tension with itself, always trying to find a way to reconcile its experimental nature with its adherence to generic narrative structure (Eldridge 2013, n.p.).

Cokcraco is a novel of antithetical standpoints: creator and critic, colonized and colonizer, perception and reality. The innovation of this work resides not only in the multiplicity of the voices presented but also the structure of the novel … Williams’s novel is at once a second person narrative, an epistolary fiction, a literary dissertation (complete with footnotes and a list of references) and a postmodern treatise exposing false binaries. Each chapter begins with an encyclopaedic entry… and the travel guide aptly named Crowded Planet positions [the protagonist] Timothy as the “foreign other” attempting to navigate the South African space. (Brock 2013: 52)

When I wrote Cokcraco, I had no intention of writing a polyphonic novel. I wanted to write a novel that explored the basic tensions in my two selves, the writer and the academic, the creator and the critic. I also wanted to explore my first naïve adventure as an idealistic academic at a university in Zululand, South Africa, where I was to replace a disgraced professor and fill his very large shoes, was expected to take sides in a conflict not my own, and deal with a foreign culture as well. I also wanted to explore the cult of the mysterious author, as I was one of the worshippers of this strange being, having devoted a lot of my undergraduate life to admiring and pursuing such enigmatic African writers as J. M. Coetzee, Dambudzo Marechera and Ayi Kwei Armah.

But how could I bring all those strands together? It was a tall order, but most novels do arise from such tangled desires. I knew it was not going to be an easy task. Two events helped crystallize these strands into a narrative plot:

1) I grew up reading a very popular African writer loved by thousands of African readers in Southern Africa. He never appeared in public or had photos of himself on the covers of his novels, or attended his prize ceremonies. Eventually my publisher revealed to me that he was white, not black.

2) Andrew Slattery, a poet in Newcastle (the derivative Australian Newcastle in New South Wales) who has won numerous awards and accolades over the past few years, was recently discovered to have plagiarized lines from well-known poets. He defended himself by saying he was “sampling” and making “intertextual” references to these writers (Roberts 2013, n.p.).

Cokcraco was originally a straight linear narrative, a mystery, a campus novel. But I should have known that a simple narrative would not suffice. Nevertheless, I valiantly plotted a mono-narrative about an Australian young academic venturing into South Africa in search of a mysterious African Writer, and who subsequently discovers that he is a fake. The idolized writer is a “white” writer masquerading as a “black” writer who takes a radical anti-white, black consciousness position and plagiarizes genuine black writers in order to create his writer self.

The very subject matter of the narrative militated against me. Counter voices intruded and subverted my authorial role. The Baudrillardian nature of the subject matter (simulation, the demystification of a constructed reality) demanded a more complex approach, one that interrogated the notion of the “real” in form as well as in subject matter.

But the novel still did not work: I was bored with the monologic voice of the narrator, as bored as those students listening to a monolecture. An inner self rebelled against the authority of the text I was “creating”. The certainty of the author-narrator-reader relationship rang false. The monologic “voice” wasn’t working. The first draft was written in the third person, but that was inadequate for the intimacy that was required. I changed it to first person: this proved too close… the reader couldn’t get outside the character’s point of view. And s/he needed to. I needed to. The novel underwent revision after revision, until it became evident that the problem was not with any particular voice, but that no single, particular voice could convey the layers and complexity of the subject matter. The voice of a naïve, white academic cutting through a pre-constructed South African reality needed to be contradicted, counterpointed, stopped, mocked. Or seen in context. Or turned inside out to become a confrontational second person accusative. I changed it to second person. The reader needed to be interrupted by multimedia “voices” inside and outside his/her head. The cacophonous “other” voices in my novel began to insist on being heard, and I, reluctantly, had to let them speak.

In writing these strands, I noticed that realities in the novel became nicely contradictory; threads of counter stories interrupted the narrative voice as soon as it became too smug and arrogant and boring, and “authoritative”. The protagonist needed a myriad of contrapuntal voices in his head (voices of the mysterious author, paranoiac South African travel guides, a literary critic’s self-assured explications of text, and his own heartbreak) in order for me (author/reader) to negotiate the complex realities of his predicament. No longer was the voice of the novel coming from the podium and directed to a passive audience, but from everywhere. The author was stripped of authority, and the reader had to multitask, juggling contradictory snippets of text.

In the end I found myself weaving at least eight separate voices into the narrative, using first, second and third person, imitating, parodying, and inhabiting several discourses. I felt like a multi-personality Sybil, watching with amused horror as these voices emerged and began squabbling in the box I had thought was a tidy novel. Some of the voices I identified were:

1) Timothy Turner, the ego voice of the naïve, academic worshipper of Sizwe Bantu, the mysterious writer

2) The Shadow voice of Sizwe Bantu, the mysterious writer himself, often in the head of Turner, his spiritual guide

3) The voice of the Cockroach, the anarchic voice of the writer’s alter ego

4) Various guides, or little demons on Timothy’s shoulders, such as a bland travel guide, the academic, the entomologist, all trying to order and explain the narrative.

Sizwe Bantu And Literary Kritix

The first contrapuntal voice I found to help counter my protagonist’s “white” colonial literary foray into “Africa” evolved into the elusive author whose words haunted the protagonist, and so became a constant referent for him. This author (Sizwe Bantu) is a composite of many African writers (including the enigmatic J. M. Coetzee, the elusive Ayi Kwei Armah and the subversive Dambudzo Marechera), and Bantu’s voice is starkly contrasted to that of the second person narrator. In fact he contradicts the very existence of the narrator’s role as “literary critic” and destabilizes his identity (Williams 2013: 13):



Having now thrown down the gauntlet and binarized creative writing and literary criticism, I needed to counterpoint this tirade against literary criticism by allowing another character in the novel to attack creative writing, the professor of literature who, using Milan Kundera’s discussion in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (1988), responds to the attack on the “Kritik” with equal vehemence. Creative Writing, he says, is pure narcissism:

Instead of connecting people and their experiences, creative writing has the opposite effect: everyone surrounds himself with his own writings as with a wall of mirrors cutting off all voices from without (Williams 2013: 54).

This counter voice goes against the grain of the novel I wanted to write. I wanted to advocate the supremacy of creative discourse over critical discourse, but my characters had other ideas:

Graphomania, it’s called. Creative Writing? Phhhh! Everyone is a bloody writer these days. A book is published every six seconds. And now with the Internet, everyone writes, writes, writes… badly. A world of scribblers—no, they don’t scribble anymore, do they, they…type… they “chat” they “text”. (Williams 2013: 54).


Besides the binary of the critic and creator, I felt the need to further disrupt the narrative of my novel. Enter Deep Ecology: the voice of the cockroach, one of the imaginary author’s (Sizwe Bantu’s) creations who dismisses the narrow false dichotomy of the debate, the anthropocentrism of the protagonists, and of all the human characters of the novel (Williams 2013: epigraph page).

The voice of the cockroach was a device I felt was necessary to create a wry distance for the reader and author from the characters in the novel, indeed from all human endeavour.

COCKROACH INTERVIEWER: Why do you not like humans?

COCKROACH: Humans are nasty pests, known for their insatiable greed. These parasites will feed on other animals as well as their own kind. Once they colonize a territory, it can be a real challenge to eliminate them. Humans carry many toxic diseases and leave a trail of destruction wherever they go. Their love of turning pristine wildernesses into sterile concrete nests and burrows is well documented.  (Williams 2013: 21).

The Voice of the Entomologist

Each chapter of my novel begins with a description of a type of cockroach, mimicking a scientific discourse that coolly explains and quantifies reality, but also functions as a description of the subject matter in that chapter[2]: Chapter One, about a car hijacking which the narrator believes will end in his death, is fronted by a description of the Death Head cockroach. But the narrator’s paranoia (he has been fed propaganda about hijack possibilities), also leads to a projection of racial prejudice and racial profiling (Williams 2013: 1):


What is fundamental about modern polyphonic novels is that the author does not place his/her own narrative voice between the character and the reader, but rather allows characters to write the novel: instead of a single objective world, held together by the author’s voice, the text appears as an interaction of distinct perspectives or ideologies, borne by the different characters. The characters are able to speak for themselves, even against the author – allowing a simulation of the “other” to speak directly through the text. The role of the author is fundamentally changed, because the author can no longer monopolize the “power to mean” (Robinson 2011, n.p.).


The voice of the travel guide mediates reality for the protagonist, advising him to beware of various South African hazards, and thus further reinforcing a racist, stereotypical projection of his own paranoia onto South African people and situations. The first scene of the novel, a hijacking nightmare, is caused by the paranoia generated by the advisory travel notices describing South Africa as a dangerous place (Williams 2013: 3):

Another authoritative voice frames the narrative and mediates the narrative for the reader too – the Voice of the Academic, who in footnotes, reference lists and asides explicates texts and explains allusions for the readers to guide them through the text. For example, the series of footnotes which halt the narrative and the list of references at the back of the novel (falsely) reassure readers that they are in the competent, rational hands of a literary critic. But in light of the critique of literary critics, the footnotes this academic voice uses and the bibliography at the end of the novel are parodic in nature (a blend of real and fictitious references), serving to further disrupt a smooth reading of the text and to force readers to multitask, to make them aware of the disruption of this multitasking, and how it creates meaning. Here is a footnote in the voice of the academic:


Footnotes are tiresome things, interrupting the reader’s ‘jouissance of the text’ (if any) and plunging his or her eyes down to the bottom of the page to read some unnecessary and distracting, often self-consciously arrogant ‘extra’ but vital information added by the author. Look at me (the words), they shout, or worse, look at ME (the author). Even more annoying is when they spill onto the next page. Ironically those who argue for the use of footnotes are those who maintain that they (the footnotes not the people) are there to avoid disruption of the flow of the main narrative. They are most common in academic works, where terms need to be explained, or outrageous claims need to be justified, or irate or confused readers need help. The idea is that they can be ignored. Ha! Just try read past one of those little numbers, and you are distracted, the flow of your narrative jouissance is stopped in its tracks, and you have to see what it is that the author has deemed so important that you have to halt your reading and find the corresponding number at the bottom of the page. Thank god, you say, these are not end notes, or hyperlinks. (Williams 2013: 16-17)


With the many competing voices overlaying each other, contradicting each other, I felt that my novel was nearly complete. But readers of final drafts of the novel felt that the protagonist was too unfeeling, wooden and passive, and that he needed a back-story to give him three dimensions. So I overlaid a series of letters which the protagonist writes in first person to a mysterious lover, “M”, who has shattered his life and destabilized his sense of self, a lover who is never revealed. I added these letters at crisis points of identity in the text. But the addition of the letters further displaces Timothy Turner as subject, as he constantly sees himself through the eyes of his estranged lover. I hoped that in adding these letters, there also could be a redemption of sorts: through writing these letters, he may reach an awareness of how to reconstruct his “self” outside of her “female gaze”:

Dear M

I return to you voiceless, self-less. I was hoping to go on a hero’s journey, a quest and return with something substantial—myself perhaps, or a golden fleece, or a magic potion that would make you see me, acknowledge me, love me, even, but no: I return with nothing, with less than nothing, with crashed illusions.

For a brief moment, I imagined that Art would rescue me, or at least transform experience and pain into truth and beauty. But art, I discover, is a dysfunction of the brain. The sane person has no need for art. Love too, is a dysfunction of the heart and soul: a whole person has no need for the other, does not crave or obsess, or write letters which he never sends.

I am empty, MM. I have poured myself out, and there is nothing left to say.
Yours truly, T (Williams 2013: 199)

The novel Cokcraco, because of the various strands and voices, has several conclusions: Timothy Turner returns defeated, Sizwe Bantu is discredited, Zimmerlie commits suicide, and only the cockroaches can claim victory. The novel ends with the dissolution of selves, exposure of false construction of self, and story the only victor that lives on beyond these voices.

Vonnegut’s Slaughter House 5 (1991) ends with a bird tweeting, the only voice that can speak of the genocide within its pages, and I hoped to create a similar effect in my novel where at the end of Cokcraco there is ultimately nothing to be said, the human voice is silenced, the self is dismantled, and nothing is left to be heard but the rasping of cockroach feet on the floor of an empty world:

The buildings would crumble, dams crack, and rivers would liberate themselves from their chartered banks. Cities would crumble and greenery snake over all human endeavours. Electricity would fail and the whole virtual edifice of the internet would be gone in an instant.

Yes, in a few thousand years, only the cockroaches would be left.

Even when all the food was gone, cockroaches would pour into libraries, snack on academic journals, make wholesome meals of Encyclopaedia Brittanicae, eat whole library shelves, until not a single word would be left, not one recorded thought of human so-called civilization. So much for humans eating their words--cockroaches would do that for them.

Long live the cockroaches.

Viva Cokcraco! (Williams 2013: 144)


Bakhtin argues that language is dialogical, intertextual, always unfinished, and refuses closure, yet polyphony is more than simply creating an “empty juxtaposition of opinions, or a flattening-out of discourse so that all perspectives are equivalent” (Robinson 2011, n.p.). The modern polyphonic novel multitasks in order to more accurately reproduce the ways we construct and negotiate our modern narrative self in the world: “Different perspectives are not partial, complementary truths. Rather, the dynamic interplay and interruption of perspectives is taken to produce new realities and new ways of seeing. It is incommensurability which gives dialogue its power” (2011). Kundera would concur. His musical metaphors (the novel as symphony, voices as a series of counterpoints in a fugue) help the novel realize more fully its polyphonous nature. A novel is a symphony of brutal juxtaposition, a cacophony of competing discourses, and authors are realizing more fully their roles as renunciators of authority over a meta-narrative, allowing the slipperiness of the discourses equal play in order to create a new music and a new harmony.

Writing a polyphonic novel has helped me loosen my grip of authority on my text and spread laterally into the world of many voices. No longer am I the Nabokovian “absolute dictator” over my characters (Nabokov 1981: 69),[3] but a conductor of rebellious voices, dangerous though that may feel. Polyphony may easily become cacophony, but then I have to trust in the reader’s skills in the modern art of multi-tasking.

[1] A subsequent performance of Hamlet Psyched (17 May 2014) included active audience interaction, where the play stopped at various points to allow audience questions, comments and dialogue.

[2] For this device I am parodying the structure of Richard Flanagan’s Gould’s Book of Fish: A Novel in Twelve Fish (2002), in which the author divides his novel into chapters/classifications of different fishes.

[3] I am the perfect dictator in that private world insofar as I alone am responsible for its stability and truth” (Nabokov 1981: 69). 


Attwell, D. (1992) Doubling the Point: Essays and Interviews. Harvard: Harvard University Press.

Bakhtin, M. (1981) Discourse in the Novel. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Trans. M. Holquist and C. Emerson. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 259-422.

Brock, G. (2013) Cokcraco: A novel in ten cockroaches. Social Alternatives. 32 (4), 52.

Coetzee, J.M. (2008) Diary of a Bad Year. Melbourne: TEXT.

Churchill, S. (2011) A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan – review [online]. The Observer, March 13. Available from: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2011/mar/13/jennifer-egan-visit-goon-squad [Accessed 17/10/2014].

Egan, J. (2011) A Visit from the Goon Squad. New York: Corsair Publishers.

Eldridge, B. (2014) Review of Cokcraco [online]. Goodreads, January 14. Available from: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/18288113-cokcraco [accessed 17/10/2014].

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Hamlet Psyched 2014 presented by University of the Sunshine Coast Theatre and performed at the Chancellor State College; Script: Adapted from Shakespeare”s Hamlet by Jo Loth; Director: Jo Loth; Dramaturge: Ginna Brock; Production based on research project “MYTERN” by Jane Foster; Multi-media Designer: Wilfrid Watson-Russell; Sound Designer: David Blake; Season from 26–28 February 2014.

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Williams, P. (2013) Cokcraco. Sydney: Lacuna Publishing.

Paul Williams
has a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Wisconsin, USA and lectures in Creative Writing at the University of the Sunshine Coast, Australia. He has published young adult novels, a memoir, educational readers, short stories and critical articles, and his books have been set in schools across Africa. The Secret of Old Mukiwa won the Zimbabwe International Book Fair award for Young Adults in 2001 and Soldier Blue won Book of the Year in South Africa, 2008. His stories have appeared in Meanjin (Australia), Chicago Quarterly Review (USA), New Writing (UK), New Contrast (South Africa) and Mazwi (Zimbabwe). His latest novel, a literary mystery, Cokcraco (Lacuna Publishing, Sydney) was published in 2013, and his young adult speculative fiction series Parallax (illusio & baqer) is forthcoming in 2015-16.