Narratives built around the sociological “small world theory” of social networks

A review of a new novel highlights recent ideas in the sociological analysis of social networks:

In sociology, the “small world theory” holds that any two people can be connected to one another along a chain of no more than a few acquaintances (typically six, the fabled “six degrees of separation”). Though the research behind it is at best contentious, there’s something deeply appealing about its logic-defying simplicity, something exciting about what it implies. In a world that can seem vast and alienating, the idea that we’re all much closer than it seems is, at first glance, comforting. The flip side is that our influence may extend further than we realize.

In his second novel, “The Illusion of Separateness,” Simon Van Booy presents a cast of characters who have had a profound effect on one another’s lives, yet cannot see the bonds that link them. He divides his book into six separate narratives, each following a different character through different eras, from the Second World War to the present: Martin, a retirement home caretaker; Mr. Hugo, a disfigured Wehrmacht veteran; Sébastien, a lovelorn young boy; John, whose B-24 bomber is shot out of the sky over France; Amelia, a blind museum curator and John’s granddaughter; and Danny, a budding filmmaker. Van Booy presents their stories in a nonlinear fashion, shifting back and forth from character to character, decade to decade.

Van Booy’s premise — that we are all linked in ways we may not fully understand, and that our smallest actions can have a significant effect on the lives of others — is fairly banal, and its execution verges on overly sentimental. He builds to the scenes in which his characters cross paths with great ceremony, yet these intersections are the book’s weakest moments. While the plot seems to aspire to present an overarching sense of meaning, Van Booy never quite drives it home. For some, the significance is inscrutable, as when John and Mr. Hugo engage in a tense, but ultimately inconsequential standoff in a field in war-torn France. Others, like when Martin cradles the dying Mr. Hugo in the book’s opening pages, seem like contrivances meant to give the narrative the appearance of structure and meaning.

For more popular descriptions of recent sociological research on this topic, see Six Degrees by Duncan Watts, Connected by Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler, and Linked by Barabasi (a physicist who covers a lot of ground).

This kind of narrative involving interweaving stories is not new. It seems to be popular in movies in the last 10-15 years – I’m thinking of films like Crash, Love Actually, and others that make use of intersecting characters. This leads to two thoughts:

1. Is this a good instance of social science discoveries, that social networks influence people without their knowledge, influencing popular culture? It could be relatively easy to track whether this is a new kind of plot or whether it has a longer history.

2. The reviewer suggests that while the author has impressive prose, the overall structure of the story is lacking. Since we do indeed live in social worlds strongly influenced by social networks, how can that be effectively translated into a compelling narrative? Going back to the movies I mentioned above, those intersecting storylines involved quite a bit of individual or small group interaction by the end of the movie. In contrast, this book seems to be going for a more disconnected set of stories. Setting up the structure of a social network narrative likely involves balancing the connections alongside the individual interactions that tend to characterize and propel narratives.

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