Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Must the Great Novel be large, sprawling, frantic, and a bit of a mess?

No, I didn't disappear under a pile of fennel, but of work...which is like fennel, in that it is tough and large and sometimes hard to cut through, but very good roasted.

In addition, I have been racing to finish Roberto Bolaño's 2666, because I took it out of the library, and although I can renew it for another three weeks, there's a certain shame in that, a certain failure, and so I read and read most of last weekend, instead of working on my own stuff. OK, so I'm still not quite done. And I don't want to be done. This is a book that I'm going to miss when it's over, even though a great deal of it is concerned with war and murder, especially the mass murders of women in Ciudad Juárez, but also of Jews in World War II. In fact there is, at one point, an almost relentless cataloging of murders, a kind of theme with variations, that goes on for hundreds of pages, while various police officers, politicians, and reporters weave in and out, trying and failing to understand, and sometimes disappearing themselves. Yet, these depictions of atrocities never feel exploitative or sentimentalized; as a reader I felt a tremendous weight of confusion and sorrow, which, oddly, made me unable to put the book down.

The preface and afterword explain that 2666 was Bolaño's last work; he wrote it while becoming increasingly ill, and he knew he was dying as he was finishing it. This no doubt added a certain urgency to the prose, perhaps a certain wildness and willingness to plunge into depths that the rest of us either fear too much, or don't know. In addition there is a raggedness and repetitiveness to some sections, which Bolaño might have edited out, had he been given more time. Then again, his other work suggests polish and brevity were not his concerns. And in 2666, hearing of a friend's preference for "short, neatly shaped novels,"* one of the characters muses:

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 that something, that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench.

I do think this novel is that other kind, imperfect and torrential. In my opinion, it's right up there with The Brothers Karamazov and Moby-Dick. It has the same vast scope, the same existential cri de coeur at its center, the same rage to comprehend--to encompass and understand--the entire range of human experience. Interestingly, the novel is not much concerned with God or religion, at least not overtly. Literature seems to replace God as a transcendent, unifying principle. Now, normally I don't approve of novels whose theme is writing (and whose main characters are writers), because they suggest that the author simply can't imagine people with professions unlike his own--which is a blatant failure of the writer's task. However, in this case, writing is the ultimate human quest for answers. The writer, as Bolaño has made clear in any number of works, is a detective. He is not, if he's doing it right, some kind of cloistered, disengaged commentator, but a seeker of truth, a religious pilgrim, outlaw, and professional wrestler rolled into one.

But is it true that an authentically great novel must be of this type--big, messy, overtly trying and ultimately failing to embrace everything? My own preference is, in fact, for such novels, though I have never attempted one myself (as yet). Still, this might just be a personal preference. Or is there a reason that the beautifully crafted, smaller "gem" of a book really does fall short of greatness? Does the perfection of craft represent a failure of intellectual or emotional ambition? Should the writer always bite off more than she can chew, or do battle with monsters she can never hope to catch or tame?

*I am quoting from the Note to the First Edition by Ignacio Echevarría.

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