Something about the enormous endless novel … I can’t quite figure out its spell. There’s the comfort of inhabiting (or being inhabited) across seasons and locations. There’s the marvel at Sisyphean endeavor. There’s the irrational exuberance of pushing through to four-digit pages. Whatever the causes, I rarely get through a short story, but give me a Clarissa, a J.R., a Ulysses, a Golden Bowl, a Tristram Shandy, a Remembrance of Times Past, a Dead Souls, even a Ship of Fools … and I’m caught.
A passage from my most recent ensnarement, The Magic Mountain:
A story whose contents involved a time span of five minutes… could, by means of an extraordinary scrupulosity in filling up those five minutes, last a thousand times as long — and still remain short on boredom, although in relationship to its imaginary time it would be very long in the telling. On the other hand, it is possible for a narrative’s content-time to exceed its own duration immeasurably. This is accomplished by diminishment — and we use this term to describe an illusory, or to be quite explicit, diseased element, that is obviously pertinent here: diminishment occurs to some extent whenever a narrative makes use of hermetic magic and a temporal hyper-perspective reminiscent of certain anomalous experiences of reality that imply that the senses have been transcended.
And so MM, an epic of disintegration, pursues a push-pull with time — inflating into vast meditations and then pondering its own rot. It’s a hypochondriac’s nightmare. It’s intoxicating, and of course that’s often different from comfortable. It’s also very funny. Towards the end of its degeneration (and we can only think of the book as an inexorably metastasizing disease — even its author can’t seem to wrest free of it), MM holds up a fun-house mirror to itself. This mirror is a drunken Dutchman named Mynheer Peeperkorn, of all things: a shambling “personality” who holds mysterious sway, deploying
a series of exquisite gestures that riveted his listeners’ interst — the subly nuanced, well-chosan, precise, tidy, cultured gestures of an orchestra conductor — a forefinger bent to form a circle with a thumb or a palm held out wide, but with tapering nails, to caution, to subdue, to demand attention, only to disappoint his now smiling, attentive listeners with one of his very robustly prepared, but incomprehensible phrases; or rather, he did not so much disappoint people as transform smiles into looks of delighted amazement, because the robustness, subtlety, and significance of the preparation largely compensated, even after the fact, for what he failed to say and produced a satisfying, amusing, and enriching effect all its own.
We’re getting very close here to defining the spell of these monster books. As I was reading a recent rueful meditation on David Foster Wallace in Poets & Writers, and thinking back on Infinite Jest — that great & purposeless three-tent circus of tennis, addiction, and popped U.S. culture — Mynheer Peeperkorn kept coming to my mind. He is, indeed, a riviting personality, even if his words trail off into nothing. You have to keep attending such a force, and wondering at its monumental incapacities.Â You have to keep biding its time.