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.

Advertisements

Heartbreak Tango by Manuel Puig

I picked up Heartbreak Tango as part of my haul from Dalkey Archive Press’s holiday book sale, and absolutely loved this first encounter with Manuel Puig. The musicality of the title (Boquitas pintadas in the original Spanish) permeates the book, with each section building to crescendos, creating and resolving tension, and riffing improvisationally on the themes of love and loss. I can’t believe I didn’t read his work sooner; it adds one more reason to a growing list of why a literary pilgrimage to Buenos Aires is a necessary part of my future travels.

Composed in sixteen “episodes,” the perspective and narrative style shift dramatically from one section to another. The various pieces work together harmoniously, though they look like scraps of stories rather than parts of a whole (letters, police reports, stream of consciousness, newspaper clippings, and more). While it lacks the strongly visual and tactile components of Nox, and is more loosely constructed, its patchwork structure somewhat resembles Carson’s technique. Where Carson’s compilation tightly focused the reader’s attention on one particular relationship and loss, though, Puig’s mosaic spins the reader’s gaze outward from a central point into increasing chaos. Circling the character of Juan Carlos Etchepare, the narrative spends little time on his own perspective, and instead traces the trail of broken hearts that he has left in his wake–which turns out to be quite a crowd indeed.

Something in the book reminds me of an Almodóvar film: colorful and somewhat hysterical characters (mainly women), driven by emotions to carry out passionate, reckless, and even macabre acts. Each episode starts with an epigraph, each one a nod to the implausible values that drive many social interactions: passionate tango lyrics, snippets of movie dialogue, and the promises and entreaties found in advertising. Indeed, Puig was highly interested in film, both as a medium and in terms of its role in popular culture; this 1989 interview in the Paris Review gives an interesting glimpse of his techniques and tastes. (In it, he also discusses the importance of writing every day, something I’ve recently started to do.) It’s worth noting that despite the novel’s nod to films and contemporary culture, Puig confesses to watching mainly movies from the 1940’s.

Throughout the work, Puig maintains a remarkable tension between the illusory and the real, the desirable and the cruel. While the veneer of the beautiful and the false seems to discount the veracity of the characters’ emotions and experiences, the subtitles that divide the book into two sections suggest that real damage is done: “A tango lingers on true red lips” and “A tango lingers on blue, violet, black lips.” Even when the characters are larger than life, the pain they cause in others is darkly genuine.

Heartbreak Tango by Manuel Puig

I picked up Heartbreak Tango as part of my haul from Dalkey Archive Press’s holiday book sale, and absolutely loved this first encounter with Manuel Puig. The musicality of the title (Boquitas pintadas in the original Spanish) permeates the book, with each section building to crescendos, creating and resolving tension, and riffing improvisationally on the themes of love and loss. I can’t believe I didn’t read his work sooner; it adds one more reason to a growing list of why a literary pilgrimage to Buenos Aires is a necessary part of my future travels.

Composed in sixteen “episodes,” the perspective and narrative style shift dramatically from one section to another. The various pieces work together harmoniously, though they look like scraps of stories rather than parts of a whole (letters, police reports, stream of consciousness, newspaper clippings, and more). While it lacks the strongly visual and tactile components of Nox, and is more loosely constructed, its patchwork structure somewhat resembles Carson’s technique. Where Carson’s compilation tightly focused the reader’s attention on one particular relationship and loss, though, Puig’s mosaic spins the reader’s gaze outward from a central point into increasing chaos. Circling the character of Juan Carlos Etchepare, the narrative spends little time on his own perspective, and instead traces the trail of broken hearts that he has left in his wake–which turns out to be quite a crowd indeed.

Something in the book reminds me of an Almodóvar film: colorful and somewhat hysterical characters (mainly women), driven by emotions to carry out passionate, reckless, and even macabre acts. Each episode starts with an epigraph, each one a nod to the implausible values that drive many social interactions: passionate tango lyrics, snippets of movie dialogue, and the promises and entreaties found in advertising. Indeed, Puig was highly interested in film, both as a medium and in terms of its role in popular culture; this 1989 interview in the Paris Review gives an interesting glimpse of his techniques and tastes. (In it, he also discusses the importance of writing every day, something I’ve recently started to do.) It’s worth noting that despite the novel’s nod to films and contemporary culture, Puig confesses to watching mainly movies from the 1940’s.

Throughout the work, Puig maintains a remarkable tension between the illusory and the real, the desirable and the cruel. While the veneer of the beautiful and the false seems to discount the veracity of the characters’ emotions and experiences, the subtitles that divide the book into two sections suggest that real damage is done: “A tango lingers on true red lips” and “A tango lingers on blue, violet, black lips.” Even when the characters are larger than life, the pain they cause in others is darkly genuine.

Crafting the unsayable: Anne Carson’s Nox

One of my reading habits that changed most significantly after grad school is that I tend to read books sequentially now, rather than starting half a dozen at the same time. I like this new rhythm; it feels luxurious, and reminds me of the pure pleasure of being a reader.

Recently, contrary to my post-grad school habits, I found myself reading two books at once: Stephen Ramsay’s Reading Machines, and Anne Carson’s Nox. The two books are not at all alike, but reading them concurrently reminded me of the serendipity of finding that one work opens up new and surprising connections in another. In this case, the connection is craft and constraint.

In Reading Machines, Ramsay explores “potential literature” as a way of understanding the  complex relationship between writing, reading, and criticism. Ramsay argues that the process of creating a text in the manner of Oulipo is a process that is at once creative and critical, and in which the reader is frequently complicit. Further, Ramsay notes that, contrary to the Surrealists’ focus on inspiration, Oulipians “emphasize the original sense of poesis as ‘making’ or ‘building'” (27). The more challenging the constraint, the more keenly aware the reader becomes of how carefully each word and line must be crafted. (Having recently read Doug Nufer’s Never Again, in which no word is used twice, I wholeheartedly agree with this.)

So, with craftsmanship and limitation and the interrelated roles of writer and reader on my mind, I come to Nox, a book more spellbinding and beautiful and unusual than anything I have read in a long time. Carson certainly takes on multiple roles in creating this piece–not only writer and reader, but also translator, curator, and visual artist.

Not only is the book complex in terms of its written form, incorporating original writing as well as translation and borrowed letters, but it’s also visually complex, with a format unlike anything I have seen, and which I’ll describe in a moment. Written as a sort of elegy for her brother, with whom she had a distant and complicated relationship, Nox is a stunning example of a writer representing the unsayable through disruptions in a written text. (This notion was at the heart of my dissertation, and I so wish that I could have explored Nox alongside Roubaud’s Quelque chose noir, Jabès’s Livre des questions, and the other works that came to mean so much to me–Carson’s work would have enriched the conversation in a beautiful way. Perhaps another project for another time.)

Returning to my reading of Nox, though. There is so much to talk about. First, and most immediately noticeable, is the construction: the book is a sheaf of continuous accordion-folded pages, unbound at the spine; the single pleated page is contained (loose) inside a hard-edged box that opens like a book. The reader can carefully turn the folded pages like a codex, or she can stretch them out from end to end, like a scroll.

Next, the language: this is why I love Carson to begin with. She is a poet, and her language makes that clear, even in prose; each word is crafted and placed with such intention. She makes me catch my breath. I loved Carson’s earlier book, Autobiography of Red, for the same reason; it is innovative and surprising and hauntingly beautiful. (For a great interview in which she discusses both Autobiography of Red and Nox, try this.)

Then, the fragments: the pages look like small collages; each one features a small scrap that appears to have been hurriedly glued or stapled onto the page. The pages are flat and smooth (being reproductions of the original constructions), but the illusion of texture led me to run my fingertips over the page countless times. Carson creates a physical space that holds her own thoughts and her brother’s, as well as elements that are hard to place or that don’t seem to make sense.

Finally, the added complexity of translation: the work starts with a poem by Catallus (#101), presented in Latin in smudgy ink. I merely glanced at it, as I don’t know Latin. But Carson makes the reader think so deeply about that poem. On alternate pages, she presents a single dictionary entry for a word in the poem. (Even the dictionary entries, I suspect, are her own; the sample sentences are too rich to be genuine reference material.) Page by page, I tried to construct the meaning of the poem for myself, and as a result, I read those lines of barely-understood Latin dozens of times. I couldn’t come to a translation, but I came to a rough understanding of the poem’s skeleton. By the time Carson included an English translation (her own), I yearned for it.

The element of translation is perhaps the most interesting to me. Carson is a translator, and she describes her mourning process in terms of translation: she studies her brother fragment by fragment, trying to reach something whole. It is, she says, an unending process. She describes the process, as well as her choice of the particular Catallus poem, in a section labeled 7.1:

I have loved this poem since the first time I read it in high school Latin class and I have tried to translate it a number of times… I never arrived at the translation I would have liked to do of poem 101. But over the years of working at it, I came to think of translating as a room, not exactly an unknown room, where one gropes for the light switch. I guess it never ends. A brother never ends. I prowl him. He does not end.

This is a book to re-read and to savor.

Circling back to the connection with Ramsay’s thoughts on Oulipo, Carson’s choice of form in Nox functions as a similar kind of constraint. As with the Oulipians, there is no room for anything to be out of place. Carson reads and writes and translates and interprets and designs, and she encourages the reader to engage in similarly blended acts, resulting in a rich and intense experience that I won’t soon forget.

Crafting the unsayable: Anne Carson’s Nox

One of my reading habits that changed most significantly after grad school is that I tend to read books sequentially now, rather than starting half a dozen at the same time. I like this new rhythm; it feels luxurious, and reminds me of the pure pleasure of being a reader.

Recently, contrary to my post-grad school habits, I found myself reading two books at once: Stephen Ramsay’s Reading Machines, and Anne Carson’s Nox. The two books are not at all alike, but reading them concurrently reminded me of the serendipity of finding that one work opens up new and surprising connections in another. In this case, the connection is craft and constraint.

In Reading Machines, Ramsay explores “potential literature” as a way of understanding the  complex relationship between writing, reading, and criticism. Ramsay argues that the process of creating a text in the manner of Oulipo is a process that is at once creative and critical, and in which the reader is frequently complicit. Further, Ramsay notes that, contrary to the Surrealists’ focus on inspiration, Oulipians “emphasize the original sense of poesis as ‘making’ or ‘building'” (27). The more challenging the constraint, the more keenly aware the reader becomes of how carefully each word and line must be crafted. (Having recently read Doug Nufer’s Never Again, in which no word is used twice, I wholeheartedly agree with this.)

So, with craftsmanship and limitation and the interrelated roles of writer and reader on my mind, I come to Nox, a book more spellbinding and beautiful and unusual than anything I have read in a long time. Carson certainly takes on multiple roles in creating this piece–not only writer and reader, but also translator, curator, and visual artist.

Not only is the book complex in terms of its written form, incorporating original writing as well as translation and borrowed letters, but it’s also visually complex, with a format unlike anything I have seen, and which I’ll describe in a moment. Written as a sort of elegy for her brother, with whom she had a distant and complicated relationship, Nox is a stunning example of a writer representing the unsayable through disruptions in a written text. (This notion was at the heart of my dissertation, and I so wish that I could have explored Nox alongside Roubaud’s Quelque chose noir, Jabès’s Livre des questions, and the other works that came to mean so much to me–Carson’s work would have enriched the conversation in a beautiful way. Perhaps another project for another time.)

Returning to my reading of Nox, though. There is so much to talk about. First, and most immediately noticeable, is the construction: the book is a sheaf of continuous accordion-folded pages, unbound at the spine; the single pleated page is contained (loose) inside a hard-edged box that opens like a book. The reader can carefully turn the folded pages like a codex, or she can stretch them out from end to end, like a scroll.

Next, the language: this is why I love Carson to begin with. She is a poet, and her language makes that clear, even in prose; each word is crafted and placed with such intention. She makes me catch my breath. I loved Carson’s earlier book, Autobiography of Red, for the same reason; it is innovative and surprising and hauntingly beautiful. (For a great interview in which she discusses both Autobiography of Red and Nox, try this.)

Then, the fragments: the pages look like small collages; each one features a small scrap that appears to have been hurriedly glued or stapled onto the page. The pages are flat and smooth (being reproductions of the original constructions), but the illusion of texture led me to run my fingertips over the page countless times. Carson creates a physical space that holds her own thoughts and her brother’s, as well as elements that are hard to place or that don’t seem to make sense.

Finally, the added complexity of translation: the work starts with a poem by Catallus (#101), presented in Latin in smudgy ink. I merely glanced at it, as I don’t know Latin. But Carson makes the reader think so deeply about that poem. On alternate pages, she presents a single dictionary entry for a word in the poem. (Even the dictionary entries, I suspect, are her own; the sample sentences are too rich to be genuine reference material.) Page by page, I tried to construct the meaning of the poem for myself, and as a result, I read those lines of barely-understood Latin dozens of times. I couldn’t come to a translation, but I came to a rough understanding of the poem’s skeleton. By the time Carson included an English translation (her own), I yearned for it.

The element of translation is perhaps the most interesting to me. Carson is a translator, and she describes her mourning process in terms of translation: she studies her brother fragment by fragment, trying to reach something whole. It is, she says, an unending process. She describes the process, as well as her choice of the particular Catallus poem, in a section labeled 7.1:

I have loved this poem since the first time I read it in high school Latin class and I have tried to translate it a number of times… I never arrived at the translation I would have liked to do of poem 101. But over the years of working at it, I came to think of translating as a room, not exactly an unknown room, where one gropes for the light switch. I guess it never ends. A brother never ends. I prowl him. He does not end.

This is a book to re-read and to savor.

Circling back to the connection with Ramsay’s thoughts on Oulipo, Carson’s choice of form in Nox functions as a similar kind of constraint. As with the Oulipians, there is no room for anything to be out of place. Carson reads and writes and translates and interprets and designs, and she encourages the reader to engage in similarly blended acts, resulting in a rich and intense experience that I won’t soon forget.