Can Long Novels Hold You Captive?
Have you ever heard of The Stockholm Syndrome?
It’s the idea that some hostages become blindly devoted to their captors. They could be in the middle of awful circumstances, but the hostages think any sign of “kindness”—providing food or water, etc.—shows good on behalf of the captor. It’s a weird thing that the mind does under extreme stress.
Anyway, Mark O’ Connell wrote an interesting, and pretty funny, article about The Stockholm Syndrome as it relates to long novels (e.g. Infinite Jest). Earlier in life, O’ Connell despised long novels, choosing to read, say five 250 word novels, over a 1,000 page beast.
But things changed when he picked up Gravity’s Rainbow.
I can’t say that I enjoyed every minute of it, or even that I enjoyed all that much of it at all, but I can say that by the time I got to the end of it I was glad to have read it. Not just glad that I had finally finished it, but that I had started it and seen it through. I felt as though I had been through something major, as though I had not merely experienced something but done something, and that the doing and the experiencing were inseparable in the way that is peculiar to the act of reading. And I’ve had that same feeling, I realize, with almost every very long novel I’ve read before or since.
And that describes perfectly, in ways I probably can’t articulate as well, my thoughts on getting through Infinite Jest last month. It’s almost as much about having finished the book as it is about recognizing the quality of the work itself.
It’s torturous at times, like you want to beat yourself in the head out of frustration, but the moments of brilliance keep you coming back. Reading a long novel, especially a dense one like IJ or Gravity’s Rainbow, really can make you feel like you’re being held hostage. Even if you hate the book, or most of it, sometimes you feel pulled by the challenge of wanting to have read it.
You finish the last page of a book like Gravity’s Rainbow and—even if you’ve spent much of it in a state of bewilderment or frustration or irritation—you think to yourself, “that was monumental.” But it strikes me that this sense of monumentality, this gratified speechlessness that we tend to feel at such moments of closure and valediction, has at least as much to do with our own sense of achievement in having read the thing as it does with a sense of the author’s achievement in having written it. When you read the kind of novel that promises to increase the strength of your upper-body as much as the height of your brow—a Ulysses or a Brothers Karamazov or a Gravity’s Rainbow—there’s an awe about the scale of the work which, rightly, informs your response to it but which, more problematically, is often difficult to separate from an awe at the fact of your own surmounting of it.
It’s like I said when I reviewed Infinite Jest—it’s not just a book; it’s an experience. Anyway, many more long novels like this to come on the Time list—Gravity’s Rainbow being one. Read the entire article at The Millions.
What’s your take on the long novels? Worth “conquering” at the risk of feeling held hostage? Or would you rather read a bunch of shorter novels and skip the mammoths?