Wash ashore against long, difficult novels, and see if you can beat them. These great, huge tomes that linger in the cultural moment, and hang over the academics like an anchor. They sink beneath them, and readers rarely finish them whole.
Attempting Ulysses, again, from which I have only ever gotten slightly beyond halfway before intellectual exhaustion sets in and I long for shorter books, I am reminded of very large video games. There are these big, huge games, and they are big and huge, and it is rare that anyone actually gets to the end of them. I remember a discussion at work where they were debating the length to make games, and the size of them, and the big, huge novels do not have the same amount of necessary resources in their creation. A lonely person sitting in a room, probably the attic, or an apartment with a loft, carefully and patiently creating, line-by-line, editing line-by-line, until exhaustion is a state of being so omnipresent that the soul itself might crumble a little, but only one soul – maybe two if there is a dedicated editor – and then the book is done.
Long video games have teams that stretch into the hundreds, and each asset is on a spreadsheet and must be delivered on-time to be entered into the production cycle of the game. And, who ever reaches the end of them? I have abandoned long games entirely. I have no time for these commitments of long stretches of time, finding greater joy in gardening and cooking than in slaughtering imaginary beasts. I am growing carbon and mulching carbon, growing food and eating food, in my efforts to do a little bit to save the world. I look at the games I do play, like the ridiculously corny NUN ATTACK! and KINGDOM RUSH, and find I prefer the smallest possible window of game. When I arise, exhausted from my day, I have no mental energy to pound against Demon Souls. I have to rest, lie fallow, and find simple things to recover my sense of self from long stretches of complex, difficult, and challenging work. And so many human lives burned down to build them. So many marriages failed over the crunch times. So many families broke bouncing from one city to another after the next upward push in staffing.
Better only one martyr. I’m washing ashore against Ulysses. I have a few books like this one, where I have never finished them, but I do, occasionally, wash ashore and get as far as I can until my mind will have no more of it. I prefer shorter novels. I think about how James Joyce died in Zurich, mostly in penury all his life, and supported by a family and friends that all loved him so much that they would do anything to permit him the time and space to produce this book that no one understands. His perforated ulcer is the sort of disease that a sedentary man might have, a deadly form of bacterial indigestion that spills out of his guts and consumes him.
This big, long works of art ask so much of everyone. They ask so much of readers, and so much of creators. I am suspicious that the thing that drives me away from things like TIN DRUM and ULYSSES and Herodotus’ HISTORIES is how I am afraid that if I start reading them, I will want to start writing them. I have always noticed, looking at them with the eyes of an artist, that the longer a book is, the smaller it is. What I mean is this: Reader attention can only stretch so far, and only permit so many great chances in a text, and the longer the text (or game) the fewer chances an artist has to really go off the rails without losing everyone. In poetry, there is so much room for invention. There is limitless space for invention in poetry. In short stories, chances are over so quickly, that readers will ride out with them. Short novels (and short games) are often the jeweler’s gemstones and ornamental pieces of great, careful craftsmanship. Big, lumbering things, building up a head of steam and charging out into the horizon, racing for it, casts of characters, and castings of poesy, all building up steam and building up steam will not have the methodical precision. Marathons are not beautiful races, like sprints. Marathons are steam engines, where willpower breaks a little along the way, in such tiny ways. Sprinters running are just so beautiful.
I’m reading ULYSSES again, washing ashore upon Dublin’s beautiful disaster. I will get as far as I go, this time. I will endure a while. Likely it will be too much, and I will go out to my little garden and plant lettuce seeds, radishes, and more little onions. I will dream of Calvino, and his little jewels. I will reach for new literary magazines, with new ideas in them, and all of them so delicate and small. I will take a break for a while, is what I will tell myself. I will just read a little something else for a while. When I return to Ulysses, I won’t even remember where I left off, and will just have to start over from the top.
So it goes, with the ones who burned down to be pure weavers of winds.