On books that should be shorter

I recognize that this post will make me sound lazy. I’m thinking about Very Long Books. Mostly, I’m thinking about Very Long Books that Should Be Much Shorter. Double points if they are written by male authors and receive enormous acclaim before anybody reads them. It’s a huge pet peeve, and yet I’m taken in by the hype again and again.

I’m about halfway through Murakami’s (very long and highly anticipated) 1Q84, and it’s not a bad story. Murakami has fantastic imagination and weaves a compelling narrative structure, and 1Q84 does have these attributes (albeit not nearly to the same degree as Kafka on the Shore or The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, both of which captivated me). The prose doesn’t blow me away, but I tend to be a little more generous on translated works because it’s hard to know whether the issue is in the original or in the translation. Granted, in this case one of the problems is endless repetition of certain descriptions or details, which is doubtlessly not a translation issue. Regardless, I find the story to be good, and I do want to find out how the plot unfolds.

But, does it need to be so blasted long? As I said, I’m halfway through, and I can’t think of how the story could possibly be stretched out another 500 pages. Too much filler, too much repetition. I have very little patience for that. Where was his editor?

I’m afraid that as much as I love some of Murakami’s other work, this one may well be lumped into a pile with Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom and Roberto Bolaño’s 2666.  (Franzen’s will be at the bottom of the stack; after his recent pieces on e-books and on Edith Wharton, I feel my jaw start to clench a little when I see his name.) All three of these books received great acclaim before they ever hit bookshelves, in no small part due to each author’s past success. (In the case of 2666, Bolaño’s death prior to the book’s completion also added a bit of drama to its release). And they’re all extremely long.

I don’t mind very long books. But I loathe books that should have been shorter. Lots of books are longer than they should be, but the trait is particularly noticeable in the biggest of the big. It seems to me that these books also tend to be written by men; whether that’s true (and representative of some kind of monument- and skyscraper-building tendency) or whether it means nothing beyond the fact that male authors are still far more widely represented on publishers’ lists and in critics’ reviews (even on NPR, which talks about male writers 70% of the time), I don’t know, and it bugs me either way. With these kinds of books, by the time I’m three hundred pages in, I feel like I get it; I understand the characters and the narrative and the style, and I don’t really need six or seven hundred pages more. 2666 was much more psychologically difficult than most because of the interminable list of women victims in the fourth section, but even without that roadblock, the book would have been a little much.

The big thing for me is that not all long books are like that. In some cases, the entire huge thing is finely wrought and compellingly delivered. For instance, this NYTimes review (on 1Q84) suggests that if you must read an enormously long book, might as well make it worthwhile and go for Proust. That is the gold standard for what long books should be. Infinite Jest is also like this. I recently found myself on a long subway ride with nothing to read besides what was already on my Kindle app, and I was drawn to start on Infinite Jest for a second time. A second time! The wonderful thing was that as I started back on the first few pages, everything fit perfectly. I remember the extended feeling of disorientation when I read through Infinite Jest the first time; now, every character and every episode made perfect sense and felt like it simply had to be there.

Everybody knows Pascal’s quip about lacking the time to write a shorter letter (and Google tells me that similar quotations are attributed to Mark Twain, T.S. Eliot, and others); I wish more people would take it to heart. I love short stories in part for this reason: the economy of that the form imposes on the narrative often results in a wonderful density and clarity, with everything extraneous stripped away. There’s no reason to write a novel if a short story will better highlight the particular character, emotion, situation, or style that the writer wants to focus on. And there’s certainly no reason to write a novel that’s three times longer than necessary if a shorter one will suffice. When a book is so voluminous as to make it impractical to read on my commute, it also better be so good that I can’t bear not to lug it with me. That was the case with Infinite Jest, but 1Q84 doesn’t make the cut.


On another note…

Somewhere between whale watching in Nova Scotia and discovering how much I love Montreal, I finished reading Infinite Jest. I can hardly believe how much I loved it, and am puzzling over what made it finally click. I’m not ready to write about it yet, but I hope that I will be soon.


(Still) Tackling Infinite Jest

Shortly after David Foster Wallace’s death in 2008, I picked up a copy of Infinite Jest, something I had been meaning to do for years. I am quite sure that I was not alone in the timing of this attempt; the Infinite Summer project was started when it was at least partly due to many people’s rekindled desire to read and understand Wallace after his suicide. But for me, reading a book like this due to any kind of external stimulus, and particularly such a bleak one, is far from the best way to get the most out of it.

I knew that Infinite Jest would not be an easy book, but I wasn’t intimidated. A few weeks and some 200 pages in, though, I got stuck. Over the next couple of years, the book sat next to my bed, reminding me that I had failed. Every time I would try to get back into it, I would give up not long after, defeated again, and incredibly bothered by the fact that this book that I should like so much was causing me such difficulty.

I love Wallace’s writing. This piece from the Times made me watch tennis in an entirely new way, and made me love Federer above any other player. Part of his commencement address to Kenyon College in 2005 may well be part of the reason I finally started this blog in the first place:

And I submit that this is what the real, no bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out. That may sound like hyperbole, or abstract nonsense. Let’s get concrete. The plain fact is that you graduating seniors do not yet have any clue what “day in day out” really means. There happen to be whole, large parts of adult American life that nobody talks about in commencement speeches. One such part involves boredom, routine and petty frustration. The parents and older folks here will know all too well what I’m talking about.

So many of his short pieces enthrall me. His precise observation of the water we all swim in, and his ability to craft that observation into remarkable prose, is incredible. And yet, I kept putting down Infinite Jest.

I finally picked the enormous novel back up a couple of weeks ago, and something about it feels different this time. It might be that I’ve sat with ONAN and the Great Concavity and the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment and Lyle the cross-legged sweat-nourished guru in the boys’ locker room for long enough that they’ve gotten into my head. I started where I left off, not being able to bear starting at the beginning yet again, and I have a feeling that when I finish I will return to those early pages one more time to read them in a new way.

It’s going to take me awhile–the amount of time I spend reading is less than it used to be, and I feel that I read more slowly–but I’m looking forward to sharing some thoughts on it once I make it through.