Garth Risk Hallberg
944 Pages; Print, $30.00
208 Pages; Print, $29.95
One of the conundrums literary and cultural critics are facing at the dawn of the third millennium is the spectacular and, apparently, quite lucrative revival of the meganovel. Oddly enough, huge books, doorstops daring us to pick them up, never mind read them, are back at a time volume and value no longer stand joined at their conceptual hip. Notably, big presses are pushing the “long-form,” reportedly awarding two-million dollar contracts for 900-plus-page debut novels like Garth Risk Hallberg’s City on Fire and otherwise pushing such narrative behemoths aggressively.
The vigorous marketing of gargantuan fiction by publishers like Knopf or Little, Brown and Company, which released David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest in 1996 in an advertising campaign revolving around the book’s sheer bulk, is proof, argues Stefano Ercolino in The Maximalist Novel, that length matters. It surely does. However, I am not persuaded by the critic’s claim that, in guaranteeing “these novel’s peculiar status as commodities,” size is the reason publishing houses all-too-mindful of their bottom-line have shown interest in meganovels and that, more broadly, length equals or is inherently conducive to sales. In the book and other markets, as well as in sociocultural and economic practices intersecting (or not) with the writing of fiction and non-fiction, gigantism is hardly a self-evident ideal these days. To the contrary, it can be suggested that, with the onset of the digital age, with the intensifying of the software-becoming of our hardware world, with the arrival of handheld and miniaturized technology, and with the acceleration of time-space compression and of the world’s spatial and material depletion in the face of runaway developments in world economy and demography, girth is no longer the default way to glory and fortune. Does ponderous necessarily or automatically sell? I doubt it. In reality, whether we are talking about cars or books, the umbilical cord between big and valuable has been demonstrably severed.
What has not disappeared, though—in effect, what is getting even more obvious in the post-Cold War, late-global era—is the pivotal role played by the isomorphism (or “synecdoche,” says Ercolino) of representation and the represented. “A text that aspires to rival the entire world,” maintains the critic, “cannot do so except by assuming the latter’s amplitude.” Here and elsewhere in The Maximalist Novel, Ercolino follows Franco Moretti, especially Modern Epic’s considerations on “world texts.” The phrase was meant to echo, according to Moretti himself, the world-systems-informed economic analyses of Fernand Braudel and Immanuel Wallerstein.
Basically, it makes complete sense: a long book is more equipped to embrace our wide world. A world text whose worldliness is inevitably a function of its textual capaciousness is better poised to textualize the world, that is, to take the world in and provide the reader with ampler vistas of a planetary landscape that reveals itself more and more as an increasingly integrated and scopically accessible whole. Textual scale is, practically—technically— speaking, a mimesis tool whose modus operandi seems, by all accounts, apposite to the planetary range typical of the more consequential phenomena of the twenty-first century.
Mimesis, more to the point, mimesis in a sense that retrieves some of the ambitions of traditional, representational realism, is the key term here, and there is little surprise that, from DeLillo to Wallace, authors of megafictions do project a recognizable and strikingly palpable world—and they do need hundreds of pages to unfold that world’s canvas. But whole worlds can be opened up in a totally different mode, at the other, “minimalist” end of the textual spectrum, and I was surprised to come across no reference to Borges and Borgesian encyclopedists such as Danilo Ki...