- The Desert Island Novel: A Small Place for Big Characters
Daniel Defoe. Signet Classic, 2008, 322 pp., $5.95 (paper)
The novel lends itself especially well to extremes of scope. On one hand, it is expansive, allowing for an exploration of a whole society—scores of characters with complicated relationships, shifting currents of power, political maneuverings and class dynamics. It might span decades and continents. It might come complete with family-tree diagrams in the first few pages, lest readers forget who is pretending to be whose second cousin, once removed. The Victorians (Dickens, Collins, Thackeray, Eliot) were especially adept at the creation of big novels, but today, too, the expansive novel is enjoying a moment. We can see the Victorians’ influence in Eleanor Catton’s Booker Prize–winning doorstop The Luminaries, which traces twelve main characters’ involvement in a complicated crime in a mining town in nineteenth-century New Zealand, or in Jeff VanderMeer’s chronicle of a blighted and strange region in Florida in the Southern Reach trilogy, or even, perhaps, in Karl Ove Knausgaard’s confoundingly compelling seven-volume fictional autobiography My Struggle, expansive in its page count but narrow in its subject matter: the life of one man, rendered in exhaustive detail. [End Page 183]
Somehow, a big novel’s length aids what Coleridge calls readers’ “willing suspension of disbelief,” the surrender to the world of a text, no matter the improbabilities. I spend so long with a big book, I no longer remember that I’m reading. The physicality of the page dissolves, and I forget about my self, too. It’s the closest I come to an out-of-body experience. When I finish reading a big novel, I’m left bereft, as if I have lost something dear. And I have: the world of the novel is so much more compelling, and maybe even much more knowable, than the real world.
Some writers have argued that readers should not be expected to devote such time to a big novel because big novels are about the wrong things. Virginia Woolf, in her essay “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown,” rails against Arnold Bennett’s assertion that there were no great Georgian novelists “because they cannot create characters who are real, true, and convincing.” Woolf, herself a Georgian writer, understandably takes umbrage. She asserts that Edwardians like Bennett are unable to penetrate the souls of their characters; what they settle for instead is a cataloging of the material stuff that surrounds the character in the vague hope that if the author is thorough enough, the character’s interiority will emerge. Woolf writes, “[Edwardian writers] have looked very powerfully, searchingly, and sympathetically out of the window; at factories, at Utopias, even at the decoration and upholstery of the carriage; but never at [a character], never at life, never at human nature.” For Woolf, exhaustiveness in describing concrete stuff in a novel is not as essential as revelation about human behavior garnered through close examination of characters’ interiority.
This discussion of the right and true presentation of character is not confined to the hinge of Victorian literature and modernism. Michael Chabon in his novel Wonder Boys presents a writer who is eaten up with the importance of novel creation. His student, who has bravely read a considerable portion of his 2,611-page draft, suggests that the problem with the novel (for any novel of such a length must have a problem) is that the characters themselves take a backseat to background information, such as genealogies of characters’ horses. This sounds like Woolf’s objection to Edwardian writers. Chabon’s writer disagrees:
The problem, if anything, was precisely the opposite. I had too much to write: too many fine and miserable buildings to construct and streets to name and clock towers to set chiming, too many characters to raise up from the dirt like flowers whose...