Monday, December 22, 2008

The Long and the Short

Saturday night I was drinking red wine with mi niña and one of her friends, this friend’s husband and some others who I had just met, listening to the already tipsy talk about this and that, none of it mattering a whole bunch, but still, there I was having fun and drinking, interjecting the odd dig veiled in humor, but really I wasn’t insulting anyone, just sparring, which I wouldn’t have done were it not for this man, thin and well-dressed, a professor, over-served, making some intentionally antagonist remarks and interrogating me as to what I did, which is a question I never really know how to answer. So I got to talking to the husband of my girl’s friend and we spoke a bit about books, which I like to discuss, and he mentioned to me that he hates reading long books, which is not uncommon.

During the conversation I was reminded of a moment from 2666 that has popped up in almost every review, a moment where Amalfitano meets a young man who tells him his favorite books are Bartleby and The Metamorphosis and another I can’t recall. The narrator depicts Amalfitano’s thoughts regarding people and their disinclination to wrestle with the long, maybe sloppy, cumbersome tomes where the masters try and speak of life’s unspeakable, intangible, mysterious, and dark moments (my words, not Bolaño’s). People are more likely to praise the near perfect short works that, in a sense, play it safe with their brevity. Bartleby instead of Moby Dick; The Metamorphosis instead of The Trial or The Castle; By Night in Chile or Distant Star instead of 2666. So it’s clearly a great excerpt for reviewers as it sort of justifies the freewheelin’ pomo play of books like 2666 (which I fear will disappoint anyone who comes to the book having read so much praise). But it’s an interesting idea that has been on my mind since I read the big book. Is writing a short book playing it safe? What is the true aim of those who wrestle with the dark, inexpressible moments, who write these digressive tomes that fewer and fewer people may be willing to read? Who wants to wade through Tolstoy and Dostoevsky at their most long-winded? The Cossacks instead of Anna Karenina or War and Peace; Notes From Underground instead of The Brothers Karamazov.

Jeanette Winterson said something very funny when I saw her read. Someone asked her why her books were always so short and she said she thought it was bad manners to write long books. It made me laugh.

I wonder if this makes a big difference. I know I always look at the page count when I get a book, but it doesn’t always deter me. Then again, I haven’t begun War and Peace or the second Proust book or Larva: A Midsummer Night’s Babel, so maybe I’m guilty.

Just some thoughts, but I must say, in reference to the conversation Saturday night that started all this, I think the opinion that this person has, that short novels do a better job of capturing the story and the important details, is a little nuts. How would a slim Anna Karenina read? (Oddly, this same person said he loved the movie Once Upon a Time in America but said the cut-up 90-minute version was crap, a real tragedy.)

Okay, back to real life now.