20 May 2011

I can't go on -- I'll go on.

"The upshot of this, I think, is that the greatness of a novel in the mind of its readers is often alloyed with those readers' sense of their own greatness (as readers) for having conquered it. I don’t think William Gaddis's THE RECOGNITIONS, for instance, is nearly as fantastic a novel as people often claim it is. But it is one of the most memorable and monumental experiences of my reading life. And these are the reasons why: because the thing was just so long; because I had such a hard time with it; and because I eventually finished it. (I read it as part of an academic reading group devoted to long and difficult American novels, and I'm not sure I would have got to the end of it otherwise). Reading a novel of punishing difficulty and length is a version of climbing Everest for people who prefer not to leave the house. And people who climb Everest don’t howl with exhilaration at the summit because the mountain was a good or a well made or an interesting mountain per se, but because they’re overawed at themselves for having done such a fantastically difficult thing."
-Mark O'Connell about what he calls Long Novel Stockholm Syndrome. All the usuals are name-checked: ULYSSES, GRAVITY'S RAINBOW, MOBY-DICK. This article actually made me want to read THE RECOGNITIONS (wasn't that high on my list before).

I think the real Stockholm Syndrome kicks in when you are in the dead middle of one of these books, unable to see either end, and you start to believe simultaneously that
a. you will never finish this book, that you will actually go to your death with the bookmark stuck in, and
b. it is critical that, having sunk so much energy into the book already, you must do it anyway.

(Hence the Beckett quotation of my title.) Note, though, that for any of this syndrome to make sense you have to be reading the novel by choice. Suffering through a long novel for a class is a separate experience, because you'll know you either have to finish it or do some fancy footwork. (How rude! Of course you're finishing it, right??)

I think my ultimate Long Novel Stockholm Syndrome experience came at the hands of WAR AND PEACE. I've written about how I think it's overrated, but perhaps I should put that judgment into some context. I read it the summer after my freshman year of college, and there was a particular shine on that first book I allowed myself to read for fun after finals were over, like the cover retracting over the backyard pool before you dive in. At least, at first! I was honestly looking forward to tackling the novel given how much I adore ANNA KARENINA, but quickly found myself slogging through the battle scenes, attempting to draw family trees and character charts, and... not really having much fun.

If I had been studying it I might have been handed the context to my tedium, but I had to go out and find it for myself. I'm glad I finished, but I still like ANNA better.


jo said...

Oh so true! I had this experience while reading INFINITE JEST. and as van morrison says: it's too late to stop now!

PS: your captcha on the comments is a pain in the .....

Ellen said...

Jo, I think mostly the reason I didn't get that feeling with INFINITE JEST is because I split it up over a few months. It was never my only book. But if I hadn't been drawn in, I could have used that as an opportunity to quit.

(Sorry about the captchas. I had some spam issues but I'll turn them off next week and see how well it goes.)