I went to my favorite local bookstore this afternoon and for reasons beyond me I was compelled to pick up Jonathan Littell’s divisive 2009 novel The Kindly Ones, a massive tome running to almost 1000 pages in its trade paperback edition. Okay. The reasons I bought it are not completely beyond me: they mostly stem from Paul La Farge’s essay “A Scanner Darkly,” published in the May, 2009 issue of The Believer. Previous Believer feature essays have led to me picking up excellent books by writers I’d never heard of, including 2666 and The Rings of Saturn. Anyway, the book is massive, and I don’t really have time to read it any time soon. There is a hobbit-sized stack of review copies lingering by my nightstand, more arriving all the time, not to mention the books I habitually pick up weekly. Which, more often than not, tend to be pretty big like, uh, The Kindly Ones.
Why is this? Why the attraction to big books? In his essay included at the end of Bolaño’s 2666, Ignacio Echevarría cites a passage from the book where literature professor Amalfitano wonders that:
Now even bookish pharmacists are afraid to take on the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown. They choose the perfect exercises of the great masters. Or what amounts to the same thing: they want to watch the great masters spar, but they have no interest in real combat, when the great masters struggle against something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench.
The “bookish pharmacist” in question has explained that he favors the preciseness of “Bartleby” over Moby-Dick, the polish of The Metamorphosis over The Trial. Amalfitano, Bolaño’s stand-in, points out that it takes “the great, imperfect, torrential works” to “blaze paths into the unknown.” Put another way, the masters need space; space to overflow, make errors, experiment, joust with other masters, play in and with time. Obviously, the passage (as Echevarría and a million other critics have noted) is a defense for the sprawl of 2666 itself, but I think it speaks to why many readers are drawn to the big books. They can be ragged and overflowing but they also have more room to take the measure of spirit, soul, life. They can evoke this world and others. They can be grand.
Not to say that the smaller books can’t do this in turn. Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son is masterful in its precision and humor. But Tree of Smoke is the better book. David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest trumps everything else the man wrote. White Noise is more manageable than (and perhaps superior to) Underworld, but the bigger book allows Don DeLillo the space he needs to explore so much of American history and American psyche. And these are just contemporary examples. There’s James Joyce and Marcel Proust, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. Sterne. Cervantes. Supply your own names.
But I also love novellas and those long short stories of strange size like Joyce’s “The Dead” or, yes, “Bartleby” (sidebar: Really, what is “Bartleby”? A long short story? A short novella? What is it?). There’s something pure and refreshing about them, especially when consumed quickly, especially when consumed between a few of those long books. And a confession: I love it when review copies come in that hover around 200 pages, particularly when the novel is the writer’s first or second. There’s a glut, a horrendous, miserable glut, of first-time novelists who feel they must say everything about everything in 380 or 450 or, God forbid, 500+ pages. It’s really too much. I suppose the rule, if there has to be a rule (there doesn’t) is impossibly simple (and perhaps just impossible): if you’re going to write a really, really big book, make sure it’s addictive, compulsive reading. I’m not sure if The Kindly Ones is great art or a potboiler posing as art, but I am pretty certain that its length alone, for whatever reason, is part of its attraction.