Sunday, August 25, 2013

Against Loose, Baggy Monsters

This week's Sunday Guardian column.

One of the books on my tottering unread pile is Shamsher Rahman Faruqi’s The Mirror of Beauty which is, by all accounts, well worth reading – but I quail at committing myself to its over 900 pages.  It’s not the only recent novel longer than the norm. In a piece for the Guardian last week, novelist Kirsty Gunn commented on a recent outcrop of  “big books”, mentioning David Peace's Red or Dead (720 pages), Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries (832 pages) and Richard House’s The Kills (1002 pages), with the last two longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Reading Gunn’s piece caused dismay: most novels nowadays are too long for their own good, without there being more loose, baggy monsters being unleashed upon an unsuspecting public.

She speculates that economics might have something to do with it. In a recessionary time, such volumes provide heft and spectacle, reassuring us that we’re doing OK. I suspect it also could be something to do with beleaguered novelists being told that reading and fiction don’t matter as much as they used to, and defiantly taking a stand by composing volumes of Victorian length.

Gunn goes on to point out that the three novels she mentions have “a whiff of the avant garde” and aren’t conventional triple-deckers, a welcome relief. The longest, The Kills, comprises four connected narratives each of which earlier appeared separately online, and there’s also a website with hours of video content related to the novel. This approach reminds one of the iOS app The Silent History, which calls itself “a new kind of novel” and consists of a series of linked first-person testimonials. These two, then, could well be canaries in the coalmine of the novel’s future.

To return to the contemporary long novel as we know it, not all of them can be the next Infinite Jest, Underworld or A Suitable Boy. Tedium sets in as the pages accumulate: more and more characters’ lives are delved into, subplots proliferate, details abound and eyelids droop.  As Somak Ghoshal recently wrote in an otherwise appreciative review of Shovon Chowdhury’s The Competent Authority: “Sub-plots seem to spiral out of control, characters get forgotten, and loose ends are tied a little awkwardly.” (Where are editors’ blue pencils when you need them?)

An argument often made for novels of greater length is that their bulk allows for more immersion in a fictional world. While this may be true to some extent of SF and fantasy, such engagement doesn’t necessarily call for a greater number of pages. Take the novels of Franz Kafka. Or Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, less than 200 pages.

The impact of a well-crafted novella is another reason to look askance at large novels. As I’ve written before, the best of them emit radiance and sparkle far beyond their size. Look at Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice or Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, to name a few. The titles from independent publisher Melville House’s ‘Art of the Novella’ series provide more excellent examples. For some time now, ambitious novelists have been using the laser-like focus a novella allows by thematically linking some of them together to create a larger whole. Richard House’s The Kills apart, there’s David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, for example, as well as Colum McCann’s Transatlantic, another title longlisted for this year’s Booker.

Several estimable European novels, too, are much shorter than their American and British equivalents, while leaving as much if not more of an impression. Swiss writer Peter Stamm recently said that he likes “reduction, concentration, clarity” in writing, and the same can be said of many of his Continental counterparts.

These days, long novels have to earn their stripes, and only a handful do; the vision of a Karl Knausgaard is uncommon. Randall Jarrell is often quoted as saying that “a novel is a prose narrative of some length that has something wrong with it”. Well, the longer it is, the more that can go wrong.

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