- Chaos and Cosmos Functions
Big novels, maximalist novels: literary works of fiction whose symbolic aim is to relate the deafening polyphony of the world we live in by providing a synthetic and totalizing representation of it, and whose morphological makeup polarizes around centrifugal and centripetal features that grant such narratives on the one hand, their universalizing reach and, on the other hand, their formal hold.
Literary genres can be seen as “symbolic systems” whose formal features contribute to satisfy specific symbolic and relational needs, and arrange themselves according to specific dialectic configurations internal to the genre. In the case of maximalist novels, the material length of narration, encyclopedism, the choral dimension and the multiplot organization of the diegesis constantly work against features of the opposite sign, such as pervasive structural practices (i.e. geometric narrative architectures, intertextuality, etc.), the overwhelming presence of an omniscient narrator and the systematic interconnection of all story lines, articulating a peculiar, finalized, dialectic between centrifugal and centripetal forces. Such dialectic allows maximalist fiction to attain a symbolic and morphological “equilibrium”—an equilibrium all the more necessary, the more ambitious the task of maximalist novels is: addressing and domesticating complexity, in a metaphoric and metonymic way.
Length, encyclopedism, chorality and diegetic exuberance are responsible for an increase in the narrative entropy, conveying what we could label a “chaos function,” whereas peremptory structural practices, narratorial omniscience and a holistic construction of the plot attempt at containing such entropy, exerting a “cosmos function.”
The “chaos” features would bring the plot of maximalist novels to deflagration if there were no “cosmos” features to contrast them. Despite the specific meaning that each of the above-mentioned features of the maximalist novel holds within the symbolic and morphological economy of the latter, when it comes to the internal dialectic of the genre, they group into counterposed blocks. Anarchy vs. order: the internal dialectic of the maximalist novel is shaped by two opposing functions performed by some of its features—a chaos function and a cosmos function.
It is important, however, to make a distinction between “function” and “effect.” Even though there are narrative devices that intrinsically possess a chaos or a cosmos function (i.e. encyclopedism, on the one side; narratorial omniscience, on the other), it is not the presence of a single chaos or cosmos device in a narrative that determines an overall chaos or cosmos effect. Rather, it will be the extent of the use of a particular chaos or cosmos device and its combination with devices carrying the same function that will determine a global chaos or cosmos effect. That is the difference between a maximalist novel like Infinite Jest (1996) by David Foster Wallace and a social and family novel of a certain ambition like Flesh and Blood (1995) by Michael Cunningham: regardless of the relative length and the choral framework of the narrative, one never has the slightest impression of a dispersion of the plot when reading Cunningham’s novel. That is to say, in Infinite Jest, chorality constantly works together with length, encyclopedism, a frenzied digressiveness and an unbridled storytelling in order to give rise to a powerful, combinatory chaos effect at the level of the narrative taken as a whole. This chaos effect is counterbalanced, however, by an equally powerful, less overtly manifest perhaps, cosmos effect, orchestrated by the “cosmos” features of the maximalist novel.
Stefano Ercolino is Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature at Underwood International College, Yonsei University. He is the author of the monographs The Novel-Essay, 1884-1947 (2014) and The Maximalist Novel: From Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow to Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 (2014).