Reading difficult literature
I seem to have been reading a lot in recent weeks about reading, the end of reviewing, the future (or not) of the book, and so on. All interesting, though many revisiting familiar territory. One, though, particularly caught my eye. It was a post in Book Riot, by magazine editor/blogger/reviewer Greg Zimmerman, and was titled Our reading lives: Why I like difficult novels.
It’s not a long post. Zimmerman starts with David Foster Wallace’s notoriously difficult Infinite jest. He loved reading it, and says:
Readers read for dozens of different reasons. One of my favourite is to be challenged. Certainly, I don’t want most (or even 2 percent) of the novels I read to be as tough as Infinite jest. But I think spending a good amount of time with a book, really putting in some effort to piece it together, and coming out on the other side feeling like you’ve accomplished something is just so gratifying.
I’m sure you, like me, know exactly what he means. He next mentions Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s rainbow – which he found “really, really tough” – and then Eleanor Catton’s The luminaries. My eyes popped out at this point, as that’s the book I was about to start (and have, indeed, now started). While I knew it was long, I didn’t know it had a reputation for being difficult, but Zimmerman quotes others as saying it’s “long and demanding”, baffling”, even “an ingenious ourobouros“. Had I, I thought, left myself enough time to read it in time for reading group? Time will tell. Zimmerman took two weeks, he said, and that’s about how much time I’ve given myself.
The point I want to make though is that Zimmerman says that its difficulty is different. It’s “not like Pynchon because it’s really readable. And it’s not like DFW because it’s not digressive or purposefully superfluous”. Its difficulty comes from “the number of characters, how they’re all involved in the plot but from different perspectives and with different motivations, and the way the plot folds back upon itself several times”.
This got me thinking – not about The luminaries, as I’ll deal with that as I read it – but about my definitions of difficulty in novels. Dificulty is, I think, in the eye of the beholder, so I’ve come up with a few, not mutually exclusive definitions, which I thought I’d share (or, at least document for my own benefit!):
- language and/or ideas are obscure and/or complex. A recent example for me is Gerald Murnane’s The plains (my review). It’s a short book but it demanded my complete attention. Miss a sentence and I was lost. I’m not sure I fully understood it, but I loved the challenge of trying to work out what Murnane was on about. Most of the world’s difficult books – those by Joyce, Pynchon, Faulkner, Woolf et al – probably fall into this category. These books may have little or no plot. They are the books in which you wonder “what the hell is going on?”
- structure is complex or disconnected or full of digressions, making it tricky to pin down things like where, when and/or who at different points in the book. Some readers found this with Kim Scott’s That deadman dance (my review). They found all the shifting around, particularly in the beginning, disorienting. Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy fits here, though it’s a long time since I read it. This point is closely related to the first one, and most of the authors I listed there spill over here too, I think.
- large cast of characters (often combined with complex or convoluted plot). This is apparently the case with The luminaries. David Mitchell’s The thousand autumns of Jacob de Zoet (my review) is not overly convoluted but it has a large cast of characters, and keeping track of them is a challenge. Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas would fit here too, and in several of my categories I reckon.
- unflagged transitions between “reality” and “magic” or “dream” or “spiritual” worlds. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Haruki Murakami and our own Alexis Wright (my review of Carpentaria), to name a few, can trip us up with the way they slide between worlds. Alexis Wright, however, would argue that this only a problem if you have a western mindset. My solution is to go with the flow – and usually all will be revealed.
- emotionally confronting, that is, the story is distressing or grim. This is not something that usually bothers me. While I do become emotional about characters and what happens to them, I like that literature lets me explore things I hope I never have to experience in life. Rohinton Mistry’s A fine balance is a novel that wears some readers down. For some it’s too depressing, and they give up. I found it ultimately uplifting, despite it all. JM Coetzee’s Disgrace fits here, as do Cormac McCarthy’s The road and Blood meridian, not to mention many Holocaust novels.
- boring. It’s really hard to read a book that bores you. This is what put me off Great expectations when I first tried to read it in my early teens. I just couldn’t get interested. When I finally faced it again years later, I loved it. I think this might be the reason many readers give up on Louis de Berniere’s Captain Corelli’s mandolin. I loved the opening chapters, but he does take a while to get into the story proper.
Do you read “difficult” literature? If so, what do you find difficult and do you have any hints about how to approach such reading. Oh, and for a list of really tough books, check this list out.