I have listened to writers name-drop the titles of Really Really Long Novels (RRLNs) like a New York City up-and-coming rapper boasting connections to Jay Z on a mixtape. The casual mention of a minor character in Gravity’s Rainbow. Discussing the relationship between Ivan and Alexei in The Brothers Karamazov. And when this name-dropping happens, usually two or three beers into a first-encounter, it sounds like what the writer really wants to say is—I’m better than you and the little novels you like to read. Crime and Punishment? I fart in your general direction.
Sadly, I am one of those people who have spent an entire summer drinking whiskey and slogging through Infinite Jest. I have smiled at the bottom of my bookshelf, where four books take up all the space.
While reflecting on my love for RRLNs, I recalled a scarring event from my childhood. I was around twelve years old, and I had read every book in the “juvenile” section of my local library, and I realized that there were a finite number of books in the world. To my twelve year old brain, the concept that I could end up reading all of the books was terrifying.
I didn’t have a lot of friends as a kid.
Here’s the logic that got me into RRLNs. If I read four normal-sized books, that would mean four less books in the world I’d be able to read later on in life, and I would end up an old man flipping through copies of Readers Digest. But if I spent the time to read one RRLN, I would still have three books left to enjoy in my old age. So, there I was, renting the one-volume edition of Lord of the Rings and practicing Elvish on my pet goldfish.
Over at The Millions, Mark O’Connell writes about his own relationship to the RRLN, claiming that novels like Bolaño’s 2666 work a type of Stockholm Syndrome on their readers. They are often so difficult and dense for so much of the time that when the reader comes across an easily digestible scene he weeps with joy. The reader had expected more intellectual torture, and so any kindness puts the author in a savior-like light.
Allison Flood of The Guardian also discusses RRLNs, shooting back at Ian McEwan who claimed that few RRLNS “earn their length.” Flood goes on to list a number of wonderful, but very long, novels.
I have several good reasons for loving RRLNs. I love being totally immersed in an extraordinarily detailed fictional world. Ulysses is to Wise Blood as World of Warcraft is to Donkey Kong. As far placing the reader in a flushed out space, there’s no comparison. When I read a RRLN, I feel transported to an entirely different universe, not just another world. Novels like Infinite Jest, to me, seem depthless. Also, with any great RRLN there’s a certain amount of sentence-level mastery and serious dazzling. The reader wouldn’t keep going without a sense of semantic prowess, the sheer wonder at the writer’s use of words. In my opinion, Murakami’s 1Q84 demonstrates verbal magic on every page. And that’s why I kept reading.
But there are some not good reasons I read RRLNs, one of which is showing off in front of writers two or three beers into a conversation. Another is I like how the heft of RRLNs bows the shelves on which they sit.
In the end, my love of RRLNs is like a lot of things in life. It’s roughly one-half unadulterated childish discovery and one-half ego-fueled show-boating. And that’s alright with me.