I Do Not Understand Novels

This year my wife and I bought a house, which meant we had the license, for the first time, to arrange our living situation exactly as we wanted. Naturally, struggles ensued. But a notable point of mutual satisfaction and pride were the two sets of bookshelves we installed in our dining room, next to the round, wooden dining room table. We made them ourselves, and although they are by no means perfect – not particularly level, for one thing, and made of cheap wood – they’re certainly functional. Best of all, they display our books in a spot where we can always see them: making coffee, on our way to work, during meals, headed to bed. It makes me feel as if we’re sharing the same living space.

This feeling may seem odd. Books, after all, are inanimate objects. You can live with them, but they can’t live with you – not in the strictest sense of the word, anyway.

And yet, as I look over the bookshelf now, it makes me feel as if the experience of reading is a kind of expansion of living. Just running my gaze across the spines, I remember whole scenes: the opening murder in Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock; the terrifying Nazi-era home which the narrator shares with Glenn Gould in Thomas Bernhard’s The Loser; the final ghoulish car ride in Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. I remember them the way you remember memories, or maybe even clearer, since text has a way of adhering in my mind, whereas images get unfixed, float free, become unreliable.

To spend a great deal of one’s time in literature is to experience a peculiar and pleasant fragmentation of the self. Scenes which were designed by another mind take on form in your consciousness. They colonize your life. So maybe it’s not fair to say that you can live with books, in the strictest sense of the word, but they certainly live within you. I suppose that if you were feeling lyrical you could think of them as repositories for the dreams someone else gave to you, and which you are in the process of forgetting.


The critical language we use when discussing novels is painfully inadequate. John Gardner’s oft-repeated dictum that a novel should be a “vivid and continuous dream” is all well and good, until you realize that the dream is a collaboration between the reader and the writer, and that there is nothing continuous about it, especially if you, like most people, read primarily in ten-minute stretches before going to bed.

(George Perec’s investigation of bedrooms and the physical aspects of reading are particularly instructive on this topic.)

It’s unfair to single Gardner out; most structural investigations into the workings of novel are noble failures. E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel is strongest when it complains that the novel, as a form, is so elastic that it seems ridiculous to try to categorize it in terms of technique – and yet that is exactly what Forster tries to do, alongside legions of creative writing programs and traditional English departments.

Or, in the absence of structural critique, we view the novel pseudo-historically. We speak of the novel as if it exists on a progressive timeline, so that even a perceptive critic like Scott Esposito can use phrases like “pushing the novel forward,” as if the novel as a form were a rock we were all hoisting collectively up a hill, metaphor which is both weirdly positive (since we’re moving up) and depressing (since it requires a great deal of back-breaking labor).

But isn’t our embrace of this “progressive” sense of the novel really just a regurgitation of Modernism, Pound’s exhortation to “make it new?” In fact, much of what we consider new isn’t new at all. There’s nothing innovative about the sort of meta-autobiography upheld by somebody like David Shields; Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights is a good entry into the genre, as is much of the work of Jean Genet, or Proust, or – if you want to go way far back – the so-called “memoirs” of Casanova. Or, if you prefer a work that actually mimics the sort of insubstantiality of consciousness which Shields feels is the central tenet of worthwhile writing, Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet.

Consider – speaking of Proust – our current collective obsession with Knausgaard, and with the long, self-exploratory sentence. Doesn’t this awe at the minute investigation of life owe a great deal to our favorite convoluted Frenchman, who elevated the plane of the banal to a place of rumination and exalted suffering?

In reality there is no such thing as a timeline of novelistic progress. In order for the novel as a form to be “pushed forward,” we would have to shape it into a form, which is only possible by excluding great swathes of literature which do not conform to our ideas of what that form should be – which is why so much “progressive” criticism is actually aesthetically conservative. What do we do with contemporary writers who seem so singular as to exist outside the timeline, like Eudora Welty, Penelope Fitzgerald, or Guy Davenport? What do we do with older writers who still seem so strange that they feel contemporary, like Kleist, Melville, or Emily Bronte?

When we pretend to understand novels, or “the novel” – as opposed to when we try to understand a novel, singular – we force literature into a series of taxonomies, so that we can better expound upon it. At first glance, this makes us seem intelligent. It’s only when we consider the actual experience of reading that we realize how stupid it is. When we read a novel, we don’t understand it. It lives in us, or else we live in it – I’m not sure which. We exist together.


Today I decided to take a quick tour through my bookshelf, to reinforce to myself how little our critical categories have to do with the experience of living inside a novel. I didn’t reread any of these titles, to better show the way a book can slosh around in the brain. I relied on my own recollection.

Under the “C”s I found Cosmicomics, by Italo Calvino and the Collected Stories of John Cheever. Cheever is supposed to be the exemplary architect of American realism: the consummate New Yorker writer. Calvino, on the other hand, is a famous postmodernist trickster, an ancillary member of the OuLiPo, beloved by self-styled experimentalists. But I remember the titular Housebreaker of Shady Hill, speaking to me, naked in the dark, explaining the perils of his suburban – and, frankly, somewhat surreal – life situation, and I remember a similar desire to confess and explain in the narrator of Calvino’s “All At One Point,” trying to help us understand what life was like before the Big Bang, and how it made social interaction both difficult and unbearably intimate.

Nestled next to one another, at the end of “K” and the beginning of “L,” respectively, I found Chris Kraus’ I Love Dick and Ben Lerner’s On Leaving the Atocha Station, two books you would think would be easily clumped together, aesthetically: autobiographical novels that concern themselves with the relation between art and life, aesthetic and lived experience. But when I think of Lerner’s book I remember the way the narrator’s malaise faded away whenever he began discussing poetry, exposing his preference for ecstasy, giving the lie to the all-too-easy irony that seemed to choke the rest of the narrative – it was powerful, but also odd, like having an indifferent cat suddenly nuzzle your hand, expecting friendship. But when Kraus talked about an art instillation she was clear, insightful, analytical; she wrote about it not as an ecstatic experience but a kind of clear window, a place for looking, and her enthusiasm was the enthusiasm of discovery, the way someone might take you to a particular spot on a cliff, to show you a momentous view.

There are other ways of looking at these four books, of course. You could see Calvino as a spot in the history of Post-Modernism when the fable was re-introduced as a literary form. You could see Cheever as a point in America society when realism started to examine itself, and find itself stranger than expected. You could call Chris Kraus a ground-breaking feminist writer (and she is!), or Ben Lerner an example of what happens when someone with a poet’s understanding of the limitations of representation in language tries to write a roman à clef. But none of these ways of looking do much to illustrate the actual act of reading and remembering, all of which have to do with living inside the language world of a text, of recreating it later, of dreaming it.

There are lots of reasons to distrust large-scale readings of literature. For one, they tend to replicate existing structures of power, privileging white male voices at the expense of others. For another, they tend to reiterate themselves, sticking on particular writers out of habitual agreement, canon-building, directing our collective reading habits in ways that end up not being fruitful.

But the one I’m most concerned with here is the way macro readings of “the novel” reduce the complexity of literature to a kind of short-hand, a making of meaning and understanding. In my experience, novels resist understanding and reduction. They aren’t consumed into discourse or broken down into their constituent parts. They’re lived with.


I was part of a panel discussion about writing at Arcadia University’s MFA program a while back, when a student asked the question: “what keeps you writing?”

The other two panelists gave thoughtful answers, and by the time it got to me most of the obvious and helpful responses had been exhausted.

I shrugged. I said that with the possible exception of music I thought that literature was the best thing humans were capable of producing, and I said that every time I walked into a used bookstore I felt as if I were part of an extremely long conversation which had been going on since the advent of narrative, and that I was very humbled and also very excited to be a part of it.

I think I stand by that answer, although I wouldn’t characterize it as a conversation. Conversation implies clear exchange, comprehension, a traffic of ideas. Criticism is a conversation, and sometimes a very fruitful one – but literature is something much more interesting. The expansion and fragmentation of consciousness through language is a powerful process that I do not fully understand, and do not expect to. I consider it a good thing that I do not understand novels, as is so often the case with the things we love.

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