I enjoyed this GAWKER essay by Tom Whyman about Really Long Books:
Especially this part:
A book is Really Long because there is something essentially stupid about it, something broken: its length is the product of the writer having no ultimate clue how to say what they want to be saying. Its length is often glorious – but it is also an admission of failure.
I don’t even know if that’s true, but I like the idea so much that I don’t care if it’s true.
The Really Long Book is on my mind lately, because I have a stack of Really/Fairly Long Books to read. Seven of them, to be exact. Well, no, six, because I’ve already made my way through Neal Stephenson’s Snowcrash, which isn’t actually that long–480 pages. But it FELT long. It felt insanely long, and here’s why.
This book is so overwhelmingly clever that every third or fourth sentence, I had to stand back and marvel at how hilariously clever it was. Just one satiric thrust after another, right into the belly of society. It has its flaws, but I doubt at the time of its writing these were seen as flaws. They were more likely seen as allowable stereotypes that we now see (at worst) as offensive, or (at best) as lazy characterizations. But they are cleverly done, there is no denying it. And all these cleverly satirical people do very clever things in a world that is oh-so-cleverly constructed. And every time I had to stand back and think, Ho-ho-ho, Mr. Stephenson, what a brilliantly clever man you are, it yanked me out of the story. That could happen multiple times per paragraph. This made the <500 pages more like >2000 pages, as far as reading time.
I also have Seveneves and Cryptomicon to read there on the stack. I’m assured by my friend James that these are mature works of a master of his craft. I’m hoping he’s right. I think he might be, simply because my favorite parts of Snowcrash were the info-dump conversations between Hiro the Protagonist and the Librarian, in which I learned about Sumerian language, ancient myth, the Babel Event, and so on. I ate that stuff up, as opposed to the various battles and vehicle chases and harpoonings and so on, which bored me.
So, three of the seven Fairly (as opposed to Really) Long Books are by Stephenson.
The fourth one on my list is an actual Really Long Book; The Fall of Babel, the final book in the Babel series by Josiah Bancroft. This book is 638 pages, minus addendums. And it’s in a TINY type with narrow margins, or maybe it’s not, maybe I am just so daunted by this tome that I’m exaggerating to myself about the formatting. But I have a hunch that if this book were formatted in more standard way, it would be over 1K pages.
I can’t figure out why I haven’t read it. I waited impatiently for this book, I preordered it and tracked when it would arrive, and it finally did, and now it’s just sitting here, daunting me. Maybe it’s that the book sort of spoils itself with that title, doesn’t it? I mean, you write about a multilayered city state in a tower called Babel, and then you give me this title, The Fall of Babel? Gosh I wonder what happens to that Tower of Babel I’ve been reading about for three previous (enormous, brilliant, absorbing, fascinating) novels. I am completely absorbed and absolutely stressed out by reading these books. It has to do with the anxiety level created by the premise, and by the skill of the writing. Maybe I’m not ready to immerse myself in 600+ pages worth of high-stakes anxiety right now, even though it will be worth it. I don’t know.
Another Fairly Long Book is Purity by Jonathan Franzen, which I’ll get to and no doubt enjoy. Franzen writes lavishly about characters he seems to despise but secretly loves. I find it personally satisfying. There, my heart says, this is exactly how one should see the world, clearly and without mercy, in many pages that crackle with whip-smart humor that verges on cruelty! Yes! His books are long, but the time they take is time well spent. Still, I can’t make myself crack the cover because I have all these other big books to read.
Also in the stack is an actual Really Long Book; Maia by Richard Adams. Remember him? Watership Downs and The Plague Dogs? Well, Maia is 1223 pages in mass-market-paperback! Holy crap, what did it look like in hardback? Could you even lift it? Did you have to put it on one of those wooden OED stands? At some point I’m going to find out, as it comes highly recommended by a friend over cocktails.
At this point, if you’ve scanned the essay and read this blog post, you may have noticed something about all the books mentioned. Yes. It’s true. Every Really Long Book mentioned by Tom Whyman, and all of the Fairly Long Books and Really Long Books mentioned by me, are written by…men.
Is anyone surprised by this? I know I’m not.
Rather than launching into the whys of that, I’d rather point out the only Really Long Book by a woman in my stack, Marguerite Young’s Miss Mackintosh, My Darling. It is thought to be the longest novel ever published (correct me at will, I don’t care if I’m wrong so you won’t offend me). I ordered a used copy (a boxed set of two volumes) about a year ago. I got about 40 pages in before realizing I’d have to get back to it once I’m retired. There are too many books to read in this world, and I’m going to have to do this one in deep dive.
There are many, many Fairly Long Books written by women, like Joyce Carol Oates’ Bellefleur, and her A Bloodsmoor Romance (both of which I love). And, you know, Middlemarch, and The Man Who Loved Children, and…so on. So, just because no long books by women are on my current to-read pile (which is part of a larger to-read pile that fills an entire bookcase in my TV room), still, they exist. Women write long books, too.
I am open to observations, corrections, ruminations, and ideas. Who knows, maybe I can add more titles of daunting length to the stacks of books I haven’t read yet, but will someday, absolutely, for sure, at that mythical point in the future when I have unlimited reading time. Perhaps in the afterlife.
Languishing is that in-between place, where you’re not one thing or another. You just are. And we all are, right now. Is it over? is it not? Where do we stand with opening up, here in my rigorously liberal city where we have been dutifully masking and distancing and vaccinating and boostering? Are we going to throw away our masks or just wait for the next wave? Will we start eating in restaurants? Are there any restaurants left? Will my book groups start up again?
Can I have a goddamned dinner party already?
Sort of. I’m tossing and turning my way through some nights, unsure what time it is, if it can be over, if I can get up and get on with the day, if my husband is asleep or not, if I’m asleep or not. Last night I slept eight full hours, and would have slept more but woke up to the sound of a horn giving one loud honk. I started awake, wondering what in the world that was. Was it a foghorn? Unlikely, since I live almost 100 miles inland. Was it a car? Also unlikely because I knew the honk originated within my own head. Yes, it was me. I honked. I honk when I’m falling asleep.
I woke myself up, and who can I blame for that?
I’m waiting for…something. Well, one thing for certain, another grandchild arriving this month. This is the third time I’ve awaited the birth of a grandchild, and the first time was an agony. Now, three times in, it’s more like this. Imagine a woman and her three daughters, who made it through so much together, waiting for one of them to give birth. Three of the four focus on the pregnant woman with keen intensity, watching and waiting and worrying and fussing over every scrap of information as if we are the pregnant ones, not her. She’s merely incubating the baby for us. We will take ownership immediately, as a grandmother and as aunts.
We will all have our new baby soon.
Yup. A project that was an idea, then a germ, and then a sprout, is now 60K+ of words. Good words. It’s not quite enough words to send out to my carefully selected first readers, but it’s there and it’s real and I am so delighted and baffled with this project because it’s nothing like Iris or the Gentry books. It’s more like the Trailer Park book. I’m not trying to unravel the knots in anyone’s soul through suffering and humor, well, maybe I am, but it’s a work of pure imagination in a version of America that has never existed. I believe that’s called alt-history in the lexicon of terms I don’t give a shit about when it comes to writing.
Look, this place isn’t real, but my hope is you’ll enjoy the visit.
I’ve been really miserable this week with the state of my aging, leaky gut, and my husband has been in rehearsals every evening, so I’m watching my streaming channels with an unlikely intensity. Here’s what I can tell you. If you don’t have HBO Max, you should get it in order to watch Somebody Somewhere. If you’re in Schitt’s Creek withdrawal, watch Somebody Somewhere. If you’re languishing, and waiting, and sleeping, watch Somebody Somewhere.
Are you getting the message? Good.
I’m not dead. I’m just here. And I’m glad that you are, too.