when william gass was working on THE TUNNEL–which took him twenty-six years to finish–i remember some wag quipping in some interview : yeah, and wouldn’t it be great if, when it came out, it was like, 120 pages. (and i remember thinking, “shit yeah! that would be great!”)
and also carol maso making a joke about how these boys kept writing their “Thousand-page novels, tens and tens of vollmanns—I mean volumes.“
these big, ambitious doorstops, in and out of fashion–usually written (and i’m betting usually read) by men (though i noted with interest vanessa place’s 600+ page recent entry into the race)… a galaxy of books created eons ago by maybe an imploding melville somehow i think still revolving around a sun probably named bellow, though now with a newly identified farout planet named bolano.
generally i’m not so into them. they manage their arcana and pyrotechnics with either gimmicks or, worse, plotty plots–big canvass, ensemble pieces where we need either to keep flipping back to some family tree or hand-drawn map or to some cleverly necessary endnote page. and there’s also a suspicion of greediness, certainly self-aggrandizing is wondered about, in the so demonstrated over-sized ambition. maso may indeed be right that these vanities among vanities are particularly vain. and, loud as they try to be, just saber rattlings, whistlings in the dark…
still i admired the hell out of THE LOST SCRAPBOOK partly because it does manage to balance its length with extreme readability and a decent amount of narrative velocity. it also more importantly isn’t particularly plot driven, and it’s run less by a machinery of gimmick than by an original technique of narrative splicing–a kind of collage work done in series, rather than in space. or another way: dara works a parataxis of narratives rather than that of phrases or sentences.
THE EASY CHAIN operates in similar fashion and, like THE LOST SCRAPBOOK, is a political novel, one made of principally two things: ideas–witty analysis of our inept and corrupt culture–and yarns. dara’s specialty is in fact the yarn, the almost wholesome tale, ending with a zinger or even a moral. on their own they would be nice bits of entertainment, strung together in series they make something else, at best it makes a convincing group portraiture of our rattled time… it’s a strange accomplishment, and the only one i could think to relate it to was the reaction had after watching linklater’s WAKING LIFE, where a series of undergraduate-y philosophical discussions, in aggregate, has the larger wallop of showing that we are a species of similar concerns, with similar self-designed thought experiments, and indeed similar fantasies.
it is a slightly lopsided novel–though i don’t think it’s at all the half loaf that one review had it. the first half has a better-defined gambit, which then disintegrates it’s not quite clear how effectively… its lead is a character who happens to be extremely charismatic. that’s his super-power–given without an origin story. and in the first half of the book we get to watch him wield this power against wealthier chicago. Lincoln “vaulted to the top of the city’s social hierarchy, slept with the majority of its first daughters and racked up an unimaginable fortune.” the second half of the novel then significantly drops the story of Lincoln, concerning itself only obliquely with him and his unexplained reversal. this half has some admittedly outrageous and not-always-successful gambits, including odd punctuation to denote voice stresses, a poor attempt at some kind of echo-affected poetry, and what i think was a long narrative from the POV of a piece of dust. i’m not sure. it gets a little wacky.
but there are really fantastic parts throughout, setpieces, yarns mostly, unsmug moral tales that show us both the hypocrisies and possibilities for hope in our consumerist endtimes. a fantastic one near the end about how a hippie food joint gets taken over and saved by a “one man Information Counterrevolution,” that is: a man of silence (324). another hilarious story concerns a pair of unsavvy buddhists trying to go into business (to practice right livelihood) and getting all kinds of screwed.
other idea riffs are almost equally engaging as his stories. a few eloquent rants about our advertising-based culture where dara defines terms–the “skonk” and “conicons”–needed to make it run; one extremely prescient bit about how markets reward response, not value (187); and here is dara on how progress has us lose sight of fundamental values, the big picture, in our driven chase to get granular:
“In the libraries, he had also seen the affinity between progress and reduction. Day after day, in one library after another, he had noticed the cadenzas of rapt attention played to minutiae, as larger concerns grew foggy with neglect. Increasing acuity of perception driving wider blindness, evident & necessary visions falling on eyes without feeling. It was evolutionary: to continue, to flourish & prosper, whittle yourself to the barest functional minimum, then pass this on. Again, reason has produced its flipside, history has worked its dull revenge” (429). *