I like big books*
*and I cannot lie.
Recently, on a Saturday night where every other member of my family was otherwise engaged, I had the rare pleasure of watching a Very Long Movie. This time it was The Sorrow and the Pity (La Chagrin et La Pitié), Marcel Ophuls’s scorching 1969 documentary on the Nazi occupation of a provincial French city in World War II. The Sorrow and the Pity is four hours long. The last time I was able to do this I was alone for a week and watched Tarkovsky’s three-hour Andrei Rublev over several nights, rewinding it over and over. But The Sorrow and the Pity I watched in one sitting, while eating Thai takeout on the couch.
In US culture, long movies, like long books, often evoke a kind of familiar male ridiculousness that’s a combination of nerdy obsession and phallic overrreach. The Sorrow and the Pity is probably best-known among Americans over 40 from the role it plays in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, where Diane Keaton exclaims, “I’m not going to watch a four hour documentary about Nazis!” It’s easy to consider them absurd and inherently narcissistic; that’s how I thought about them myself when I was in my twenties, when the contemporary examples that came most easily to mind were David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest and William T. Vollmann’s gigantic projects, including Seven Dreams and Rising Up and Rising Down—and I can’t think of those books without also remembering the artist Matthew Barney’s mega-installation (and series of films) The Cremaster Cycle, which took over the Guggenheim in New York in the summer of 2002.
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Like many other writers roughly my age, I had a particularly complicated relationship with Infinite Jest, a book I saw for the first time literally propping open a door in my friend Greg Zinman’s Lower East Side apartment in 1996, while I was still in college. On some perverse principle, I refused to read it or even look at it for at least ten years. Of course I knew who Wallace was; I’d read some of his short fiction and many of his famous essays, including the cruise ship one and the state fair one and the grammar one, but I refused to grant the idea that a Gen X writer so committed to mocking the absurdity of US literary culture could write an epic novel worth putting on the shelf with Ulysses or Moby Dick, a novel that wasn’t just an extended joke without a punchline.
Wallace and Barney (two artists I think of as intimately connected; maybe someone will write a dissertation on their relationship someday) were not shy about the auto-erotic nature of their work: Barney’s cycle, the Guggenheim informs us, centers on “the male cremaster muscle, which controls testicular contractions in response to external stimuli. The project is rife with anatomical allusions to the position of the reproductive organs during the embryonic process of sexual differentiation…The cycle repeatedly returns to those moments during early sexual development in which the outcome of the process is still unknown—in Barney’s metaphoric universe, these moments represent a condition of pure potentiality.” In Wallace’s case: Infinite Jest is full of masturbatory imagery, of course, but I think the passage that expresses his auto-erotics of prose most vividly comes from Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, where the interviewee, in a Proustian reverie, describes his childhood fantasy that by masturbating he can actually stop time:
Expanding the hand’s imagined powers to stop all clocks, timepieces, and wristwatches in the room was just the initial solution…Trying to masturbate, I was agitated that my fantasy’s power had in reality succeeded only in halting the superficial appearance of time…It was at this time that the imaginative labor of this fantasy of power became exponentially more difficult.
There is obviously a relationship between long narrative works and time, but it doesn’t have to express itself—the way Wallace evidently thought it did, at least sometimes—as gratuitous, self-involved, petty and childish. The Sorrow and the Pity was assembled through years of painstaking interviews and research in which Ophuls gained the confidence of French collaborationists, English spies, former German soldiers and commanders, Resistance fighters who were imprisoned and tortured, and bystanders of all kinds, and the film works through a process of aggregation and accumulation, without voice-over, where the narration of the subjects merges together in the viewer’s mind. There’s no way for the effect to occur except through slow watching, listening, remembering. In the middle of the film, there are sections where several French subjects—who were collaborators or in one case actual Nazi recruits—openly mourn the dreams they once had of Hitler’s Greater Europe, and for a moment we, too, get to contemplate through their eyes what might have happened (indeed, more than likely was going to happen) if the Allies hadn’t succeeded in the 1944 Normandy invasion.
I want to stress this: The Sorrow and the Pity is a pleasure to watch. It isn’t homework. It isn’t about self-improvement. Most people, once they get over their initial fear of a long narrative, like War and Peace, find the experience of long, absorptive reading incredibly fun. Long narratives, even conventional ones, are a form of durational art. Formally, the demands they place on the reader are a self-evident artistic statement: they play with the reader’s attention span, patience, and stamina, by delaying a revelation or recognition or sense of closure (if there is one) until late in the game. They sometimes have a deliberately ritualistic quality. And of course, as anyone who’s read War and Peace or Moby Dick knows, they can absorb entire works of nonfiction within them (or, as in the case of The Sorrow and the Pity and many other works like it, use nonfictional materials to achieve a novelistic form).
It took me a long time to come around to this idea. As a young writer, I was schooled in American neo-realist fiction of the late 1970s and 1980s, which venerated the short story above all other forms. My first two fiction teachers, Lee K. Abbott and Carol Bly, wrote only short stories. I was hardly interested in the novel as a form until my second year of graduate school in my mid-twenties: I wanted to perfect my stories first. What I didn’t grasp about that moment until much later was how the turn toward small-scale, intimate narratives was a rejection of the grandiose American postmodern novel of the previous three decades: Giles Goat-Boy, Gravity’s Rainbow, The Public Burning, The Recognitions, et al.
Without bashing MFA programs—I’m one of those people who believes creative writing belongs in the academy, just not in quite the way it exists now—one of the limitations of those programs is that they’re too short, and they encourage concentration on short forms. A conventional MFA program is not a good place to start a sustained study of the novel, and for many students it’s not a great place to begin writing one. Based on my observations—not so much of myself but of dozens or hundreds of other writers I know—it takes about ten years from seriously committing yourself to fiction to finishing your first novel, and longer if it’s a long novel. And much of that time has to be spent in immersive reading.
In my case, the first very long novel (that is, over 1000 pages) that thoroughly grabbed my attention and engagement was an unexpected one: Cao Xueqin’s legendary and vast The Story of the Stone (also known as The Dream of the Red Chamber), which was written over several decades in the late 18th century and was probably finished after Cao’s death by a close friend, Gao E. I discovered it when I was living in Hong Kong in my early twenties—that is, I discovered the John Hawkes translation, published by Penguin in five volumes.
The Story of the Stone is the story of a love triangle between a gifted, sensitive, tempermental boy with supernatural origins and two girls, one ethereal and tragic and the other irreverent and worldly; it takes place behind the walls of a lavish villa belonging to an aristocratic family at the height of the Qing dynasty whose fortunes rapidly decline as the teenaged protagonists become adults. The closest Western analogue is Proust’s In Search of Lost Time; like Proust, Cao is fundamentally interested in the past as a dream that feels both intimately close and unrecoverable at the same time. The difference (to sum up a very complex subject) is that while Proust had to develop his own complex theories of memory and the mind, Cao presents his story as a Buddhist allegory; its religious meaning is specific and obvious.
Reading The Story of the Stone, and other classic East Asian novels, so early in life colored my thinking about the novel in a way I’m still trying to understand. In the West, the novel is treated as an expression of the rise of secularism and the growth of the empirical, mercantile, individualistic thinking of what eventually became the bourgeois world of the 19th and 20th centuries. None of that happened in East Asia, where novels flourished around the same time. How the novel evolved in these two very different cultural contexts more or less simultaneously is a great world-historical question, but my interests as a writer were more specific: I wanted to see all the different things novels could do, with no preconditions about the confines of bourgeois secular disillusionment that afflicts writers who honestly believe (despite all evidence to the contrary) that the novel originates in Flaubert, Austen, and Balzac.
Once I turned the corner and began thinking seriously about novels qua novels in my mid-twenties, the floodgates opened: I read Middlemarch and Little Dorrit and Another Country and Invisible Man within the space of a year or two. I read Proust and Samuel Richardson and DeFoe and Pynchon and DeLillo and Morrison…it was a glorious time. I also read a succession of unrepeatable, eccentric texts that stand at the very edge of the definition of “novel:” Michael Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter, Theresa Hak-kung Cha’s Dictee, Peter Matthiessen’s Far Tortuga, Danilo Kis’s Hourglass, David Grossman’s See Under: Love. And yes, I finally forced myself to finish Infinite Jest. (For those of you who really want my opinion, and why would you, I think it’s absolutely worth reading, and there’s no other book like it, but as my professor said in college when we were reading Ulysses, don’t feel like you’re supposed to absorb all of it or find it meaningful or necessary. Parts of it are just annoying and juvenile. Skipping is a survival tool.)
In this sense to me a big book is not so much about length as scale. Novels that address themselves to large subjects aren’t necessarily long, but they contain vertiginous experiences of time and distance, history and pain, that often demand to be explored at length. Borges, whose work is at the very center of The New Earth, supposedly said that a great short story renders a novel irrelevant, but that’s because he was obsessed with miniaturization: he (unlike just about anyone else) could see the totality of a novel in a paragraph. Other writers, like me, want to feel it, not just glimpse it. The only way to do that is to actually write (or read) the thing. There’s no better use of our time.
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