Embracing the world
Two of the greatest composers of the late 19th-early 20th century, Gustav Mahler and Jean Sibelius, were talking about the symphony one day. The Finnish composer aimed for succinctness, compactness. His great Symphony No. 3 is short and tautly constructed. He was seeking logic in musical construction that would get tighter and tighter until it culminated in the Symphony No. 7, just twenty-two minutes long, without a pause, and airtight. But Mahler, whose own Symphony No. 3 went on for an hour and three-quarters and included massive orchestral forces, a mezzo-soprano and a choir, disagreed. “Oh, no,” he said. “A symphony is like the world. It must embrace everything.”
I was thinking of that last night as I was reading, after much procrastination and consideration, David Foster Wallace’s epic novel Infinite Jest. This book could improve my physique, whether I finish it or not, so long as I tote it around enough. It’s over 1,100 pages and includes hundreds of footnotes and endnotes. It’s semi-fictional, semi-encyclopedia, and very complex. I’m just starting it, and don’t expect to be finished it for a long time. A very long time. My eyesight will probably be worse for wear when I do.
There seem to be, broadly-speaking, two types of novels in vogue today, at least in America. One is the epic, the sort Jonathan Franzen and the late Mr. Wallace are famous for. It’s somewhat surprising to me that such novels are popular when we’re constantly hearing that people have less time to read, come to the table with shorter attention spans when they do, and don’t want to tote around books that can throw out their backs. Yet each publishing houses ushers in a couple of these babies every year, usually at handsome prices and usually hyped to the skies, and many are at least optioned for movies, though often those movies don’t get made.
On the other end of the spectrum lives the slender, delicate novel. It’s usually about 200ish pages, very “personal,” often with a confessional tone, and tends to center around a very singular theme. The tomes try to include everything but the kitchen sink,
Sure I’m generalizing, and in fact the last three novels I read before Infinite Jest defy at least some of these generalizations. Still, the thick, formidable novel with dozens if not hundreds of characters in sprawling storylines that intersect and bounce around each other and are often told out of chronological order, and the intimate, “insider” piece told in a usually hyper-realistic style are quite familiar to even casual fiction readers. I guess we have to thank Tolstoy and Flaubert, respectively, though maybe it’s Tolstoy and Woolf?
It’s not as if the slender volumes can’t be rich and complex. Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, a stunning work about post-September 11th America, is as dense as anything I’ve read in years. The New York Times‘ Dwight Garner agreed. “Netherland has more life inside it than ten very good novels.” It was published around the same time as Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, another smallish novel that is nonetheless not small in ambition and undertaking. Both novels supposedly took their authors about five or six years to write. When one lifts them one may wonder why. When one reads them and thinks, really thinks, about the intricate entanglement of the contents, one then understands.
Similarly, my favorite living writer, Deborah Eisenberg, writes only in the short story form. (There’s a single exception, a play from early in her career called Pastorale. However, it is not epic either.) When one thinks short story one thinks a few pages, a few characters, a few scenes. Beware then, when you crack open a volume of Eisenberg, for these huge (for short stories) undertakings are as complex and layered as any novels, and as difficult too. Eisenberg can pack more into thirty pages than most writers get into five hundred.
It’s interesting that Eisenberg also manages to embrace the world, but it’s cumulatively, one yarn at a time. After reading her Collected Stories, which I recommend as much as I can recommend any book to anybody (Seriously, why are you still here? Go order it and then come back.) I feel that I’ve experienced an epic just as I have with Wallace or Franzen, and a richer and more varied one to boot. However, you won’t feel that way after reading just one. Each story focuses, again with hyper-realism and even comical over-exaggeration, on certain characteristics and aspects of certain people. All put together we get a vibrant view of humanity.
Eisenberg says people frequently ask her when she’s going to write a novel. Her reply is that she already has: her short stories are tightly condensed novels, folded back in on themselves. She’s the Sibelius of our literary world. Franzen (Wallace is no longer with us) and others of his ilk are the Mahler’s, writing longer and longer symphonies. But does longer equal better? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. One thing’s for certain, though: you will not be cheated out of the great epic that is the human condition if you shun thick and chunky books for the delicate offerings of Eisenberg or Woolf or others. Size isn’t everything. To The Lighthouse looks so unintimidating on the shelf, with its modest length (about 200 pages) simple-sounding title. Then you pick it up and it owns you. It’s one of the toughest, densest creations you’ll ever struggle with. The whole world. Squeezed tight in a vice. A black hole is small too. But it’s infinitely strong, according to Stephen Hawking, and not to be reckoned with.