I wrote an essay about long, lunatic novels. Read it at The Rumpus.
If the great English novelist and linguist Anthony Burgess was onto something when he wrote, in A Mouthful of Air, that literature arose as an expression of “loneliness and exile—a cry in the dark, whistling in the dark”—then what are we to do with these writers of irregular and imperfect texts like Nádas and, for that matter, Bolaño, David Foster Wallace, David Mitchell? Does the narrative irregularity emerge out of their stylistic exile, or the other way around?
“My job as a novelist,” writes Nádas, “is not to come up with compact theories for interpreting the world, but to retain the narrative’s independence and spontaneity alongside existing theories or in opposition to them. The process should not break down, even though the world is not symmetrical and in theory the process should break down.”
Intertextuality, interconnectivity: we live in an age of overlapping narratives. Stories are told, no longer only in books, but in a cloud—that, at least, is what the ingenious techno-wizards of the age would have us believe. In a way, it’s true: stories infiltrate our lives and memories through a variety of ways—television, tablet, smartphone, dumbphone. Ads on subways, 3D banners on the infinite Internet: the words might try to sell something, but what we’re buying is story. And it’s inescapable. If we try to escape narrative, narrative finds us, sinks its mangled teeth into us, tries not to let go.
Beowulf is mostly digressional, and Homeric epics are unafraid to veer off from their central narrative course, into the deep waters of the unexpected. And then, of course, there’s the stylistic restlessness of the first novels. Defoe, Cervantes, Swift—one could argue, I suppose, there’s a Choose Your Own Adventure aspect to their work. Modern, manic, Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman strikes me as stylistically daring as the latest Pynchon or Mitchell. And not purely narratively speaking: page 71 of the original, for example, is an entirely black page, intended to portray sorrow, or so we’re told, although when I gaze into its void I see the book of the future, whatever that may be.
In its beginnings, so in its ends: something like that. Not that the novel will end. Even in this new age of the glorified serial drama, of The Wire and Deadwood. But, no matter how good TV gets, no matter how much it tries to replicate narrative playfulness on the screen, it will never be able to compete with the original harbinger of “this completely weird outpouring strangeness,” as Jennifer Egan, no stranger to narrative jujitsu herself, has said of the novel. Even if we’re not, as Egan has it, exploiting the possibilities as much as we should be, the novel will adapt. It will evolve.
To paraphrase Don DeLillo: the novel leads; it doesn’t follow. And that is why books like Tristram Shandy will always matter to those of us who care about these things. After all, we don’t read the book that was inspired by Tristram Shandy—we read Tristram Shandy. We don’t read Gaddis’s imitators—we read Gaddis. We read the trailblazing lunatics who are unafraid to follow the form into uncertainty.