Not Short, Not Sweet

When it comes the the novel, big isn’t always beautiful

Books Literature
The Americans are coming: Hanya Yanagihara and Jonathan Franzen (Yanayihara ©Jenny Westerhoff; Franzen ©Daniel Sillaman)

It’s a debate that’s been going on for a long time. Callimachus, the ultra-urbane librarian and poet of the third century BC, put it like this: “Big book, big evil.”

Here’s Jonathan Franzen, from his new novel Purity: “When Charles’s several honeymoons had ended, he settled down to write the big book, the novel that would secure him his place in the modern American canon. Once upon a time, it had sufficed to write The Sound and the Fury or The Sun Also Rises. But now bigness was essential. Thickness, length.”

Bearing in mind the mocking tone that engulfs Charles and his endeavours, you’d think Franzen would have wanted to avoid the jeopardy of portliness. But no, Franzen wants to both tease thickness and luxuriate in it.

As a writer I’d like to put the blame on the editor, but at some point the writer has to carry the can. It is the writer’s job to edit the world, not to let the whole world in. Nevertheless, hidden away in the 563 pages of Purity is probably Franzen’s best novel.

There are some very powerful and entertaining sections — Franzen, who has translated from the German, does a great East Germany, before and after the fall of the Wall. There’s a genius routine involving a wandering thermonuclear device. Shrewd and astute observations about human nature and contemporary mores in America abound. Franzen is a master of dialogue, but perhaps because of that, doesn’t know when to stop. You get clump after clump of three or four pages of conversation. Franzen is obviously very intelligent so I was perplexed as to why he insisted on these steppes of bavardage and other page-clogging digressions.

The main character of Purity is Andreas Wolf, a German Julian Assange-like leaker, bullshitter and shagger, who himself, ironically, has a very dark secret. The other protagonists nearly all have dark secrets too and they are linked together in a way that, if you start to think about it carefully, is so coincidental as to be not very convincing. Is Franzen trying to conceal the haphazard plumbing with several layers of plaster?

Franzen does score points for being up-to-date. The internet, texting, face-recognition software, hacking galore, it’s all there. But for all the death, despair and high-tech mischief in the novel, we get good-old Dickens-like twists of paternity and an almost Jane Austen ending. It’s a pity Franzen didn’t go for a simpler, more streamlined option because much of the book is brilliant, but it’s easy to lose sight of that.

I remember a couple of years ago when Ion Trewin announced that the Man Booker would be thrown open to the Americans, he claimed that among the wide consultation, there had been writers who had approved. I remember thinking, you’re joking. I can’t think of one British novelist who would consider this a good idea (well, maybe one, there’s always one). My guess is that the raising of the portcullis was just weak-kneed panic on the part of the Booker at the advent of the Folio Prize with its transatlantic hordes.

I’m not of the opinion that writers (or anyone creative) deserve support. I don’t believe there should be prizes or grants (although I’m quite happy to take them). The Booker is the one literary prize that really makes a difference. British novelists already had plenty of competition from most of the English-speaking world. I’d argue that without Booker action distinguished writers such as Kelman, Byatt, Swift, Ishiguro, Hollinghurst and Mitchell would be little-known or even unknown. Demanding, intricate, subtle writing simply doesn’t attract an audience the way easy-to-adapt-for-television genre fiction does.

The Booker trustees took away the oxygen mask from British letters. The admission of the Americans is pretty much a death sentence for quality British fiction, not because the Americans are better (although some of them certainly are) but because of the sheer weight of numbers. If there were some reciprocal agreement, fine, but while I don’t believe British writers are owed support I don’t see why we should be handing  out goodies to the Americans.

Which brings us to A Little Life, shortlisted for the Man Booker this year. I’d suspect the title is ironic given its 720-page length, but Hanya Yanagihara isn’t a laugh-merchant. The plot is straightforward: four friends come to New York to make their way, one of whom has a very dark secret. Yanagihara writes crisply (she has an unflashy prose style similar to Franzen’s), so you can see why her novel has merited elevation.

When it comes to the minutiae of New York life, the etiquette of the waiters’ hierarchy in a hip restaurant, the mood swings of different blocks of the city, the mechanics of a film set, Yanagihara can be gripping. If you like to  diligently follow characters in a minor soap opera way, you’ll enjoy the book. It is tranche after tranche of la vie.

But I felt mugged by it. It’s so big, so relentless in its detailing of the characters’ lives that even former employees of the Stasi would be wearied. No tooth-brushing is unexamined.

The core of the novel is the dark secret of a young lawyer, Jude: his past. However, his childhood abuse is so presaged, so foreshadowed, so heralded, so telegraphed for so many pages that by the time I got to it, not only did I not feel any sympathy for him, I almost enjoyed his suffering. A drum roll is dramatic for a few seconds, after that it becomes irritating. Not to mention that while Yanagihara is unassailable on the magnitude of New York and how to build a career there, I just didn’t believe the abuse, dramatically. It didn’t ring true.

This is a pro’s prose, yet Yanagihara isn’t as scintillating or as insightful as Tom Wolfe, as cruel as Bruce Wagner, as funny as Richard Dooling, or in the long run, as amusing as Franzen, whose novel I’d wager will go down better with the book clubs. I just wish someone like the crime writer Martina Cole could have whittled A Little Life down to size.