Originally published on September 8, 1996. I elected to publish Tom's entire note to me since it was one of the most thoughtful and thought-provoking emails I ever received from him, and will follow with my response in a separate file with link below.
Thanks for that insight note on joint projects. I have softened my stance after reading one of your first drafts of Autonomous Gazer and listening, rather than continuing to think of what I was going to say next, to your admiration for Thomas Pynchon and the concept of the modern Mega-novel. But I still haven't read his Gravity's Rainbow but seek refuge in genre writing. That's my gang, Lenny understands genre assignments and slips easily into the yoke, and most important to us, the audience understands the genre, has certain expectations from it, and we writers deliver the goods.
But there you are, no gang, no School, not even a salon. One thing about your work that I do relate to is the desire to put it all on the web, I had a very productive day putting all kinds of esoteric info that I thought was important up on the web, that is until Tracy (Styx) came by, restless and bored, to call me away from the computer and out into the cool night air, steps the Great Pretender.
Yes, that's true, newspaper journalism is definitely one of the genres and you have plyed the trade. But I never considered e-mail anything other than a fast sloppy, disposable medium, always short, full of typos and mispellingsmeant to be quickly read (cyber-surfers gets hundreds of them) and instantly deletedbut wait, what's this? GT is sending long, thoughtful E-MAILS??? And then saving them, along with their responses? And the e-mail style that's arisen, why is almost everything a flame? The insular anonymity of e-mail makes everyone so insulting, quick, shallow responses, knee-jerk flames, is this any kinda medium to make your mark?
"The world will little note nor long remember what we say here..." Abraham Lincoln said that.
"They'll talk about me plenty when I'm gone." GT said that, with a deferenial nod to his Bobness. So far they're mostly talking about your outrageous behavior in public. Your strange and cryptic comments while under the influence of beer swill and private demons. But I know you better, I know something (very little actually) of your writing and desktop publishing and poetry and private library and such flotsam and jetsom of pornography & punk that have washed up on GSIS's shores and mingled with the sublime truths of long dead philosophers, I see you walking along the littered shore line of the twentieth century, looking for treasures in the trash. This is a tired and cynical age you live in, it will be tough to break through to anyone, anywherethere's a lot of noise in the channel.
THE PUBLICATION WITHIN THE NEXT YEAR or two of Joseph McElroy's Women and Men and William Gass's The Tunnel would be auspicious under any circumstances. But beyond our interest in their very long and intricate achievements, it is possible to see their novels as fitting into a larger frame of reference, what I call the Mega-Novel and which may be defined as a phenomenon peculiar to postwar American fiction. It is an aspect of fiction running parallel to two other postwar developments: Abstract Expressionism in painting and aleatory or random experimentation in music. While exploring the potentialities of the Mega-Novel, this article suggests that it may well be the dominant element in our fiction, neither a subgenre nor an offshoot.
Nomenclature first: The hyphenated word Mega-Novel has a certain vulgarity to it. It recalls its origin in the financial world, of MegaBucks. Yet the vulgarity of the word gives it an American quality or presence, defines it as a native product. Mega-Bucks are limitless, almost infinite in implicationif a person has MegaBucks, not only is he/she rich, he has unrestricted independence of movement and behavior. The Mega-Novel possesses a good deal of that. William Gaddis's JRperhaps the great unread novel of the postwar erais a perfect blend of such Americanism: a Mega-Novel about making Mega-Bucks, the protagonist not Huck Finn seeking to escape civilization but a sixth-grader learning how to become an insider, how to make big money in America. The pressing cultural and literary question is how the contemporary American Mega-Novellong, involved, interwoven with innumerable threadsdiffers from past blockbusters, whether the super-novels of Fielding and Richardson, or those by Dickens, Thackeray, and George Eliot. In our own era, Gravity's Rainbow or Giles Goat-Boy may be cited as Mega-Novels, while The Magic Mountain or even Proust's Remembrance are not. To complicate matters: a fiction such as Norman Mailer's recent Ancient Evenings may qualify in lengthin wordage it rivals most of the above worksand yet it does not seem to be a Mega-Novel. Length alone, surely one of our criteria, does not appear to be the determining factor, although it must remain a factor.
"It has no continuous style. There are continuous shifts of style. It refuses to place its people even, and some of the characters are caricatures..." Gass stresses the importance of the page "as a pason, a place, a particular") the increase in pages is more important than the mere putting together of a novel. The Tunnel 'is a field of words.' Gass says that the numbering and consecutive nature of the pages is itself in doubt, something we may recall from Joseph McElroy's first novel, A Smuggler's Bible.
The Mega-Novel seems to be a different phenomenon from the merely long novel, or the three-decka we associate with an earlier age. Yet the Mega-Novel does have length, breadth, spatiality; it is oceanic, and its vibrations are waves of indeterminate force. It also has an uncertain mass, and thus the comparison to Abstract Expressionism and aleatory music. This much we know from Gaddis's The Recognitions, one of the earliest and most innovative of the postwar Mega-Novels, as well as JR, twenty years later. As for others: Barth's Giles, and his more recent Letters, possibly The Sotweed Factor. Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow would be everyone's example, a model Mega-Novel in most respectsthe 70s version of what Gaddis attempted in the 50s in The Recognitions. The two novels are linked by more than length and ambition. To these, we should add Lookout Cartridge by Joseph McElroy, a lesser-known dreadnought of merely a quarter of a million words by an able contemporary of Gaddis, Barth, and Pynchon. With his forthcoming Women and Men, he will become a charter member.
This is not an exhaustive list. I have deliberately omitted the sizable novels of more popular writers such as James Michener and Leon Uris, since they are writing in imitative traditions, not as innovators; the immense popularity of their work has moved them beyond whatever reviewers, critics, and scholars may say. They are what is called, in the trade, review-proof. The novels brought forward for consideration here as genuine Mega-Novels generally receive poor reviews, although afterward they are lauded by more serious critics and other creative writers.
The Mega-Novel is somehow a response to postwar America as an indeterminate, problematic, unfixed placenot the America of political parties, racial conflicts, cold war ideologies. In The Recognitions and JR, in Giles Goat-Boy and Letters, in Gravity's Rainbow and Lookout Cartridge, in what we have learned so far of Gass's The Tunnel, we have a virtual literary movement isolated not only by dimensionality but by fictional ideology from the shorter and more popular works by Roth, Bellow, Mailer, Malamud, and others writing more conventionally. American fictions have divided themselves into two very different camps, and when they speak to each other, their tones are mainly disdainful. Still another assumption lies here. Unlike the serious long novels of the past, the Mega-Novel cannot achieve popularity. It is separatist or elitist in ways even Proust's Remembrance or Mann's The Magic Mountain are not.
These are stories of America, but the America of such fictions lies outside character, scene, and narrative, somewhere in the seams; and all of those are necessary to expose the seams to visibility. Once again, we think of Abstract Expressionism or the premises of aleatory music: to place "content" in such different contexts that we cannot respond to it as our conditioning dictates. Order is redefined as arrangement and composition.
The contemporary Mega-Novel differs from most previous examples of the long novelwhether Clarissa or Dos Passos's USAin that it does not attempt to be inclusive. This appears to be a paradox: that despite great length and vast numbers of characters, the MegaNovel has forsaken inclusivity in favor of indeterminancy. Its aims are decentering or deconstructing, rather than gathering in. It is more mass than content. It gives up melody for the sake of (often) unheard harmonies. Previous long novels were works clearly inclusiveto gather in; not only to set out a given story, but to limn the general outlines of a discernible society and culture, whether the squirearchy in Fielding and the clash of classes in Richardson, or London in Bleak House, Paris society in Proust, the rarefied world of illness, death, and recovery in Thomas Mann, even an invented culture in Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude.
In an interview published in CONJUNCTIONS: 4, William Gass, attempting to prepare the ground for his own Mega-Novel, The Tunnel, speaks of its lack of narrative structure. "It has no continuous style. There are continuous shifts of style. It refuses to place its people even, and some of the characters are caricatures..." Gass stresses the importance of the page "as a pason, a place, a particular") the increase in pages is more important than the mere putting together of a novel. The Tunnel 'is a field of words.' Gass says that the numbering and consecutive nature of the pages is itself in doubt, something we may recall from Joseph McElroy's first novel, A Smuggler's Bible.
Granted that "A Fable" does not have the extreme length we associate with MegaNovels, it does have the stress on sentences and paragraph problematics connected with the form. Words, sentences, paragraphs are not utilized chiefly for informational or narrative purposes, but for the quality of the language, or the illumination of the immediate area. Areas are developed in isolation from each otherexamples follow belowand then somehow connected as molecules are linked in models of molecular composition. Words become part of a field, not of a sequence; to put it another way, words are massed as if for an attack, which may never come.
Our contemporary Mega-Novels have floated free of social/cultural concerns into another area which they have defined for themselves) as if, for them, American fictional life has drifted free of community and evolved into some kind of unique, self-defining, self-conscious society. Content is atomic, not coherent. This is a phenomenon quite different from self-reflexiveness, or the self-referred novel and poem. We are moving toward a distinct consciousness, a behavioral pattern, a restructuring of fictional activity which reflects another kind of Americaan America which resists definition except as it is reflected in these verbal monuments. These are stories of America, but the America of such fictions lies outside character, scene, and narrative, somewhere in the seams; and all of those are necessary to expose the seams to visibility. Once again, we think of Abstract Expressionism or the premises of aleatory music: to place "content" in such different contexts that we cannot respond to it as our conditioning dictates. Order is redefined as arrangement and composition.
Largeness in our contemporary examples is really another form of minimalism) it is the minimalist vision of silence writ large, or strung out. That is, it surrenders less as we relentlessly pursue it. The light at the end of the tunnel recedes the closer we get. The seeming randomness of scenes not only subverts inevitability) it threatens order itself. Since the Mega-Novel is a field or mass, it is almost always self-defining, despite its vastness and reach. It denies or frustrates every effort to describe a given society, certainly not American society in any specific way; whereas earlier long novels, whatever their differences, brilliantly atomized a society, were profoundly rooted in what they described and prescribed. We could, if we wished, almost certainly read back an ideological stance from the vast doings and apparatus; now, we are hard put to comprehend any ideological bias behind the Megaworks, any social or political stance.
The contemporary Mega-Novel has many associations with allegory and fable, that is, despite its linkage to many aspects of the real worldmilitary, or business, or professionsit nevertheless presents them so wrapped in a selforiented language that such dimensions of the real world become closer to fable than to realistic novel. The mention of "fable" carries us back to William Faulkner's single effort at a Mega-Novel, A Fable, which took him nearly ten years to complete. Although Faulkner had equally other momentous themesas the period of national division in Absalom, Absalom! for instanceit was in A Fable that he approximated a MegaNovel. That was the consequence of his having slipped away from conventional elements of plot, character, even motivationthe staples of the traditional long noveland intruded into the indeterminate world of associations, compositions, relativities. Granted that A Fable does not have the extreme length we associate with MegaNovels, it does have the stress on sentences and paragraph problematics connected with the form. Words, sentences, paragraphs are not utilized chiefly for informational or narrative purposes, but for the quality of the language, or the illumination of the immediate area. Areas are developed in isolation from each otherexamples follow belowand then somehow connected as molecules are linked in models of molecular composition. Words become part of a field, not of a sequence; to put it another way, words are massed as if for an attack, which may never come.
In the same interview, Gass speaks of seeking some notational form for fiction, comparable to Schoenberg's twelve-tone system. Schoenberg was able to deploy the twelve tones like pieces on a chessboard, in rows, or inverted, or reversed, or reversed and inverted. The layout of the MegaNovel has something of that in it. In Gravity's Rainbow, we find not quite a notational fiction, but a series of borrowings from chemistry, in the molecular structuring of the novel. Pynchon is concerned with Du Pont's discovery that he could rearrange nature, by creating new plastic effects, through the introduction of aromatic rings into the polyamide [the chain made up of polymers]. Through a series of steps, scientists developed Imipolex G, that insulatory material for rockets. But what Pynchon is really getting at here is not weaponry, but the way in which his novel can be structured, with the chemistry of plastics as model. We have here in this molecular analog the architecture of the novel's own style.
That configuration which Slothrop senses"that smell again, the smell from before his conscious memory begins, a soft and threatening smell, threatening, haunting, not a smell to be found out in the world"lies, actually, within the provenance of the cartels. These international monopolies develop by horizontal and vertical accretion, acquiring not only the means to peddle their product but virtually every aspect of what their product is made of: forests for lumber, ships for transportation, steel to make the ships, pulp mills, hotels and restaurants.
The molecular alteration into different formswhether for civilian plastics or military rocketsprovided Pynchon with a means of accretion and modification. He could hold together the original and at the same time transform it into a new product. Pynchon is able to convey the sense of constant urgency) the novel of flow, of spatial and temporal process. Joyce used an enclosed spatial and temporal unit [Dublin, houses, whatever!] in order to create its opposite) whereas Pynchon moves across the cosmos, gravity's rainbow, for much the same effect: to join individual fortunes with those vast temporal and spatial engines which, by contrast, dwarf human life. Joyce expands human possibility by starting with something relatively small) Pynchon encloses human potential by beginning with something huge. Pynchon found in the molecular method of accretion and modification, of putting a "different face," so to speak, on that unit, the means by which he could repeat, cross over, dip back. Schoenberg's twelve tones are not far out of mind.
Molecular structure is very significant for the Mega-Novel, and it has distinct advantages over the more traditional picaresque, which is episodic, linear, somewhat formless around the edges. Mega-Novelists must bind together their material less haphazardly and suggest a sense of tight form despite great length, breadth, and seeming randomness. Pynchon's molecular structurewhich we can find as well in The Recognitions, among othersallows for change within constants: he utilizes spatiality with almost abandon, but the atomic structure retains the nucleus or clue. Tyrone Slothrop becomes, at one stage, Ian Scuffing, and yet the new name and new role as correspondent are not a nuclear change, only a molecular one. The center or nucleus, the identifying element, remains, while the actual molecular structure is altered to allow for narrative progression.
In still another way, the molecular structure takes on a crucial role, in the association of those gigantic cartels with individuals, whom they control. The cartels are an essential element in Gravity's Rainbow, since they supervise chance. Whatever their precise role, they serve the function of Zeus in ancient drama, and their presence, even when not felt directly, is a hovering shadow. That configuration which Slothrop senses"that smell again, the smell from before his conscious memory begins, a soft and threatening smell, threatening, haunting, not a smell to be found out in the world"lies, actually, within the provenance of the cartels. These international monopolies develop by horizontal and vertical accretion, acquiring not only the means to peddle their product but virtually every aspect of what their product is made of: forests for lumber, ships for transportation, steel to make the ships, pulp mills, hotels and restaurants. The cartel, like the molecule, retains the nucleus and yet it transforms itself by way of changes in its structure.
What emerges is not "content" as we traditionally describe or discuss it, but architecture, form, arrangement, composition, associational matter, mass and cluster. If we attempt to paraphrase a Mega-Novel, we are surprised by how few words we need by how little it takes to recapitulate half a million words of fiction. The Mega-Novel, then, is incomplete, despite its great length. This means it can be extended indefinitely, or as long as the author's energy holds out. There is little in the Mega-Novel to indicate an endingit has no sense of closure. It is all middles, often with little or no beginning.
It is, in large part, the molecular method which permits Pynchon such sweeps of space without disruption of controlling line. His novel of seemingly endless chaos is, in reality, tightly organized. Pynchon extends the molecular makeup of the cell to language itself: "How alphabetic is the nature of molecules." Like the polymers in plastics, our words "too can be modulated, broken, recoupled, redefined, copolymerized, one to the other in worldwide chains that will surface now and then over long molecular silences, like the seen parts of a tapestry."
Gravity's Rainbow is many other things as well: Pynchon moves in and out of his own earlier work, V and The Crying of Lot 49, as if Gravity's Rainbow were itself a molecular change from the basic structure of Pynchon's canon; or, in another way, as if spatiality were itself a universe which must be pieced out, by individuals, rockets, roleplaying, and forgery. The overall response Pynchon elicits from us as readers is that of infinite notational sequences problematically linked, and this development of what is basic to the Mega-Novel may be his major contribution to fictional theory and practice below.
And yet co-equal with the above points is another which seems to indicate, together, just as physical laws bind the universe, that the Mega-Novel is incomplete and must remain so. The form uses its great length, often an overbearing length which only a few readers can endure, to suggest incompleteness; it accomplishes this by stressing associations and composition, the adrifts rather than the base. Italo Calvino's If On a Winter's Night, A Traveler has these qualities, and, although quite brief as these things go, it gropes toward Mega-Novel status. Society or culture is internalized into form, and form is part of the Modernist stress on arrangement. The Mega-Novel, despite its broad content, is in the line from High Modernism, from Cubism and Abstraction, providing in verbal arrangement what line and color provided earlier. Surfaces in the Mega-Novel are so crowded and complicated because these surfaces carry the weight) what is beneath is submerged in much the way a tall building has a substantial part of its construction underground. What emerges is not "content" as we traditionally describe or discuss it, but architecture, form, arrangement, composition, associational matter, mass and cluster. If we attempt to paraphrase a Mega-Novel, we are surprised by how few words we need by how little it takes to recapitulate half a million words of fiction.
The Mega-Novel, then, is incomplete, despite its great length. This means it can be extended indefinitely, or as long as the author's energy holds out. There is little in the Mega-Novel to indicate an endingit has no sense of closure. It is all middles, often with little or no beginning. Such novels are like an expanding universe. Gaddis's JR is all middle constructionsit begins, apparently, only because words appear on the page, and it moves in a seeming arbitrary way, providing the middle of a young boy's experience, but no inside to it. Or as Gaddis puts it: "...how could I be inside, there isn't any inside!" Without an inside, there is no ending.
One problem with this is that such a novel is all dimensionality unlike most "total novels," even other Mega-Novels, it has little matter. It is nearly all phenomenology. McElroy moves directly toward dimensions, levels, layering. Reality lies in the intermeshing of elements, not in the elements.
Similarly, in Gravity's Rainbow and Leners, and especially in McElroy's Lookout Cartridge, "insides" are dispensed with. In that latter novel, the opening is emblematic of the theme. A helicopter, its computer malfunctioning, hovers over a grid-like areaits uncertainty in space in contrast with the clearly demarked area below. The line of narrative lies somewhere between conscious and subconscious: thus the sense of dimensionality or spatiality which the novel commands. Our recall of the novel is of an oceanic experience, and while reading it, we sense lines themselves preparing for flight. McElroy tries to discover a realm of narrative line which is both within and without, one that describes external events, but always in the whisper and hesitation of an observer who is uncertain of what he has perceived. Uncertainty of observation foreshadows the uncertainty of all systems; suggesting that antisystems, by analogy, may mirror survival. Dimensionality is achieved not by inclusion (life, death, marriage, eternity, etc.), as we find in older long novels, but indirectly, through metaphors of existence which remain suspended: the filming of episodes, the loss of the film, attempts to recall it, threats to the filmmaker, the very questioning of what is by way of its image. McElroy comes at life by suggesting its opposite, its reflection in a modern obsession, filming it, even by way of its denial. The novel is a giant litotes. In McElroy's novel, all objects become subjectifiedas we can note in the excerpts from his new novel, Women and Men. Very little has objective existence once it has been transformed into material for, successively, (1) film, (2) diary, (3) memory. Tucked inside, made into an insert or a cartridge, objective data have taken on different functions. Lodged away, they can swell and contract. One problem with this is that such a novel is all dimensionality unlike most "total novels," even other Mega-Novels, it has little matter. It is nearly all phenomenology. McElroy moves directly toward dimensions, levels, layering. Reality lies in the intermeshing of elements, not in the elements.
Comparably, in an earlier novel, Hind's Kidnap, which is, despite its relative brevity (534 pages), also a Mega-Novel, McElroy is as concerned with de-kidnapping as he is with the actual act. Everyone connected to Hind is associated with the kidnapping and must be emptied out of his or her role in it. The opposite of things creates huge spaces of doubt and uncertainty, suggestions of what is by its absence. Everything is internalized, so that those huge spaces could be part of an interior world as much as they are part of the external pastoral of the search for the victim. Part II, for example, is all reverie, of Hind's pastoral background. McElroy's idea is to interweave the kidnapping with earlier years and to try to observe how Hind became obsessed with what might never have occurred. The aim is to turn Hind from object to subject, and then to relocate him as object. Since the idea is a "stream" or "flow," not unusually it begins in Joycean stream of free associational terms.
The novel is also a critical commentary on Barth, an alternate route, a rerouting of the reader, and the author's way of showing the reader what he has missed. Barth has turned his previous fictions into stories which need connecting to be understood; and Letters gives us the material which fell between which had no other way of emerging. In other wordsand words are almost always "other" hereBarth has added another system purportedly to explain previous ones. Of course it does not: it simply accrues.
It is in Lookout Cartridge, however, that McElroy was attempting to write a total novel, in the way associated with the fictions mentioned above, or with One Hundred Years of Solitude and The Tin Drum in mind. Yet while total novels usually deal with a society or culture, or with the process of breakdown, McElroy's novel gains its totality through spatialitymatters of arrangement and composition, filming, as he puts it. This kind of fiction, despite its great length (or the sense of great length), lacks closure, since its very function is postponement. Space and spatiality are not resolvable, except in death, and yet the Mega-Novel seems to deny even that.
One of the fullest representatives of this postwar phenomenon is John Barth's Letters, which had an almost predictable reception. It is, dearly, not the kind of novel to be handled by staff reviewers, for it does not fit into schedules) nor should it be considered a conventional novel, but rather as a prose Mega-Fiction. It appears shapeless and yet not disorganized) disordered within a great sense of order and arrangement; almost haphazard and yet composed) and seemingly endless, a test for the reader. Since it also lacks what Derrida calls "ground," it creates special problems of patience and endurance; and to review it (even when the reviewer has read it through) in the company of Bellow, Mailer, Roth, and other more popular serious novelists, is to deflect its major function. That function is, of course, to say something about fiction itself, as much as it is to prove something about life: it is not a life novel, but a fiction novel.
The plot of Letters is really Barth, both the comic Barth and the serious one. Letters is a summa, of his career and in a way of the entire self-conscious, self-reflexive Mega-Novel of the postwar era. It is, as with so many other Barth works, a capstone to a kind of fiction or a cultural pose. One of the characteristics of the Mega-Novel is its insistence on strategies over conventionalities: how to introduce the material to the audience is as difficult as what there is to say once it is presented. Not a very original idea, but Barth offers it with an intense devotion to his craft and to himself which is unique. Another characteristic, which Barth is master of, is the losing of the storyhe delivers us from narrative and provides instead crossovers, exchanges of information, maelstroms of words. Other novelists are comparable: in Pynchon's case, inventing information theories) in McElroy's, demonstrating ways in which transmission of information can become possible) in Gaddis's, a means by which information, material, narrative stuff can be squirreled away from any use we may wish to make of it. Gass's new novel promises much of the same. Mega-Novels thrive on vast, intricate systems, not systems which they resolve but which they interpose into other systems. The Mega-Novel stresses coils of significancePynchon's Tristero system of mail deliveries in The Crying of Lot 49 was a trying-out for the Mega-Novel systems of Gravity's Rainbow. What Barth has done in Letters is to make use of subterranean trenches) and his novel is a printout of what Barth is and has been in his previous fiction. The novel is also a critical commentary on Barth, an alternate route, a rerouting of the reader, and the author's way of showing the reader what he has missed. Barth has turned his previous fictions into stories which need connecting to be understood; and Letters gives us the material which fell between which had no other way of emerging. In other wordsand words are almost always "other" hereBarth has added another system purportedly to explain previous ones. Of course it does not: it simply accrues.
In the Mega-Novel, at its best and its most trying, we often do not know the derivation of the voiceit may develop from a context, but is not directly associated with itand we do not know what the voice signifies at a given time, even when the voice is the author's. Mailer lets us know where the voices are coming from and what weight they bear, whereas the Mega-Novelist is all disguises, veils, mists. His voices lose grounding, become problematic.
Merely to write a lot of words, as Mailer did in The Time Of Our Time, whatever else one may say for or against it, is not necessarily to write a Mega-Novel. The latter confronts another paradox: however lengthy it is, it is never long enough. One may argue that Ancient Evenings is all length, it goes well beyond what it must be, and it could have been closed off well before it is. In the Mega-Novel, while we may be exhausted by the reading task at hand, the material yearns for more. After such a great size, we recognize we have barely begun.
There is still another dimension to the Mega-Novel, and that is the demand made upon the reader by its language. We know that problems of language have made tremendous demands on the author because such novels usually have long periods of incubation: Gaddis takes twenty years between The Recognitions and JR; Pynchon produces a novel every decade or so. McElroy has struggled with his forthcoming Women and Men since at least 1976, Barth's Letters was the product of an entire career. Our best example, perhaps, from an earlier period when incubation and writing approximated our present condition, comes with Joyce, whose Ulysses was eight years in the making and whose Finnegans Wake consumed seventeen years, almost the rest of his life. For more other long novels, however, there is only the usual intervala long novel incubates differently from a MegaNovel.
Yet couldn't we argue that if Mailer allowed The Time Of Our Time to incubate for more than a decade and this would, perhaps, qualify it for MegaNoveldom? If we use language as our criterion, we can say Mega-Novels have developed their own languages of difficulty, and while Mailer writes a thorny line, it is a different degree of difficulty. Although it is full of skewed imagery and intricate wordplay, we know where it is coming from: it has a clearcut voice, and the tone is unambiguous. In the Mega-Novel, at its best and its most trying, we often do not know the derivation of the voiceit may develop from a context, but is not directly associated with itand we do not know what the voice signifies at a given time, even when the voice is the author's. Mailer lets us know where the voices are coming from and what weight they bear, whereas the Mega-Novelist is all disguises, veils, mists. His voices lose grounding, become problematic.
This phenomenon, as we have seen, has distinguished itself by its inconclusiveness, its lack of closure, its self-conscious languagesparticularly voice and tone; its determination to evade resolutions, its fragmentary quality despite great length, its resistance to social and even political and cultural ramifications, its determined deconstruction of novelistic materials. It is, at least for this writer, the main literary stream in postwar American fiction, not a subsidiary element superseded by the more popular Bellow, Mailer, et al. It would appear that when our contemporary period becomes a historical one, the Mega-Novel will be perceived as our unique contribution to postwar fiction. What remains to be answered is why America at this time produced this phenomenon? While reviewers and critics have hooked onto categories of Jewish novelists, gays, Black writers, female authors, another kind of novel has emerged: written mainly by white Protestant males. Yet the question insists: what in the culture permitted or forced something like the Mega-Novel to emerge, and at this time? Do, say, works such as USA by John Dos Passos qualify as pre-war examples and upset our view of the Mega-Novel as a postwar phenomenon? While innovative and even experimental, the Dos Passosalthough quite lengthy when the three parts are joinedis conceived of in segments, brilliant segments, and that denies the Mega-Novel conception of arrangement, composition, subversive linkages, conspiratorial, veiled reflections.
While Barth seems to enclose himself, Pynchon appears to be arcing out into the beyond, and Gaddis hides in the seams of his narrative, they are in actuality running parallel to each other, glimpsing an America that no matter how far it sweeps beyond itself is always returning in wonder.
The idea of a fiction without closure represents the spirit of the country. Problematics are cultural. Except for The Recognitions, the Mega-Novel is a 60s and after development, and we should not lose sight of the 60s spirit as a hovering presence: its overwhelming sense that we were on a frontier) that we had glimpsed, however imperfectly, another kind of experience; and that this experience was openended, spatial, expansive, resolute but without resolution. Critical of the country and even negative as most of these novels are, they are profoundly American, intensely representative of the American spiritthese white Protestant males write very close to what America is, and they recognize that America can be understood only when it is abstracted. That is, as metaphor, symbol, reflection, roleplaying, as a process of diverse realitiesan America which can be caught [but not trapped] in the labyrinths of the Mega-Novel.
We can say, further, that the postwar American novel as a whole has been a distinct phenomenon, made up of deeply American elements intermixed with European Modernismand nowhere more than in the Mega-Novel do we find that mix. Yet whereas several American novelists for the sake of accessibility or as the result of temperament ignored more severe European Modernism in its technical, strategical phases, Mega-Novelists took their reading to heart and assimilated European strategies to American materials. Although issues are complicated, we can say the Mega-Novel is following the matter of America as a large, sweeping, generalized discoverer of itself. All roads in Barth's Letters may eventually lead back to himthe Mega-Novel is, as we have suggested, dramatically narcissisticbut that journey back leads us through the byways of America and American history, of which the War of 1812 is a metonymy. While Barth seems to enclose himself, Pynchon appears to be arcing out into the beyond, and Gaddis hides in the seams of his narrative, they are in actuality running parallel to each other, glimpsing an America that no matter how far it sweeps beyond itself is always returning in wonder.
McElroy's Hind's Kidnap appropriately offers us just such a way of perceiving ourselves. In attempting to solve a kidnapping which may not have even taken place, Hind turns his life into a maze. He is separated from his wife, for whom his obsession with the kidnapping is no small cause; he visits friends, but less to see them than to pursue leads, to voice suspicions; and he revisits old haunts, to seek out new information after all these years. Each time he visits or revisits someone, the tale of kidnapping is retold, kept fresh through repetition. Everyone is suspectedeach character functions as a potential perpetrator. The labyrinth is circular, and Hind is trapped [energized?] in what his own ingenuity and concern have created: he has been kidnapped by his obsession. Application to an artwork is apparent. Hind creates, discovers, shapes, seeks motives, pursues, and is wound in his own bobbin of imagination. The Proustian play on memory is rejuvenated in American backgroundsa pier, a rural setting, a golf course, a university, and so on. Memory works in circular fashion, molding conscious and subor unconscious elements, creating a continuous narrative from disparate materials. Kidnapping functions here somewhat like counterfeiting in The Recognitions, rocketry in Gravity's Rainbow, the War of 1812 in Leners.
Instead of the American literary classes desiring to continue on this journey of learning for themselves, to find awe in their own discoveries, they prefer to be exhaustingly entertained with a quick read and a predictable story with x-number of plot twists behind door numbers one through three. Today's most avid readers are the sunbather, the train or plane passenger, and the kid curled up on the sofa next to his action boxes for when he gets bored with any particular superhero, heroine, or monster.Gabriel Thy
The Mega-Novelists have avoided the individuation of ethnic, gay, female (or even strictly male) experience and sensed the country as a whole) that in itself insures length, volume. Now the postwar energies are becoming exhausted, the question remains whether the MegaNovel will also pass: McElroy and Gass are completing extremely long novels, excerpts from which mark them as Mega-Novels; but Gaddis has recently submitted a short fiction, and Barth's Sabbatical indicates just thata oneyear break after six years of labor, an "entertainment." Yet what remain are eight or ten representations of what must be classified as more than a subgenre in the postwar novel, very possibly the genre, wherein the rest of more accessible postwar fiction is the subgenre.
What really does constitute the mainstream of serious postwar fiction? Has the Mega-Novel pre-empted more popular serious fiction as the distinctly American mode of the postwar era? Where, in fact, do our ideas of Modernism fit in here? When we assert Modernism is over, how do we account for the Mega-Novel? If we leave such evaluations to reviewers, then the choice has already been made: for the book that provides a "good read." That is, for those reviewers who actually read the books they review (until recently, one-third of the daily Times book staff did not). There can be no other reason for the phenomenon of William Kennedy's "Albany trilogy"short, readable books in the minor mode, hybrids of American tough guy fiction. We should have moved on from there a long time ago.
"Ignorance and virtue suck on the same straw. Souls grow on bones, but die beneath bankers' hours.""