[Crossposted to Infinite Test.]
For some time I have been wanting to teach a course on long books. In the first instance, this is a response to the common student complaint that the books I set are “too long.” I want them to think, then, about what it means for a book to be “too long.” I want them to reflect first on the irony that many of the books that are popular among people their age are long, and increasingly so: think of the ever-expanding length of the successive Harry Potter installments, for instance, though more generally much young adult fiction comes in weighty tomes, often a whole series of them. And yet they start to complain as soon as a novel set for class is more than a couple of hundred pages, grumbling that such longer books are “wordy” or boring. Is it really length then that is at issue? Why are some books too long, while others, no shorter, are not? Or to put this in more general terms: why are long books long? What can or does a long book do that a shorter one can’t? Ideally, I would structure the course to pair long and short books by the same author, to show that length is a choice, not simply a habit; that the same writer can be taut as well as prolix. We might read Gravity’s Rainbow alongside The Crying of Lot 49, The Magic Mountain with Death in Venice, Ulysses with “The Dead,” and so on. In some ways, this would be a class on genre: the genre of the long novel. We would look at the expectations, rules, and demands of the genre, and try also to see its shifting historical coordinates. Is, for instance, a long modernist novel long for different reasons than a long postmodern one? How does reading a long text in print, always aware of its physical size, compare to reading it on a screen?
To put this another way, and sticking for the moment to the physical object that is a book: if (admittedly this is a big “if”) form follows function, and perhaps the first and most overwhelming formal quality of a long book is its sheer heft, the number of pages that the reader knows he or she will have to traverse, then what function is that serving?
David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest is undoubtedly a long book, one of the longest of its kind in recent times. Its title already raises the notion of boundlessness (though a book can never quite be “infinite,” can it?) as well as the possibility that its very length may be a joke, perhaps at the reader’s expense. Is this a long-form shaggy dog story? Does its effect then depend upon the extended build-up to a punchline that will never quite feel just reward for the patience its delayed arrival has enforced upon us? Perhaps the most famous such shaggy dog novel in twentieth-century US literature is Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, but that comes in at a breezy 275 pages, compared to Infinite Jest’s 1079 (footnotes included). At present, I’m only a hundred pages in, and whatever follows I can already attest to the playfulness of Wallace’s novel: it is often funny, sometimes quite absurd. And it is also clear that its author is playing with us, teasing his readers with allusions that are obscure at present but that will (we hope and expect) become clear in the future.
For if we think of the process of reading a long novel less as a game and more as a battle (no doubt the experience of many), one weapon in the author’s armory is delay. Here, for instance, we open with a rather tense and certainly dramatic scene, in which the narrator, Hal, is questioned under suspicion of cheating in his application to college. The scene has a somewhat bizarre dénouement in which the college deans react with shock and horror to Hal’s speech, which is presented to us as eloquent and erudite (“Let’s talk about anything. I believe the influence of Kierkegaard on Camus is underestimated. I believe Dennis Gabor may well have been the antichrist” ), but which is received as though it were the ravings of a madman (“’What in God’s name are those . . .’ one Dean cries shrilly, ‘. . . those sounds?’” ) and lead him to be promptly restrained and sent to a mental hospital. But rather than resolving this mystery, the narration shifts abruptly to another character, another scene, apparently utterly unrelated, and some ninety pages later we still haven’t returned to that opening trauma.
Indeed, beyond delay, the other device to which a long novel has recourse–and Wallace certainly uses it repeatedly–is the abrupt shift of setting and personnel. A long novel can sustain several stories in parallel, with no rush to bring them together or show their relatedness (if any). Here, we have on the one hand Hal’s world with his stories of his brothers, parents, and uncle, as well as the East Coast tennis academy (with its own populous cast) that his father founded and his uncle now runs, and on the other hand a shadowy sequence of plots involving wheelchair-bound Quebecois activists and a mysterious film of some kind that seems to paralyze all those who see it. Throw in a suicidal girl and an addict waiting for his marijuana delivery, and there’s a lot going on already. Enough at least to help us forget Hal’s opening predicament, as we struggle to keep up with the growing list of dramatis personae and their various situations. But we can already see a few thematic resonances that cut across the various plots (drugs, obsessions, madness, secrecy, language) and, rightly or wrongly, can expect everything to come together in the long run. The long run is what the long novel has on its side.
The risk that a long novel runs (and also flirts with) is raggedness and even incoherence. That incoherence–or the possibility that you are taken to be simply raving, senselessly–is already explicitly thematized in the opening scene with the deans. More subtly, the problem is that an ambitious novel such as this one proves to have no center or (which is to say the same thing) no clear boundaries. This, too, is thematized early on through the metaphor of tennis as a game that, when played well, is a place not of clinical excellence but of “not-order, limit, the places where things broke down, fragmented into beauty” (81). The curious sage-like (but also, we’re told, possibly one-time fascist) coach who makes this pronouncement also praises the sport as an instance of “life’s endless war against the self you cannot live without.” To which his protégé, Hal’s younger brother Mario, muses in response: “But then is battling and vanquishing the self the same as destroying yourself? Is that like saying life is pro-death? [. . .] And then but so what’s the difference between tennis and suicide, life and death, the game and its own end?” (84). Surely this is also the risk of the long novel: for all its straining to assert itself, if through sheer (literal) weight alone, there is something almost self-destructive about writing at such length, not least the chance that the book is not published, does not sell, or is not read as its potential readers drop out along the way.
My wife got to page 32 when she first tried to read this book a couple of years ago. I’m still only at page 109. 970 left.