Thoughts on Barker’s Imajica

I believe I read a Clive Barker novel about fifteen years ago, but I have no idea what it was. A few years ago, I read some of his short stories, and this reinforced the conception I had of Barker as a horror writer, which isn’t really my thing. Still, Imajica came up on my radar for some reason, and I decided to give it a go.

Wow. I’m so glad I did. It’s going to be fairly difficult to describe anything about this book. It’s very weird, but in a wildly inventive and wonderful way. There are some gory images here and there, but I’d most certainly not classify it as horror. It’s more of a surrealist examination of spirituality? So kind of like The Holy Mountain.

I’ll try to set up the premise to give you an idea of the bizarre-ness, though, the whole point of the novel shifts by about 1/10 of the way through it. There’s Five Dominions. Earth, as we humans know it, is the Fifth Dominion. We’ve never seen these other magical places.

There’s a longtime conspiracy of people (I use this term lightly) making up a secret society to keep the Fifth Dominion separate from the other four. There is a way in though.

The novel begins with a man who is so in love with a woman, Judith, that he hires an assassin to kill her after she breaks up with him (obviously so she can’t be with anyone else). He has second thoughts and contacts Judith’s ex, Gentle, to stop the assassin. He succeeds. The assassin, Pie, is a being from one of these other dominions that doesn’t really have a gender. It becomes basically whatever it’s lover wants to see in it.

Pie seduces Gentle by appearing to be Judith. Gentle learns of what it did, and Pie takes Gentle into the other dominions. They gradually fall in love. Also, a billion other things are going on by this point, so don’t think that’s “really” the story. It’s about revelation, separation, unity, isolation, love, sex, power, God, redemption, finding meaning, culture, and on and on.

Don’t panic. It’s not done in a way that tries to be about everything and ends up being about nothing. This novel really tackles the big questions in a focused and metaphorical way. It just so happens that these big questions encompass all those other things.

Here’s some things I think the book does really well. There is a gigantic amount of information hidden to the reader: the conspiracy, how these other dominions run, the cultures there, the background on the conflicts, why the Fifth is separated, and so on.

Barker manages to slip this information to the reader in gradual and subtle doses over 600 pages or more. This means the novel stays story centric and engaging with almost no information dumps. It’s actually kind of brilliant how he does this. Often, you will hear things that make no sense. This causes you to reconcile your view of what’s going on with your existing theory. It’s only after you’ve done this many times that the full picture comes into focus.

Another thing I didn’t expect was how good the prose was. I expected genre horror writing full of stock prose: nothing bad but nothing great either. Instead, I found excellent execution of register shifting (often thought to be the most advanced and subtle techniques of prose style).

Register shifts refer to changing the type of language used to adapt to a situation. For example, if you’re hanging out with some friends, you might say, “‘Sup?” This is an informal register. If you’re at a job interview, you might say, “Hello. How are you doing? It is very good to meet you.” This is a formal register.

The thing that makes this so difficult in prose writing is that the context of scene must determine the proper register. When you first try to do this, it will probably be overdone, and this will change the voice. It must be done with enough subtlety so the voice remains consistent and only the register of the voice changes.

Most people will never notice if a writer has done this well. It is usually obvious when a writer doesn’t do it or overdoes it. We tend to say the writing fell “flat” in an absence of register shifts (a great term because there weren’t any up or down shifts in register).

The register tends to reflect the dominion we’re in. This is because as the dominions get closer to the First, the people get closer to God. The register shifts up to indicate the formality and ritualistic nature of religion. Take an early scene.

Gentle took off his heavy coat and laid it on the chair by the door, knowing when he returned it would be warm and covered with cat hairs. Klein was already in the living room, pouring wine. Always red.

This is quite low. There’s even a sentence fragment. The sentences are simple and to the point. The descriptors are common.

Now take a midway scene in a different dominion.

Like the theater districts of so many great cities across the Imajica, whether in Reconciled Dominions or in the Fifth, the neighborhood in which the Ipse stood had been a place of some notoriety in earlier times, when actors of both sexes had supplemented their wages with the old five-acter—hiring, retiring, seduction, conjunction, and remittance—all played hourly, night and day.

This single sentence is almost double the length of the entire three sentences above. The structure is quite complicated: subordinate clause, appositive, etc. This is an elevated register. The same sentence in a lower register would be “Whores could be found on the streets of the city in which the Ipse stood.” We could lower it even more or raise it to more formal levels than what was written. But it strikes a delicate balance of beautiful description in elevated voice.

I know it’s kind of mind-boggling to think that Barker did all this, but I noticed it early and then paid close attention. It is consistent throughout, which makes me think it is not some accident or coincidence.

Lastly, the symbolism is amazing. It draws on and reinterprets many famous Biblical stories. I can’t get into it, because I don’t want to give anything away if you haven’t read the book. It is some of the best of this type of writing I’ve seen. It isn’t so direct as to be cringe-worthy, and it is all done in an inventive re-imagining.

It’s kind of sad I didn’t read this during my Year of Giant Novels. It possibly would have been the Number 1 book of the year.

Year of Giant Novels Part 9: What I’ve Learned

I’m technically done reading giant novels for the year. I’m currently reading The Wizard Knight by Gene Wolfe, and if taken as a single novel, it qualifies, but the version I’m reading is two separate novels. It would probably make an interesting final analysis, because I’ve basically read two types of giant novels: literary and epic fantasy. The Wolfe straddles this line in some truly bizarre ways.

Here is the final list. It’s hard to believe I actually read all these.

Don Quixote – Miguel de Cervantes

Moby-Dick –  Herman Melville

The Way of Kings – Brandon Sanderson

Ulysses – James Joyce

Seveneves – Neal Stephenson

2666 – Roberto Bolaño

The Eye of the World – Robert Jordan

Back in college, when I first became interested in giant novels, I used to believe they were like normal novels—only better. I know that sounds weird, but the rough idea in my head was that novels were like relationships; the more you put in, the more connection you make and the stronger the emotional bond will be.

If you live with someone for ten years, you’ll have more of a relationship than with someone you only live with for a few months. Oh, my naive youthful ideas. This isn’t even true of relationships, so the conclusions can’t transfer because of some weak analogy.

You could live with someone ten years and basically know nothing of them. It’s about the quality of that time together that matters. The same is true of books.

Wow. This is quite the long-winded way of saying it’s the quality of the reading experience not the quantity. At this point, I know what you’re thinking: you spent a year reading giant novels and all you figured out was the most obvious thing everyone already knew? Sort of. But I also think I’ve clarified what makes quality in a giant novel to me.

I’ll use Moby-Dick and 2666  as my examples, because I think these both exemplify what I’ve learned. These were also the two most rewarding novels for me on the list.

Giant novels tend to be normal length novels plus some extra stuff. If this base novel is bad, I think the whole thing will be bad no matter what the extra stuff is. In the case that the base novel is good, the extra stuff is what makes the whole thing work or not.

This extra stuff must reinforce the overall novel. It has to serve a real purpose in the context of the novel. Take the Spouter-Inn chapter in Moby-Dick. There is an extended description of an oil painting. This isn’t mere “worldbuilding.” The painting serves many purposes: foreshadowing, establishing the tone of dread and awe, setting the scene of the inn, etc.

Take the story of beating up the taxi driver in Part 1 of 2666. This establishes a context of otherwise good people turning to random acts of violence. I spent a whole blog post talking about the importance of this context for Part 4 of the novel.

To reiterate, in both the examples I’ve given, these details could easily be removed and nothing would be lost from the plot of the novel. These examples are part of the extra stuff. But the examples reinforce tone, theme, symbols, and so on of the whole novel, so removing these details would make the novels of lower quality.

This is how I think about quality of giant novels now. If the extra stuff keeps reinforcing the whole like this, by the end, your psyche will have picked it up, and it will culminate in a more powerful reading experience. The extra stuff makes this possible. These giant novels would be much worse if these parts were cut. It wouldn’t even be the same book. The giant-ness is necessary.

If you take Seveneves, The Way of Kings, or The Eye of the World, there are many, many parts that are pure padding. The extra stuff serves only one purpose: description of the world. Obviously there is a balance. You can’t cut all of it, because then it wouldn’t be a novel. But I dare say, so much could be cut that all three of these could be normal-length novels, and they would be much higher quality for it.

Before fans of these novels jump all over me, I’m talking only about quality in the sense I described above. Plenty of people enjoy digging in to all the minutia of a constructed world and culture. I include myself in this up to a point. These novels would be less enjoyable to those people if too much of the padding is cut.

But even the most ardent fans must admit there’s quantity in these that don’t add quality. If these parts were cut, no one would notice, and the effect of the book would remain unchanged. This is pretty much the definition of a good edit, and all three of these novels could have been at least 10% shorter without losing anything of importance.

I’ve watched Brandon Sanderson lecture on this topic, and he even criticized a student’s writing for this very mistake. He pointed out that one tiny and important detail can paint a better picture in the reader’s mind than a huge, list of common details. We tend to be blind to our own mistakes, especially when praised with the amount of success he’s had.

Overall, I think I’m just not that in to giant novels anymore. I tend to find normal-length novels too excessive these days. I really love the tightness and care that goes into short fiction. Well written novellas are vastly underappreciated.

That’s why I’ve officially decided to make next year the Year of Short Fiction. I’ll do collections of short stories and novellas and blog about it for your enjoyment.

Year of Giant Novels Part 8: The Eye of the World

This is probably my last giant novel for the year. I really wanted to do something complicated and serious like Gaddis’ JR, but it was getting kind of annoying to find a reasonable copy. Anyway, I already covered the epic fantasy giant novel, so this will cover a lot of the same stuff.

I think I read at least part of Robert Jordan’s The Eye of the World around fifteen years ago, but I recalled none of it at the time of starting it this time. I’ll tread lightly, because I know a lot of people really love this series, and despite how this post comes across, I didn’t hate the book.

I’d probably never recommend it, but I don’t regret reading it. There were a lot of “problems,” but none were major. I’m going to tear into the details, because that’s how we discover what works in our own styles. That’s how we get better at writing. But these are mostly style things, and if I had read the book shifted by six months either direction, I might not have seen these as problems.

The structure of the novel is pretty simple. The main character’s village is attacked. This causes a group of people to be on the run from these enemies. They stop at villages on the way, and inevitably something always comes up to force them to run again. Travel – village – travel – village – etc.

On the one hand, it’s a clear Hero’s Journey narrative, but it’s also a travel narrative. These are both perfectly fine choices in general, but something was off in the execution. It took me a long time to figure it out. It lacked direction and positive motivation.

In the Hero’s Journey, the hero is called to action to go defeat the evil. There is motivation. We understand his/her progress in terms of this motivation. I didn’t see any of this in TEOTW. The hero was never called to action. In fact, it isn’t even clear who the hero is, because the bad guy can’t seem to figure out which is the chosen one.

All the heroes do is run away. This is negative motivation. They continually thwart the bad guys from achieving their goals, but they don’t seem to have independent goals of their own. This means the reader has no idea if they’re making progress.

Ah. I hear the retort already. The sense of progress in a travel narrative is if they’re getting closer to their destination. This also fails. Where are they headed? I have no idea. I don’t think I missed this, but it’s entirely possible I did.

At one point, I thought their goal was maybe Tar Valon so Egwene could start her Aes Sedai training, but then they arrived at Caemlyn and I started to think maybe their goal was to get to the false dragon there. As it turns out, neither of there end up being their destination, and it’s not clear to me the characters even knew where they were headed.

This might seem like nitpicking, but without goals or positive motivation, I found the story stagnant. I had a hard time picking the book up to keep reading. If the goal was to defeat the main villain, this could have been more clear. The main villain doesn’t even appear until the last 50 pages (out of 800+). It came out of nowhere. I sort of assumed he would remain this mysterious background force for the next 10 books in the series.

My next complaint has to do with stakes. I never felt like the characters were in any real danger. This has to do with how the book opens. The Aes Sedai easily handles the Trolloc attack on the village single handed. So later, no matter how many times she says they are in danger, it’s hard to take her seriously. I kept thinking: Eh, if it came down to it, she could use those same powers to save them again. Actions speak louder than words.

This is one of those things that’s mostly a product of its time. Fantasy has been worked out and studied a lot since 1990. Writers now know that it’s more important for the reader to understand the limitations than the power of the magic system. Also, instead of continuing to be chased by Trollocs for 75% of the book, throwing something in to raise the stakes would have added the uncertainty needed for a real threat.

There are a lot of “obligatory” scenes that would have helped out here. There’s a reason Gandalf “dies” in The Lord of the Rings. The stakes get raised when the most powerful person can’t keep bailing you out. There’s also the “hero at the mercy of the villain” scene where the reader must fully believe it’s all over. The villain could end it all with no problem. The hero narrowly escapes due to a surprising (yet believable) ingenuity.

Those are the two main flaws of the book: lack of positive motivation and the stakes didn’t continually rise to create tension. As with most giant novels I’ve read this year, I think it’s too long. Trimming this by 10% might remove both of these problems. When a book feels stagnant, increasing the pace by trimming the length can do a lot to help.

The real test is if I’ll keep reading the series. I think I’ll at least give the second book a chance, because I have no idea how it will continue from here.

Year of Giant Novels Part 7: 2666

I don’t remember how I learned of the existence of 2666 by Roberto Bolaño. When it released in English in 2008, it took the literary establishment by storm, winning multiple best book of the year awards. But even so, I’d wager that most people haven’t heard of it. I know I paid attention to these things in 2008, but this wasn’t when I heard about it.

When I started the novel a few weeks ago for the giant novels project, I wasn’t convinced of its greatness. The novel is broken into five large parts, and each of these is broken into little page-length segments. There aren’t any chapters apart from these segments. These little vignettes read almost like Baudelaire stories, and indeed, Baudelaire is quoted at the start.

The first part follows five academics who study an obscure writer. They get into little love triangles and fights with each other. The stories certainly build into a coherent part, but I didn’t really see the point. There was a strange allure that kept me coming back, but I couldn’t pinpoint anything that struck me as particularly interesting or compelling.

The next two parts go off on seemingly unrelated sets of stories. I got 350 pages in, and I started to lose my grounding. There didn’t appear to be any central glue to these disparate stories. I again was reminded of Baudelaire, because something like Paris Spleen is a collection of unrelated vignettes that combine together to give a wider portrait and worldview.

When I thought in these terms, a few threads appeared. Two ordinary people quickly turn to disturbing violence when they beat up a cab driver. An artist’s self-portrait involved a gruesome chopping off of his own hand. A disturbing boxing match. Murder. Violence. The whole of human history consisting of beating each other to death over the dumbest things.

These segments made their appearances so quickly and sparsely so as to almost not be noticed in such a grand and complex novel whose plot revolves around other ideas. But they came and made their impression, and the magnitude of what they pointed to started to weigh as I approached Part IV.

I’m not sure anything can prepare someone for Part IV of this novel. Part IV is essentially 300 pages of graphic depictions of murders of women that all happened in the town of Santa Teresa, Mexico (though fictional, it is based on Juarez, a real place in which over 370 women have been murdered and 400 more have gone missing since the 90’s). To read 2666 is a powerful and changing experience because of this section.

I think we have to take a step back and consider Bolaño’s achievement here. He could have just published Part IV as the whole novel, but no one would read it. I know I would have gotten through the first few, and then put the book down as a tedious and gruesome exercise. But as I’ve pointed out, Bolaño works on your subconscious for those first three parts, and he gets you mentally prepared to experience it. It is a brilliant move to put this section in the middle like this.

The final part gives the reader a chance to decompress after the experience. I wouldn’t say it ties up loose ends or becomes happy or anything. It more gives the reader time to digest and reflect on the horror.

The novel is not a genre mystery where the murder cases get solved. In a sense, this would be offensive to all the victims and their families who don’t get closure in real life. It doesn’t offer solutions. I’d see this as giving false credence to the politicians who oversimplify issues like this and offer clean solutions that can never work.

The book remains complex and difficult, and in doing so, presents the problems and issues in the only mature and realistic way conceivable. This makes it art. The novel is a testament to what great art can be. Tidy, easy stories can still move you, but it takes novels like these to change you. It’s a reminder that “literary” and “experimental” doesn’t have to be synonymous with dull and unengaging. Sometimes breaking the traditional form is the only way shock someone into understanding what you are trying to say.

Year of Giant Novels Part 5: Ulysses

In the previous posts in this series, I’ve taken off with the assumption that most people reading will have a familiarity with the giant novel. This time I’ll start from the basics. Ulysses is one of those books that many people have heard of but probably still can’t tell you much about.

Ulysses takes place over a single day in the life of Leopold Bloom. In fact, June 16 is called Bloomsday, and celebrations happen around the world in commemoration of the novel. I went into Ulysses knowing this much. What I hadn’t realized is that Stephen Dedalus, from Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, is given equal weight as a main character.

It is written in stream-of-consciousness style. People have probably heard this novel is “unreadable,” and this is the reason why. It’s not so much that the events of the day are mindnumbingly boring (this is true!), but that the prose itself is impenetrable. I’ve worked my way through many, many works of literature people have called unreadable and never found them to be so. This one actually is.

Unlike Proust, whose stream-of-consciousness prose is thoughtful and elegant, Ulysses fully embraces the utter chaos that is the human mind. Here’s a sample:

Proudly walking. Whom were you trying to walk like? Forget: a dispossessed. With mother’s money order, eight shillings, the banging door of the post office slammed in your face by the usher. Hunger toothache. Encore deux minutes. Look clock. Must get. Ferme. Hired dog! Shoot him to bloody bits with a bang shotgun, bits man spattered walls all brass buttons. Bit all khrrrrklak in place clack back. Not hurt? O, that’s all right.

And on and on and on it goes: for 260,000 words. There are ways to ground yourself though. And that’s what I’d like to spend the rest of the post talking about.

The name of the book is Ulysses in reference to the hero of Homer’s Odyssey. The novel is divided into sections, and one can supposedly correlate sections of The Odyssey with sections in Bloom’s day. But why? And should you care? We have to take a step back and put the book in context to answer this question.

Ulysses is often considered the perfect culmination of all modernist literature. Modernism as a movement is sometimes considered to have started all the way back with Madame Bovary (1856) but didn’t fully come into realization until the devastation of World War I.

There was a vast turning inward. The classics like War and Peace or The Odyssey or Great Expectations all had grand sweeping plots, rigid forms and structures, and a focus on beautiful language to show these things. Modernism rejected these notions.

I think it’s very hard for us to understand the feeling in Europe after WWI, but once can try to empathize with the sense of futility. We’re all small. People’s lives didn’t seem to matter. There weren’t heroes. There weren’t illusions of being able to change the course of history. The classic form of the novel probably seemed a dangerous fantasy. The world was chaos and unpredictable not structured and clear.

All right. So what on Earth does this have to do with Ulysses? The one takeaway from the title is that this novel is self-aware of what it is doing. It says: Bloom’s ordinary day is the heroic journey of our time. Maybe in the past, people could be worried about saving the world. In our time, an ordinary person trying to make it through an ordinary day is just as grand a struggle.

Depressing. I know. For me, the only way to make it through this book is to get rid of trying to figure out how individual sections parallel The Odyssey. Also, give up on there being any sort of plot to follow (though the wikipedia page is quite helpful on this front). The main thing is to dive into the difficult prose and think: yes, this is how real people think, it is chaotic, and somehow we manage to get through it everyday.

So is this novel worth it? In my opinion: definitely not. As a perfect embodiment of the modernist movement, it is an extremely important historical work. As a work for scholarly study, it will give endlessly. As a giant novel people should read, it is a nightmare.

If this type of thing interests you, read Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf instead. It is the exact same idea, an ordinary person’s ordinary day in the modernist style, but it is infinitely easier to read and much, much shorter.

Year of Giant Novels Part 4: The Way of Kings

The next giant novel of the year has been taking me quite a bit of time. I’ve chosen The Way of Kings, by Brandon Sanderson, to change things up a bit. It is the first book in a long epic fantasy series. I’ve written about Sanderson’s Mistborn in the past.

I didn’t worry about spoilers in the previous posts in this series, because the first few books were “classics.” The contents of those books are part of the fabric of Western culture. This book is still pretty new, and like most speculative fiction, the mysteries of the world are part of the fun. So I’m going to be vague sometimes. I promise not to spoil anything.

When I announced this series, I pointed out that the most common complaint in book reviews I made the previous year was that the book was too long. Unfortunately, I’m going to lodge the same complaint here. I see no excuse for it.

One of the features of this world is a place called the Shattered Plains. In order for cavalry fighting to occur here, men have to move large bridges by hand across these crags in the ground for the horses to run across. The Kaladin storyline has this happen probably five or so times. Showing this to us once was interesting. Reading five chapters where this happens is a slog.

I get it. He introduced new elements into those scenes. He developed the character. Blah, blah, blah. These aren’t legitimate excuses. Someone along the publication line should have said, “Those scenes get tedious to read, and they are all going to blur together in the reader’s mind a week after finishing the book anyway, so maybe you should combine them into one or two chapters.”

This would have worked wonders on the pacing. It would have meant a denser layering of new concepts, but this would be a small price to pay considering how few new concepts are introduced in these chapters. I can’t help but feel like these sections existed merely to make the book longer so that the series as a whole could rival giants like The Wheel of Time.

The description also got tedious. I found this a strange turn from his earlier stuff. He used to give excellent, brief details that told a lot about the world and culture and characters. The Way of Kings takes the “more is more” approach. Everything gets describe to a fault.

I get this is part of the “style” of the genre. People want to hear a million details about this fantasy world. But to me, it reads as lazy. It’s weird to call such a long book lazy, but this book came out after he got “famous.” It feels like he stopped working hard to find the right description and instead dumped everything onto to the reader hoping one of them was the right one.

The most interesting character for me is Shallan. She basically infiltrates her way into an apprenticeship to a scholar. There are a lot of complexities to her, and she gets put into interesting moral dilemmas that I cared about as a reader. She also interacts with people from different walks of life, which lends itself to a more natural exploration of the religions, cultures, and history of the world.

Unfortunately, her point of view disappears for huge chunks (I think over 300 pages at one point, a whole novel!). This makes the tedium I referred to above even worse, since I knew there were interesting parts I could be reading.

I once read a review that said Sanderson’s NaNoWriMo-esque speed of writing might be good for fans that just want to know what happens next, but it is beginning to show in the sloppiness of his writing for the rest of us. I can’t agree more. If this were carefully cut to 600-700 pages, it would be exactly the same book, but infinitely better.

I think that’s enough of the bad. Let’s get on to the good. The world is detailed and has a long, complicated history. We get glimpses of this past with enough detail that I fully believe Sanderson has a good idea about what went on. This is quite an impressive amount of depth to the world you don’t get from much epic fantasy (e.g. I’m not convinced Tolkien had pre-Third Age Middle Earth history worked out at the writing of The Lord of the Rings).

The magic system and sword/armor systems were original and neat. Actually, most aspects of the world were interesting. I don’t blame him for wanting to drone on forever about them (please resist the urge in future books!). I mean, who puts giant crustaceans in epic fantasy? It is nice to get away from the dragon trope.

The characters weren’t bad, but they certainly felt a little one-dimensional at times. In a novel with this many characters, it’s good to have defining features to remind the reader who they were. When these features get repeated too much, the character becomes reduced to that feature. I’m not saying that happened in the book, but it was borderline sometimes.

Now I should make a disclaimer that I’m only a little more than halfway through the book, so things might turn around in the second half. I’m hopeful, since many people think this is the best modern work of fantasy out there right now. We’ll see.

Year of Giant Novels, Part 3: Moby-Dick

I went in to Moby-Dick with very few preconceptions. The only thing I had heard about it was that there is some chapter on cetology, and everyone finds it too tedious to keep reading. I think this is a poor excuse, because it doesn’t occur until Chapter 32 and it isn’t that long.

Since I’ve been focusing on description on this blog recently, I thought I’d give a particularly interesting description. Early on, we get this description of a painting:

On one side hung a very large oil-painting so thoroughly besmoked, and every way defaced, that in the unequal cross-lights by which you viewed it, it was only by diligent study and a series of systematic visits to it, and careful inquiry of the neighbhours, that you could any way arrive at an understanding of its purpose. Such unaccountable masses of shades and shadows that at first you almost thought some ambitious young artist, in the time of the New England hags, had endeavoured to delineate chaos betwiched. But by dint of much and earnest contemplation, and oft repeated ponderings, and especially by throwing open the little window towards the back of the entry, you at last come to the conclusion that such an idea, however wild, might not be altogether unwarranted.

The description actually continues after this. It is quite wordy, but much of this can be attributed to an older style. One of the joys of reading this novel is to revel in how inventive the descriptions are. Melville could have described every detail of this painting, giving us a perfect image of it in our minds.

Instead, we get this nebulous, vague sense. We have to imagine a painting for which an ambitious artist tries to capture chaos. This contributes much more toward the unsettling feeling we’re supposed to have of the place than if we had some clear idea. The description also does a good job of having more than one purpose. It incorporates some of the surroundings: “unequal cross-lights” and “little window towards the back of the entry.”

The painting has an ominous whale figure in it, and so it serves a deeper function than pure ambiance. It is a foreshadowing of the chaos that is to come. It sets the mood for whaling.

I’m only about half-way through the novel so far, but here’s my general impression. In some senses, it’s not as hard as I thought. The language is dense and there are tangents, but the first half has a lot of good suspense and the story is never lost for long.

In other senses, it’s harder than I thought. I have to be in the right mood to enjoy it. I have to have a particular attitude and willingness to go along with it. This is different than most novels. If you like to read, you probably can pick up almost anything at almost any time and enjoy it.

This novel must be embraced for what it is. If you’re going to get annoyed at reading detailed categorizations of whales, you can’t pick it up (or you have to skip those parts). But if you embrace it, even these sections are enjoyable.

All these sections taken together contribute to a full immersion into the culture of New England whaling in the 1800’s. There’s newspaper clippings, poems, songs, paintings, personas, textbook-style cetology, historical bits, sermons, etc. These are all woven beautifully into the story itself. It’s really brilliant and fun when you are willing to go with it but feels impenetrable when not in the mood.

I think anyone interested in writing should read this novel, because it is written with such magnificent style (unlike Don Quixote where understanding its historical significance is more important than actually reading it). Melville is a master at sliding between registers: from high lyricism to gruff whaler dialect. If you only stick to modern novels, you’ll never encounter brilliant passages like:

There is no life in thee, now, except that rocking life imparted by a gentle rolling ship; by her, borrowed from the sea; by the sea, from the inscrutable tides of God. But while this sleep, this dream is on ye, move your foot or hand an inch; slip your hold at all; and your identity comes back in horror. Over Descartian vortices you hover. And perhaps, at mid-day, in the fairest weather, with one half-throttled shriek you drop through that transparent air into the summer sea, no more to rise for ever.

I’ve read this passage twenty times in the writing and editing of this post, and it never ceases to amaze me with its beauty. This type of thing could never get published today, even in obscure literary fiction (actually, maybe Mark Helprin comes close). Anyway, I definitely recommend this one, which surprises me. I expected it to be a terrible experience.

P.S. Most of you probably wouldn’t notice if I didn’t point it out, but I’m switching to Friday posts after over a year of doing Wednesdays.

Year of Giant Novels Part 2: Don Quixote

I’ve made it into Part 2 of Don Quixote. I’ll fully admit upfront that it has become a bit of a slog. I find it difficult to get motivated to keep reading. The book is indeed episodic, and many of those episodes involve a random character telling a story. This makes it hard to care about the story when you know the character is only there for 20 pages or so.

In any event, let’s continue to point out ways in which the book was way ahead of its time. If you’ve studied classic philosophy, you’ll probably be familiar with Descartes’ First Meditation. This was published in 1641, and it has a thought experiment so famous that people refer to it as Descartes’ evil demon.

The idea is that there might be some powerful evil demon out there that makes us believe reality is a certain way, but in fact, it is completely different. How do we know such a thing isn’t deceiving us? This lead Descartes to doubt all of reality as the starting point for his philosophy.

Now that I’m reading Don Quixote, I’m confused by why we attribute this to Descartes. Thirty years before Descartes wrote this thought experiment down, Cervantes perfectly articulated the same idea. Unfortunately, I didn’t mark the page, or I would quote it directly.

This was probably one of my favorite moments in Part 1, because it so brilliantly illustrated the whole point of the book. Some people see Don Quixote and try to convince him he is crazy; what he sees is not reality. But in a great twist Don Quixote argues back that they are the ones being enchanted by an evil sorcerer. It is he, Don Quixote, that sees reality and everyone else is being fooled. As Descartes found out, it is quite difficult to argue back against that.

Part 2 is where things get really heavy on the meta-fiction. Cervantes’ novel Don Quixote has made it into the fictional universe of Part 2. Early on, he even has a character make the same criticism I made above. There are too many digressions in which Don Quixote (the person) isn’t a character. Don Quixote and Sancho go off on new adventures and keep meeting people that know all about him because of reading Part 1.

You have to know a bit of real life history to be in on some of the more complicated jokes. Someone under the pseudonym Alonso Fernández de Avellaneda wrote a fake Part 2 to Don Quixote (sort of like fan fiction). In real life, this fake version actually got Cervantes motivated to finish the real Part 2.

But that’s not all. He actually uses the fake Part 2 for plot points in the real Part 2. This fake Part 2 has been read by the people in Cervantes’ real Part 2. Don Quixote (the character) is unaware of this fake version of himself for some time, and some great silliness happens when he finally realizes this impostor version of himself exists.

He gets upset when he encounters people who have read the fake version in which he is no longer in love with Dulcinea. To spite the fake version, he decides to change what he was planning on doing (which actually corresponded with something that happened in the fake version!). These meta-fictional episodes play right into the novel’s main concept of blurred lines between fiction and reality, because the fictional version of Don Quixote overlaps with the “real” Don Quixote in places.

These jokes get quite complicated, and really nothing like it existed for hundreds of years afterward.

Year of Giant Novels, Part 1: Don Quixote

Back in my youth, I used to love reading giant novels: Infinite Jest, Underworld, Gravity’s Rainbow, The Brothers Karamazov, Anna Karenina, Les Misérables, etc. There are still quite a few left on my list that I haven’t gotten around to.

In the past few years, I’ve mostly read short novels. I even find myself getting annoyed when a 350-pager has gone on too long. The most common complaint I have these days is a lack of focus that leads to too long of novels.

I hereby declare this The Year of Giant Novels, where I will attempt to get through all the giant novels I own but haven’t read. I may even get some more if it goes well. I will, of course, blog about them as I read them. My list so far is: Don Quixote, Moby-Dick, and Ulysses. Let me know if I should do any others (Warning: I might veto War and Peace). I would like to add something from the past 50 years (maybe 2666?).

Anyway, on to Part I of Don Quixote. This novel is quite a strange beast. Say the name Don Quixote to anyone, and they will probably think they know all about it without having read it. They’ll have images of pure silliness.

They probably won’t be able to tell you why he fought the windmills, but they will know it happened. Some might even predict that the novel is episodic and monotonous going through his crazy and delusional adventures. Pretty much everything anyone knows about the book happens in the first 5%.

What most people don’t realize is that this novel was published in 1604 (according to the Penguin Classics edition). 1604! They also don’t realize how far ahead of its time it was; we’re talking about being hundreds of years ahead of its time. This thing is a tome of post-modernism 200 years before modernism happened.

First off, the narrator wants you to believe this really happened. Cervantes goes so far with this idea that in an early chapter, he has the narrator interrupt the story mid-action to say that he doesn’t have the proper citations to continue the story.

The narrator goes off on his own story. He visits a library where he accidentally comes across an Arabic text that contains the end of the story about Don Quixote he interrupted. This qualifies as Borges-level mind games (which is probably why Borges chose Don Quixote for the backdrop of his famous “Pierre Menard” story). When Barth used this technique in the 1960’s, it was considered a mind-boggling innovation. But here it is in something published in 1604.

Another example of these postmodern techniques is in Chapter 6, where a barber and a priest are trying to destroy the books that Don Quixote read that led him to his delusions (already a clever premise examining the interaction between fiction and reality, author and reader). The two come across another of Cervantes’ novels.

This nearly killed me. Cervantes’ character, Don Quixote, has been so enamored by one of Cervantes’ other novels, which somehow exists in this fictional universe, that he goes mad. That’s not all. Then the barber claims to know Cervantes in real life. This means the author wrote himself into his fictional universe! Then the barber goes on to criticize the novel. This is brilliant. A fictional character speaks a critique of the author who wrote him.

I’m starting to see why Don Quixote went crazy.