Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Five Massive Books to Have on Your Radar

Though I can't say for sure why, I love massive books. They're so ambitious and so labor intensive that I'm automatically rooting for them to be good. Furthermore, there is something, almost comforting to me, to read a book over a long period of time rather than just crashing through it, to have it weave its way through my life. In some ways, a massive book is like you're favorite diner, you don't necessarily eat there every day, but it's nice to know it's there for you. Some of my favorite massive books, I've been reading for years, sometimes going months without picking them up (Parallel Stories, Earthly Powers, The Dying Grass, Ulysses) but always eventually returning to them, either as palliatives between other books or just because I feel like it.

I don't always need to be reading a monstrosity, but I'm glad I live in a world where writers are writing and publishers are publishing cinder block sized novels. So, here are four new and forthcoming massive novels (in ascending order) to keep on your radar.

The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt

If there can be such a thing as a “buzzed about out-of-print book” then DeWitt's 2000 debut is a “buzzed about out-of-print book.” Her second book Lightning Rods is a deeply unsettling, pitch-perfect satire of corporate culture. She had another book called “Your Name Here,” that may never have found a publisher that was a stylistically chaotic post 9/11 novel. So it was somewhat baffling that her absolutely adored cult classic would remain out of print. And yet it still took a few more years for New Directions to finally bring The Last Samurai back into print.

In The Last Samurai, Sibylla makes three fateful decisions regarding raising her son Ludo; to raise him without his father (and with good reason if she's to be trusted as a narrator), to use The Seven Samurai as her short term solution to the absence of positive male role models in Ludo's life, and to educate him (roughly) in the tradition of John Stuart Mills and Mr. Ma (famed cellist Yo Yo Ma's father). The result, so far, is somehow, Helen DeWitt is able to cast a kind of literary side-eye at those few pedants for whom the recitation of a catalog of esoteric data counts as knowledge while celebrating the real joy and fun that comes from knowing things. The narrative voices are infectious and the style and formal inventiveness are just familiar enough, that I think this might be the perfect book for someone who doesn't read a lot of experimental fiction, to try to stretch themselves a bit.

Gesell Dome by Guillermo Saccomanno

I had just gotten back from BEA, so the last thing I needed in my life was another galley. But then I got back into the bookstore and saw this massive galley described as “True Detective through the lenses of William Faulkner and John Dos Passos. Throw in “dozens of sordid story lines...various murders, corrupt politicians and real-estate moguls, and the Nazi past,” and the fact that Guillermo Saccomanno is a two-time winner of the Dashiell Hammett Prize and “Argentina's foremost noir writer,” and well I had no choice but to add this 616 page doorstop to my pile.

The Familiar: Vol 3 by Mark Z. Danielewski

After having read the first two volumes I am still on board with Danielewski's massive serial novel. Near the end of volume 2, there were some signs of the various threads of the story being slowly woven together and I'm excited to see how (or even if) that continues in vol 3. One advantage The Familiar has in this list, because of Danielewski's particularly visual style, for being as massive as they are, the volumes in The Familiar read rather quickly.

Jerusalem by Alan Moore

So far, Alan Moore, one of the greatest comic book and graphic novel writers, seems to be expressly writing against the visual limitations of sequential art. The imagery that he is using (and there is a lot of it) is driven by the fluidity of the reader's imagination, aiming for a dynamism and expansiveness that is just not possible when a visual image is fixed on the page by an artist. At times, it feels like Jerusalem is a collection of everything he tried to do in comics that his artists or editors told him was impossible.

Though I can see some (maybe even many) readers not having the patience for his philosophical flights of imagist fancy, to date I find the style oddly intoxicating. To me there is an almost thrilling beauty in images I can barely wrap my mind around, so a strange emotional and intellectual state is created in my mind when faced with image after image that strains my ability to visualize.

The problem with massive books, of course, is that it takes a long time before you know if they were worth the effort. So, though there is a chance my opinion could change by page 900 or so, at the moment, it seems as though Jerusalem is a work of genius.

Bottom's Dream by Arnot Schmidt

Here's a sentence you probably didn't expect: Look forward this fall to a 1,496 page German Finnegans Wake by way of House of Leaves who's titular concept is the subconscious processing of magical transformation. This translation, the first in English, has major literary event written all over it. As you may have gathered from this post and my criticism in general, I have a soft spot for wildly ambitious works of art and, in some ways, Bottom's Dream is two wildly ambitious works of art; the German novel and the English language translation that had to deal with neologisms, idiosyncratic punctuation, colloquial contractions, warped idioms, and how knows what else the 1,493 pages I haven't read yet contain. I mean, I think in a three-column format, one column is the thoughts of the farm animals that I think were around at the start of the scene, but honestly, I can't be sure.

Bottom's Dream, like Finnegans Wake, House of Leaves, even Infinite Jest in some ways, is so different from most other books that you essentially have to learn to read it as your read it. And at 1,496 pages, you'll have plenty of time to study up.

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