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What will you read next?

Issue 50 / December 2012

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"The dust jacket features what looks like a distorted funhouse image of a young, naked Margaret Thatcher, her mouth agape and elongated into a Edvard Munch-like scream, her hands privatizing her property. I didn't notice Ms Thatcher in the novel, which isn't to say that she wasn't there. I'm probably in there. You are, too."

The Novel as a Big Fleshy Thing: Why Peter Nadas' Parallel Stories Has More Soul Than Your Dog by Tod Wodicka

In the midst of writing his second novel, Tod Wodicka examines the trend for the literary doorstopper. Some are markedly weightier than others.

In 1913, a Massachusetts physician named Duncan 'Om' MacDougall completed a series of experiments proving - to him, anyway - that the soul not only existed, but had mass. 21 grammes of the stuff, to be exact.

To do this, he asked six dying people if perhaps they wouldn't mind dying on an industrial-sized scale. Probably they didn't know they were being asked, or weren't asked, or perhaps through the fug of mortality they saw something of the divine in it all. A white-gowned man hoisting them up like beached dolphins, all those straps, buckles, levers; the slow, serious descent onto a metal platform. Then the waiting. The doctor pacing, clipboard in hand, not exactly wishing them ill but not hospitably begging them to stick around either. Purportedly, God's all about weighing us up, too. As in heaven, so on earth.

Buoyed by his success, Dr Om went on to weigh conveniently expiring sheep and mice and dogs. In all probability, he hastened their release. Poisoned sheep, he found, have souls. Dogs do not.parallelstories.jpg

But what of novels? Specifically, the long novel, the Biblical doorstoppers and thousand-page self-designed masterworks. This thought that occurred to me while trying to find a comfortable position to enter the carpal tunnel of Hungarian novelist, Péter Nádas' 1,133-page Parallel Stories. Just what sort of damage would such a baggy monster unleash when let loose upon a Kindle or iPad, and, specifically, would one be able to notice any weight difference after downloading it? Not being able to afford a Kindle or a friend with a Kindle, let alone an atomic scale, I queried Wikipedia. Wikipedia's verdict? Probably not. Which isn't to say there wouldn't be some weight gain. The rather Pynchonianly named, Laszlo Kish at Texas A&M University, for example, wrote a paper I couldn't quite understand about weight fluctuations in information storage media, his conclusion being that gravity is extraordinarily weird and information has mass. Just not a whole lot of it.

I wouldn't say this about any other book, but Parallel Stories needs to be held. It is an extraordinary and fleshy thing.

Look at it. Paw the thing, slap it down on a podium, flip through it. Conceive of its first and last page: look at them together. Proof it begins, proof it ends. Because you're going to need this, to rely on those kind of physical temporality markers once you enter into Nádas' world. Pity the e-reader waiting, finger-flick after finger-flick, for a coherent old-fashioned plot to coagulate around the brilliant, actively digressive time warp of characters, epochs and themes. There's no such tug here. Eugenics, post-Wall Berlin underwear fetishism, homosexual restroom orgies in Communist Budapest, police - both secret and otherwise, hatless Jewish lumber merchants, romantic German art, 100-page sex scenes ending not in mutual orgasm but mutual urination, dismembered bodies hanging from World War I trees, opera singing, pre-war Hungarian architecture, taxi-driving former fascist aristocrats, bread lines being shelled by Soviet tanks, elderly lesbians playing board and mind games, an unsolved murder (also involving designer underwear), and that's just for starters. It'd feel bottomless without the old-fashioned reliability of finite paper pages. It'd feel like a possession, your Kindle self-creating a never-ending series of incidents, connections, hyper-linked characters and wonderingly realized time periods. The Kindle berserk with a novel as wayward and intermeshed as the internet itself. But holding Parallel Stories in your hand will give it shape, a way in, a necessary body - and what a body. The dust jacket features what looks like a distorted funhouse image of a young, naked Margaret Thatcher, her mouth agape and elongated into a Edvard Munch-like scream, her hands privatizing her property. I didn't notice Mrs Thatcher in the novel, which isn't to say that she wasn't there. I'm probably in there. You are, too. Frankly, I enjoyed the idea: an entire universe embedded inside a nubile grotesque of Margaret Thatcher.

Parallel Stories took 18 years to write and 5 more to translate into English - masterfully, it should be said, by Imre Goldstein. The proof copy I have even has the dreaded 'new War and Peace' albatrossed across its cover. (New War and Peaces in literary terms being as reliable as 'new Dylan' in the musical - critical short-hand for a weighty book with hundreds of characters and historical trauma involving fire. I mean, even War and Peace itself gets the 'new War and Peace' treatment every decade or so - see the stunning 2007 Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky translation and its accompanying fanfare.) No, Nadas, at 69 years old, has created something far more original than that, his company less Tolstoy and the Russian realists and more the tree-devouring works of Mann, Joyce, Robert Musil and even Henry Miller. It's a book that seems effortlessly post-modern, nothing signposted or done for experiment's sake; with the inhuman coolness of the professional acrobat, the prose can turn on a dime, tumble from third to first person, from long sentences to poetry-like spins of single lines and back again. No sweat. The effect is enlivening in that ineffable way that only great literature can be; it re-teaches you how to read as you read. This is what novels can still do. Structurally, it's like fantasy literature in a sense; the reader presented with so many interconnected times and characters that you have to give in to the rules of this fictional world before being able to traverse through it. (It might be noted that the fantasy/sci-fi genre is one of the only ones that can still get away with publishing 1000-page novels to impressive sales - I suppose there's something inherently wordy in the creation of worlds, whether they include dragons or cottaging homosexuals in Communist Budapest.) 

But where sometimes a book of this length and, sure, difficulty, can take time to get your claws into, Nádas had me on the first page and this near-perfect seduction of a sentence: 'He was like a blade, though he could not tell of what, perhaps of a razor or an icy thought, but of that he said nothing.'

Or try a longer excerpt. This concerns the transport of Hungarian children to some undefined Communist camp; neither the children nor their parents know exactly where or why, the ingeniously stuttered will of the State is all.

The impassive, almost bored female voice coming from the loudspeakers kept repeating for long minutes that in compliance with the orders of the station inspectors, for security reasons the departure hall would be closed before the trains' departure, therefore parents and relatives, tives, were asked immediately to vacate, cate, the railway station.
    Tation. Tion.
    But the crowd would not move.
    Children hanging out the train windows were waving, yelling, and the long complicated sentence kept echoing, maddening and incomprehensible. The throng of excited parents and relatives was now packed into the open space between the entrance of the glass-covered departure hall and the end of the platforms; they stretched, waved, and screamed from there, though it made no sense to wait until we'd leave.
    The loud bubbling of a dark mass.
    Outside, Baross Square was sizzling in the sunshine.
    Bullet marks on the facade of the glass-covered hall had been repaired in the first months after the fighting, but the station's domed roof was still gaping with holes, and the hot sunshine pouring through them in enormous beams created a veritable curtain between us.
    It was dazzling.


Note the way Nádas' eyes - and ears - flick between history, past and ever-present, the bullets in the facade outside and the 'bubbling mass' inside, from the first person to some all-knowing third. His immediacy and lightness of touch. It is dazzling.

Parallel Stories may or may not have a soul, but it certainly has a body. The novel stinks. It seethes and shits and breathes and fucks and smells its own fingers. It's perhaps the most corporeal novel I've ever read, and near revolutionary in its bodily weight, in the way it makes you uncomfortably aware of your own flesh and its inner-workings as you read. The exhaustive descriptions of character are built not from the head down, but from their bodies up and out into history. The anti-Mann, in that sense. (A drinking game could be played using the word 'bulb' in reference to the erect penis, by the way - if anyone ever decided to hold a hoot of a Parallel Stories reading party.) I want to use the word 'brave' in the way Nádas creates a literature of history as formed through the impermanent bodies that run through it, but 'true' would be closer to the mark. It is uncomfortable and filthy and occasionally tiresome, but so is life and the unending and unknowable needs of our bodies. In Parallel Stories the characters aren't only slaves to the state and history but to their own corporeality, which they try and try and fail and try again to grapple with. The tragedy always seems to start from within. No matter what the social or historical weather happens to be, there's never a constant, only human bodies, thousands of characters trying to make sense of themselves from within it all.

But in the end, what's most shocking about Péter Nádas' novel is simply that it exists. Time and time again, while reading, this other thought occurred to me, and then enraged and depressed me: here is a book that would never, ever be published if it was written by an unknown English or American author. Its synopsis, being more or less impossible to condense, is made of the most scoffable stuff. Imagine what an American edit of such a novel would look like - "There's a decent 250-page novel in here, maybe four of them, Mr Nádas, why don't you try to tell your stories like that? I like the murder mystery part, why don't you ever try to solve it? The orgies we could probably lose." No way this would this ever slip through the cautious gates of agents and marketing and the industry if it wasn't by an elder statesman of European literature. Could Parallel Stories be the last great European novel in the 20th century's mould? I hope not. But thinking about the now-internalised constraints we novelists place on ourselves; the Stockholm syndrome we all more or less suffer from in order to be a part of the publishing world, well, it could just be the last of that grand, dying breed. Today's English-writing novelists are safe in a zoo - and we're happy there. We're fed meagerly, but we occasionally get petted. There are cocktail parties. Because what choice do we have if we want a career? We're convinced the public that comes to visit want us entertaining and topical, concise and good at giving what they want, which is what they know, challenging in ways our zookeepers may find occasionally eccentric or marketably perverse but never too time-consumingly difficult. The wayward, crotchety animals are old and, apparently, kept safely away in places like Hungary. Maybe Latvia. They'll be dead soon, anyway. (And those hopeful whispers going cage to cage about our zookeepers being overrun by the 'new media' are intriguing but ultimately flimsy when it comes to books like Parallel Stories, anyway. Books like this - just like the works of Joyce, Woolf, Mann, etc. - need an industry-supported platform. Great art still needs patrons, and would certainly fair even worse in the ADD world of self-publishing. We're our own zookeepers now: meet the new boss, same as the old.) Normally I bristle at reports of new writing being too flimsy, inward-gazing or beholden to the industry. But even the most daring novels of our generation, like David Foster Wallace's magnificent Infinite Jest, are only allowed to be daring in a manner that is also entertaining - and entertaining in a manner understood by the constricts of the market. There's little overt humour in Parallel Stories, and no irony. That, in and of itself, began to seem revolutionary. Are we now so afraid of high, pure, unsweetened art? I'm not exactly sure, and nor am I sure what kind of audience awaits Péter Nádas' new book.

Part of me thinks: it doesn't fucking matter. It exists. It is supported by a major publishing house. For that be thankful.

But another part of me despairs. Kindle or no, this book is mammoth, and needs a lot of space to breathe. Instructions.jpg

And, yes, this season's got a few such elephants marching into the book store - or rather, the Amazon shipping bay. There's The Instructions by Adam Levin, a 1,030-page answer to the unasked question of what it'd be like to spend 1,030 pages with a Jonathan Safran Foer character - or Jonathan Safran Foer himself - which is either as delightful or face-peelingly exasperating as that sounds. But foremost, of course, there's Murakami's 1Q84, so large it's been published in two hardbacks. I know many people I respect who stand by Murakami, but personally I've always found his prose so flat and sloppily repetitive, his weirdness so rote and bloodless, that I'm still waiting for someone to come out and say our understanding of his novels depend on some retrograde, borderline racist understanding of Japanese culture. Like: well, it's supposed to be so dull and artlessly 'weird'; and, boy, aren't they interesting and cute, those Japanese? The way they're always cooking and talking to supernatural beings and thinking about classical music? OK, not an argument I could or would want to make, not here anyway - but let's put it out there anyway. Murakami cultists, there's something to be said for short books, too. I'd start with Philip K. Dick. Discuss amongst yourselves.

Meaning, I suppose, there's weight and then there's weight. Like a lover or your own personal history, Péter Nádas' Parallel Stories contains more than you can conceivably take from it. It is heavy in all ways. Or, as Steve Jobs said before transmitting his 21 grammes into the ether: 

"Oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow."

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All Shall Be Well; And All Shall Be Well; And All Manner of Things Shall be Well by Tod Wodicka is published by Jonathan Cape. He lives in Berlin where he is working on his second novel, The Household Spirit.
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Monday, 7 November, 2011

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