Why Read Novels?

Because they aren’t quite real


in Beyond Words


There’s a David Shields quote that I have encountered multiple times, first in his own book Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, and most recently in “Note to Self” by Elaine Blair, a review of the work (both written and editorial) of John D’Agata, subtitled “The lyric essay’s convenient fictions.” Both D’Agata and Shields are proponents of blurring the distinction between fiction and nonfiction. This is the quote (boldface mine):

Why do I so strenuously resist generic boundaries? Because when I’m constrained within a form, my mind shuts down, goes on a sit-down strike, saying, This is boring, so I refuse to try very hard. I find it very nearly impossible to read a contemporary novel that presents itself unselfconsciously as a novel, since it’s not clear to me how such a book could convey what it feels like to be alive right now.

On this occasion, I was struck by the absurdity of the underlying assumption: that a novel should convey what it feels like to be alive right now. Don’t we already know what it feels like to be alive right now? And what does “right now” mean? This moment, this year? Given publishing schedules, even brand-new novels can only convey what it was like to be alive a few years ago. Should we not read books from decades past? What are the bounds of “contemporary”? Do we only read novels from the past to find out what it felt like to be alive back then? And whose feelings should a novel convey? It doesn’t feel the same to be alive right now in America as it does in China, or the same to be living in poverty as it does in affluence. Does a book fail if it fails to reflect our own feelings of aliveness and right-now-ness?

Even if you buy that novels should do this, I don’t see what genre constraints have to do with it. It seems like a form of imitative fallacy: In order to convey what it’s like to be alive right now, a book must contain actual facts about life in the present moment. Or, perhaps, a book must blend elements of reality and fiction because our daily experience blends “reality” (unmediated experience) and “fiction” (mediated experience). Either way, there is no unbreakable rule that form must mirror content, and such a rule would just constitute another kind of boundary, another formal constraint.

I have been thinking about why I read novels. The novel is my favorite, my desert-island genre — I would absolutely pick novels if I could only read one genre for the rest of my life. But why? It is perhaps notable that I write in multiple genres but never write fiction.

The last novel I loved was A Heart So White by Javier Marías, so let me try to break down the reasons I loved it.

First, the novel is translated from Spanish. Lately I’ve felt especially drawn to fiction in translation, in part because it feels like a way out of the hype machine — most of the hype I’m exposed to revolves around brand-new books by American authors; it gets tiresome. (Admittedly, Knausgaard and Ferrante are exceptions to the rule.) Also, the structures of translated novels, the sentence patterns, the symbols and themes, may be common or even cliché in their countries of origin, but I’m less exposed to them, so they feel fresh and unexpected to me. Perhaps most importantly, for fiction in translation to work, the interest can’t all be in “perfect” or “beautiful” sentences, since the words and rhythm and syntax will all be different in the new language — lovely still, one hopes, but not in the same way. Instead, other elements — the ideas, the characters, the story — have to carry across. These other elements are constructed from language but are less subject to corruption or erosion through translation.

I “discovered” Marías not through reviews or recommendations but on our own bookshelf; my husband had picked up a used copy of the 1986 novella The Man of Feeling at some point but said he had never read it. The novella begins on a train; the narrator, a successful opera singer, is studying three nearby passengers, one of whom he sees only in profile, as the man looks out the window:

He was looking with extraordinary attentiveness, one might almost say loquacity, as if he were witnessing the instantaneous creation of a drawing or as if what was there before his eyes were water or even fire, from which it is sometimes so hard to avert one’s gaze. But landscape is never dramatic […] since it was growing dark, I could see almost nothing — only bas-reliefs — and I thought that perhaps the man was looking at himself in the glass. Indeed, only a few minutes later, when the light gently surrendered after the brief, hesitant glow of a northern sunset, I saw him duplicated, divided, repeated, almost as clearly in the glass of the window as in reality. I decided that the man was indeed studying his own face, he was looking at himself.

From this passage, beginning on page three, I was hooked; the introspective first person is my narrative mode of choice. (My favorite novels show me fascinating thinking, the way that essays can show thinking, but at greater length; they are full of mental life.) I dog-eared a number of pages, and remember tweeting an aphoristic quote from the novella that seemed especially true. This thought comes after the singer has received a letter from the husband of an ex-girlfriend, letting him know she has died (“I thought you might want to know,” the man writes): “Once one knows the things one knows it is impossible to know whether one wants to know them or not.”

Wanting more, I checked out all the Marías novels at my library, and started with A Heart So White (first published in 1992). The narrator, Juan, is somewhat similar to the opera singer — cerebral but emotionally sensitive, he also has a rare and evocative career (as an interpreter). But the structure of the novel felt entirely new. Each chapter is essentially an anecdote that is almost self-contained — they all involve the narrator directly, but occur in different places and times. The first chapter tells the story of the day, before his birth, that his aunt (also his father’s first wife) committed suicide. The second chapter recounts an incident from the translator’s honeymoon in Cuba, involving a local woman who mistakes Juan for somebody else, and whom he later eavesdrops on through the thin walls of their hotel room while his wife lies ill.

The fourth chapter tells the story of how he met his wife, also a translator, years earlier — she had been employed as “the net” or backup interpreter for a job where Juan was live-translating a meeting between a “high-ranking Spanish politician” (a man) and a “high-ranking British politician” (a woman). During a moment of small talk, Juan begins (to amuse himself or else his attractive companion) deliberately mistranslating the politicians so as to spice up their conversation:

“Would you like me to order you some tea?” he said.

And I didn’t translate, I mean that the English I put into his mouth was not his polite question (which must be recognized was as trite as it was tardy), but this other question:

“Tell me, do the people of your country love you?”

I could feel Luisa’s astonishment behind me, more than that, I noticed that she immediately uncrossed her startled legs (the long legs that were never out of my sight, like the expensive new Prada shoes, she certainly knew how to spend her money, unless someone else had given them to her), and for a few long seconds (I felt the back of my neck pierced by her sense of shock), I waited for her to intervene and denounce me, to correct or reprimand me, or rather for her, the “net,” to take over for me at once, that’s what she was there for. But those few seconds passed (one, two, three, four) and she said nothing, perhaps (I thought then) because the high-ranking British politician didn’t seem in the least offended and replied at once, with a kind of contained vehemence.

So Juan’s trick is entirely successful; the politicians proceed (with his continued aid and embellishment) to have a very interesting discussion about devotion and coercion, and Juan and Luisa begin dating.

The book goes on in this fashion — each tale is completely enveloping for 20 or so pages, then ends, and we’re dropped in a different setting. The parallelisms are clear (observation from a distance, mistaken or concealed identity, hinted-at infidelity, the general unspoken), but the connections often aren’t (Is this new character “important” to the novel as a whole? Is the unknown man in New York the same as the unknown man in Cuba, however unlikely?). In this way the novel is built out of ten or 12 independently memorable anecdotes; despite the sense of a central mystery, you aren’t led down a linear path to the plot’s conclusion as in, say, an Agatha Christie novel. Instead, while never bored by the prose or the narratives, you continually wonder “Where is he going with this?” It’s impossible to say if the growing tension will ever resolve.

The plot, in fact, is more like a scatterplot with a lot of noise or “jitter,” showing an unclear relationship, than the typical model of an arc. I had a similar feeling of delighted giddiness reading The First Bad Man by Miranda July — it’s her first novel, and I imagine that it’s unpredictable because July has not spent half her life immersed in Novel-land. While not overtly innovative, neither is it formally imitative of most other novels. In both cases I felt I was learning about a new (to me) kind of novel, an approach I hadn’t considered as such before. But I love both novels because noticing their technical construction — the outside view, an overview effect — did not stop me from being completely immersed in the worlds they created — the inside view, a virtual-reality-like experience.

A breakthrough came when I considered a repetition I found about halfway through the book — not an intra- but an inter-novel repetition. A family friend (more of a frenemy to Juan) commits the indiscretion of revealing to Juan that his father had another wife, his real first wife, prior to the aunt’s suicide. It’s the first Juan has heard of her (again, boldface is mine):

At first I wanted to believe that it was a mistake or a lapse and, at first, Custardoy let me think it was, perhaps he’d only foreseen talking to me about my Aunt Teresa or perhaps he hadn’t foreseen telling me anything, things which, at that time, full of presentiments of disaster and taking my first steps in matrimony, I would have preferred not to know, although once you know about something, it’s difficult to know whether you wanted to know about it or would have preferred to remain in ignorance.

It’s the same sentiment, in different language, that I underlined in The Man of Feeling — a continuity between novels! This gives me a shivery sense of magic, like what I imagine occurs in role-playing games, a sense that the world Marías has created is real, and even continues to exist outside of his novels. It’s like my recurring question about GIFs — do they continue to move, to play on their endless loop, when I switch to another tab? It’s like my dream life — why do my dreams seem to be connected by their own memories, in that whenever I dream I can fly, I remember all my past dreams of flying, and think, Yes, yes, of course, how could I have forgotten I can fly?

This, I think, is why I read novels — not to experience life in this world in a different way or through a different medium, but to gain access to another world. Because the worlds of novels don’t just differ from my own life in the details; they are different from the actual world. They live in their own multiverse. Even “realistic” novels do not take place on this plane. Even novels based on factual events, by virtue of being novels and not some other form, mean to conjure something novel. •

Feature image is “The New Novel” by Winslow Homer. Courtesy of Irina via Flickr (Creative Commons).