This is a 25-minute blog post.
I set a timer for 20 minutes, then I have 5 minutes to wrap it up and make adjustments. Here goes.
In 2021, I've committed to reading a "door stopper" novel each month. My parameters are:
Anyway, in January, I read Roberto Bolaño's epic 2666. The novel is wild. It's divided into 5 books and they make up a kind of...whatever you'd call a five-paneled work of art (quin-tych?). I guess the books can be read on their own in any order, but I am fascinated by the one laid out by the publishers and Bolaño's family (he died right before completion).
At the end of the second book ("The Part about Amalfiatno"), we get this sublime passage about "door stoppers."
"There was something revelatory about the taste of his bookish young pharmacist...who clearly and inarguably preferred minor works to major ones. He chose The Metamorphosis over The Trial, he chose Bartleby over Moby-Dick,...and A Christmas Carol over A Tale of Two Cities or The Pickwick Papers. What a sad paradox, thought Amalfitano. 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."
2666 is just under 900 pages. I read about 30 each day, save for one day, but it was easy enough to carve time to catch up. The experience was incredible. It covers so much terrain, sprawling and diverging and still manages to contain some kind of whole. This book is difficult in sooo many ways (it's often unrelentingly gruesome). I wrestled with it a lot and just when I was on the brink of calling it a day, something stunning would ping off the page, and I'd hunker down for more reading.
Recently, I'm keenly interested in that struggle. That moment when a work becomes frustrating, when I'm not getting it, bored, or confused, or whatever. How do I get out of that? Is it an issue with the book or me? In 2666, I'd always come to some kind of marvel at his genius. I'd come to a satisfying rationale for each annoyance or idiosyncrasy.
Now, there are books out there that just don't work for me. And I'm getting better at understanding if A) the read will be constant struggle and simply "not for me" Or (B) if the read will be something that's going to take an investment and a careful examination of paying attention to my reaction to the reading. This mindfulness is something George Saunders calls for in his latest book A Swim in a Pond in the Rain.
I picked up that book a few weeks ago and read the introduction. It's brilliant. Saunders is one of my favorite writers and he teaches at the MFA Creative Writing Program at Syracuse. One of his classes is an exploration of 40 Russian short stories. His latest book is a condensed version of that class, choosing only 7 stories instead. Saunders is focusing on the short story and talking to me as a fellow writer, but also as a reader and general art reader (seeing a film, theater, taking in a painting, etc.).
I'm curious what Saunders would have to say about how the sprawling novels differs from the short story (beyond the obvious: length). So I'm sure Saunders would approach 2666 in a different way as a reader/writer. But I know that after reading only the first 6 pages of A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, I was thinking about how I was reading 2666: what delighted me, what didn't, and why. This made the experience that much more full and engaging. Perhaps I'll share more of that someday.
My timer just dinged, so I'm going to make sure there isn't anything totally embarrassing.
But here's to "the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown."
I'm a third of the way through Olivia Manning's Fortunes of War: The Balkan Trilogy and it's a totally different kind of "torrential" work. More on that later.
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