Saturday, August 27, 2005

1,800 Words on the Subject of Brevity

At the news of the latest doorstopper to hit the book market (Hunger's Brides by Paul Anderson, 1,360 pages), Ed Champion and Mark Sarvas have both been considering the merits and weaknesses of a gargantuan page-count, and whether it should count for or against the author (we could also mention Matthew Cheney's recent discussion of 'self-indulgence'. I know I always translate the term to mean that the author could have cut at least a hundred pages from the book without losing anything). Up until a few years ago, I was firmly pro long books. I still remember the joy of reading Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon, and how much I enjoyed knowing that this remarkable experience would last a long time. As the mega-novel has become more and more common, however, it seems that less authors are actually justifying their decision to write longer and longer novels. Most of the long books I've read recently have either been good books smothered by an excessive page count (Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell) or just plain lousy (The Historian).

At the same time, I've started seeing the light on the subject of short novels. This is partly due to my changing reading habits. From a serious reader, I've become a voracious one. I read 64 books in 2003. In 2004 the number jumped to 99. If my pace keeps up this year I'll end it with something around 120 books read, and yet my to-be-read stack and my wish list keep getting bigger instead of smaller. I'm more and more aware that I'll never be able to read all the books I want to, and I've begun to resent the time I spend reading lousy or even mediocre books. Wasting a day with a book is bad, but wasting a week or two is painful (I've yet to master the art of putting a book down if it isn't grabbing me).

The more short books I read, the more I appreciate the skill it takes to say what you have to say in a minimum of words. We usually assume that a very long book has a gigantic scope; that the world it describes is wide and full of event. What I've been slowly discovering is that truly talented writers are able to evoke a massive canvas in a few pages. We tend to think of short books as having little to say, but I've read novels barely 200 pages long that seemed to cover every subject under the sun.

So, if anyone is interested in following me into this brave new world of short and meaningful reading experiences, here are a few good places to start:
  1. The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle (224 pages) - Beagle's quirky fairy tale (the inspiration for a beautiful and psychedelic animated film that haunted me for most of my childhood) about an endangered unicorn and her kind-hearted but bumbling defenders keeps asking strange and impossible questions. Is it better for the unicorn to live as a flawed, mortal human, or to be immortal but incapable of love and sadness? Should her human lover ask her to remain with him or, remembering that he is a hero, relinquish his own personal happiness for the chance to act as one? The book is full of tiny but perfectly rendered moments, such as the middle-aged gypsy woman who rages that she should have met the unicorn when she was still young and beautiful. This fable, about the nature of stories and of real life, is as enchanting as it is heartbreaking.
  2. The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester (256 pages) - whatever else I may think about J. Michael Straczynski, I'll always be grateful to him for championing Alfred Bester, one of the cleverest and most innovative writers of science fiction, and the first winner of the Hugo award. Although The Demolished Man pales in comparison to Bester's other novel, The Stars My Destination (which, sadly, was a little too long for the purposes of this list), it is a remarkable achievement. In the future, all policeman are telepathic, and murder is all but unheard of. Until, that is, desperate businessman Ben Reich decides he can beat the system. What follows is psychological duel between Reich and police detective Lincoln Powells. Bester, who was writing cyberpunk before anyone invented the term, plays with language, imagery, and typography to create a world in which the boundaries between different minds are soft and permeable. Although it was written more than half a century ago, The Demolished Man remains fresh and devastating.
  3. Wise Children by Angela Carter (234 pages) - I've gone on about this book already in an earlier entry, so I'll just say again that it is a fantastically funny, beautifully written meditation on life, theatre, and self-knowledge.
  4. The Man Who Was Thursday by G.K. Chesterton (192 pages) - This tiny volume, about a secret policeman who infiltrates a group of anarchists, starts off tense but absurd, segues into a hilarious farce, and ends with a grand finale that is operatic and philosophical. There's no question that Chesterton has a religious agenda, but his humor and the beauty of his writing keep the book from becoming a tract. This is a smart, compelling puzzle of a book.
  5. Beasts by John Crowley (184 pages) - before he started cranking out behemoths like Little, Big and the Aegypt quartet, Crowely wrote odd, lyrical science fiction. Beasts is my favorite - a panoramic exploration of human and animal nature, an examination of the double-edged sword of intelligence, and a meditation on the choice between being wild and tame. Beasts has a wide cast of characters - from a tame falcon through a girl pressed into indentured servitude to a super-intelligent dog who hates humans for making him love them - but although the readers only spend a short time with each one, they are indelible. I'm less fond of Crowley's other early novels--The Deep, in which he takes less than 200 pages to tell the kind of story that folks like George R.R. Martin expend thousands of pages on, and Engine Summer, a stately travelogue through a post-apocalyptic future--but these days the best way to read any of them is to buy Otherwise, an omnibus edition of all three, and even at his worst Crowley is always worth a look.
  6. The Last Good Kiss by James Crumley (256 pages) - I'm not much of a mystery reader, but when Amazon's recommendation engine spat out Crumley's novel, about a hard-boiled, alcoholic detective hired to find a self-destructive writer and, later, his young wife, as a book that went well with Little, Big and I Capture the Castle, I knew I had to give it a look. The book's first hundred pages are a fairly straightforward investigation cum bizarre road-trip, arriving at a solution that seems to tie together all loose the loose ends of a meandering and not particularly mystifying mystery. Then the false bottom caves in and the story folds in upon itself. The mystery uncoils and reshapes, the characters remove their masks and reveal their true faces, and the book starts racing towards its completely shocking ending, with stops for thrilling shoot-outs and pensive reflections on the nature of humanity. Absolutely perfect.
  7. Grendel by John Gardner (192 pages) - what starts off as a simple literary exercise--a retelling of the epic poem Beowulf from the point of view of its villain--quickly becomes a searching examination of the nature of heroism and fiction. Grendel, who in Gardner's hands is a sort of Holden Caulfield with a taste for human flesh, watches Hrothgar and his knights as they consolidate their power through violence and rapine, and then convince themselves of their own nobility and heroism. Even as he recognizes it as a lie, the story that the knights tell themselves compels Grendel, and he finds himself willingly and even joyfully assuming the role of the villain of the piece. It's not necessary to have read Beowulf to enjoy this book (although the poem is also short and well worth a look), which seems to sum up human existence with an eye that is both jaundiced and loving.
  8. The Queen's Gambit by Walter Tevis (256 pages) - it might be enough praise for Tevis' novel to say that it manages to make descriptions of slow, carefully considered Chess matches as tense and thrilling as any car chase or shoot-out, but this is hardly its greatest accomplishment. That would be the book's main character - prickly, unlovable Elizabeth Harmon, Chess prodigy and all-around messed-up chick. Tevis follows Beth on her slow but undeniable path to becoming the world Chess champion, and in her struggles against chemical dependencies and her own crushing loneliness. Although Tevis has too much respect for his stone-cold bitch of a character to end the book by 'fixing' her, he does allow her to learn from her mistakes, and at the story's end Beth is stronger - perhaps strong enough to make a fuller life for herself.
  9. Old School by Tobias Wolff (208 pages) - the narrator of Wolff's novel, a scholarship student in a New England prep school in the early 60s, wants nothing more from life than to win his school's writing contest, and an interview with the year's visiting author. After failing to capture the attentions of Robert Frost and Ayn Rand, he resorts to desperate and unethical measure when his idol, Ernest Hemingway, is announced as the next visitor. Old School is a book for and about readers--young, avid readers in particular. Wolff perfectly captures many of the qualities of a voracious young reader: the conviction, having taken so much pleasure from the written word, that your only proper course in life is to become a writer yourself; the shock of discovering yourself in another person's fiction; the certainty that a favorite writer knows and understands you--and that you know and understand them; the complete inability to connect the appearance of words on paper with the enormous, almost physical effort of putting them there, seeing writing as a purely spiritual state; and, most importantly, the vast gulf between the work as it is written and as it is read. This is a fantastically written novel, every word in its place and not too many superfluous ones, and fantastically smart and thought-provoking as well.
  10. To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf (234 pages) - it's true that 200 pages of Virginia Woolf are the equivalent of 600 pages by another, less dense, author, but there are great rewards in store for those who take the time to read her. To the Lighthouse is a minute exploration of the life of a simple, ordinary family in the years before and after WWI--their flaws, foibles and secrets laid bare on the page as Woolf mercilessly, and yet with great affection, cuts them open. It's a brilliant portrait of the mundanity of ordinary life, at once heartbreaking and uplifting.
Got anything to add to the list? Leave a comment.


Robin said...

I'm not sure if 496 pages counts as "short," but Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Zafon kept me enthralled.

The Meadow, by James Galvin clocks in at 240 pages. It is one of the most beautifully written books I've ever read. I re-read it at least once a year. My taste seems to run roughly parallel to yours, based on your reviews, so you may like it.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Zafon's Shadow of the Wind is actually one of the few books this year that let myself put down after 50 pages. It just wasn't grabbing me, and I didn't care for the writing.

I've never heard of The Meadow, but it sounds interesting. I'll keep a look-out for it.

Pit Beagle said...

While I don't mind a tome, there is something about a short book --- especially something that clocks in under 225 pages. Experiencing the entire arc of a novel in a couple days or even a few hours is a wonderful experience. It's one of the reasons I like Vonnegut so much. And I couldn't agree more about The Man Who Was Thursday and To the Lighthouse.

A few others that have grabbed me lately:

The Loved One by Evelyn Waugh (176 pages) is a brilliant satire. Hollywood and the funeral industry get theirs. As do stuffy Brits and obtuse Americans.

The Sundial by Shirley Jackson (not sure of page count, but I think it's under 225) is a brutal and funny story of 12 strangers awaiting the Apocalypse.

The Third Policeman by Flann O'Brien (200 pages) is a very strange little book. It called The Man Who Was Thursday to mind --- although far more ... hm ... surreal?

Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene (224 pages) is funny and touching. I guess one could call it an espionage novel --- it tells the story of a vacuum salesman who sells MI6 Cuba's nuclear plans. And they look suspiciously like the blueprint of a vacuum.

Jason B. Jones said...

Almost anything by Penelope Fitzgerald would fit the bill: Offshore, which won the Booker, and The Bookshop are under 150 pages, and The Blue Flower, her fictional life of Novalis, is comparatively epic at 226 pages.

(Offshore is about a community of misfits who live on houseboats on the Thames; The Bookshop is about an older woman whose dream of opening a bookshop is crushed . . . by geography, the weather, provincialism, etc.)

Sean Duggan said...

And, of course, under extremely brilliant short fiction, one can't forget Stevenson's "Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde". It's practically pamphlet size, but every word strikes right to the heart.

The Fool said...

In its own strange way, 'In The Skin of a Lion' by Michael Ondaatje. Brief, but very very pretty.

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