Tell me why to finish that novel

(Second in the series, How to read literature like a thirsty linguist).
At my old book club in California, we did alright for ourselves. We met once a month. We didn’t gossip. We actually discussed characters and plots. But we cheated a tiny bit. We let ourselves talk even if we hadn’t finished the book. The rule: If you had read the first 100 pages, you had full discussion privileges.

At my new book club in Massachusetts, this would not stand. We meet once a month. But during the interim, most of us read the assigned book plus two or three more books to boot. 576 pages of Jonathan Franzen? Kid’s stuff.

Actually, though, the California club was pretty good. We had stimulating conversations that I still recall fondly, five years later. This raises a question. Can you really appreciate a book if you read only part of it?

Obviously, for the Massachusetts club, the question is moot. (Yes, we need more hobbies). But everyone else — that is, people who love books and but are also maniacally busy — would probably be interested to know the answer.

Elif Batuman is an essayist who writes frequently about Turkish culture. When a journalist asked Batuman what she thinks of her famous compatriot, Orhan Pamuk, the reply got published as a newspaper heading: “I WAS UNABLE TO FINISH PAMUK.”

Copyright Iletisim Publishing. From orhanpamuk.net

Pamuk won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006. On some level, his books must be good. Indeed, Batuman pays him a nice tribute in a recent New Yorker article. She’s ostensibly writing about a Turkish ornithologist from Kars, a city just over the border from Armenia. But she mostly quotes from Pamuk’s Snow (2004), a novel that painstakingly and evocatively describes this forgotten city.

But wait. Did Batuman read Snow? She said she couldn’t finish Pamuk. Maybe she cheated a little. Maybe she read the first 100 pages, then gave herself full discussion privileges.

Time for a confession. I read only the first 100 pages of Snow. And I loved it! I can still picture the dark snowy streets of Kars in my mind. So why didn’t I finish it?

Linguists use the concept of “timing units” to capture the fact that certain sounds are longer than others. For example, if you say “Jay-Z” with a lot of emphasis, the Z will be longer than usual. We represent this fact by adding an extra timing unit to the Z, but it’s still a Z. It’s like a yoga pose. You can hold it for a few extra seconds, but it’s still a downward dog.

I think some novels use timing units. They set up a basic plot and a few characters. But as you turn the pages, the book gets longer while plot and characters remain the same. Instead of moving along, the book just holds the yoga pose a little longer.

There’s no question that books like this are hard to read. They lack plot twists. They lack character development. Snow felt like this to me. I enjoyed it what I got, but I eventually put it down, thinking that Pamuk’s extra timing units probably wouldn’t add anything new.

So if the novel comes to a standstill, we can properly appreciate it after 100 pages. Right? Actually, I am not so sure. Some timing units are superfluous. You can press an elevator button and hold it for several seconds, but that won’t have any effect on the elevator. And a few novels are like this, too. You can keep reading, but that won’t have any affect on the plot.

But most timing units exist for a reason. With emphasis, Jay-Z takes on a different tone (“That’s not Kanye West, you moron, that’s Jay-Z”). With a few extra seconds, the yoga pose feels different and your body’s relaxation deepens. I’m willing to argue that some novels are like this, too. Their long duration is the whole point.

Museum of Innocence (2009) works like this. Now I get full discussion privileges because, in this case, I WAS ABLE TO FINISH PAMUK. The summary is that a wealthy young guy named Kemal falls in love with a shop-girl named Füsun, starts going to her family’s modest apartment for dinner every night, and steals stuff from them.

Orhan Pamuk, possibly in his museum (from orhanpamuk.net)

Not exactly riveting. But the summary misses the point. Kemal continues this pattern for eight whole years. Füsun has married someone else, so his love for the lower-class shop-girl goes unrequited. Instead of building a life with her, he eats dinner and watches television with her family. The years plod on. Kemal details each moment of his suffering in excruciating detail, using the stolen stuff to build a “museum” that bears witness to his experiences.

By the end of the book, by the time the 531st page has been completed, the reader feels the weight of that lost time. It’s a sunken feeling in the heart. You could get the same plot in 100 pages: the meeting, the fateful marriage, the ensuing dinners. But you could not get that feeling. The timing units, modest but devastating, have done their work.

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One Response to Tell me why to finish that novel

  1. Interesting post. Museum of Innocence reminds me of Sátántango, a Hungarian film by Béla Tarr. It is a story about a small rural Hungarian town where everyone knows each other. An old townsman comes back to town after a long absence and tries to swindle everyone. At 7 hours and 30 minutes, the film obviously feels heavy. Though, the length of the film conveys the oppressiveness of living in such a small town and the nuanced relationships between the different characters. This feeling wouldn’t come across had the film not been as long as it was (but kudos to places like the PFA in Berkeley for showing it!)

    I feel that Milan Kundera really understands time in a similar way. Apart from The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which obviously deals with time (and whether it is considered “heavy” or “light”), his later novels explore this theme in some unique ways. I read Slowness a few weeks ago. The book focuses on the notion that we lose the ability to understand subtlety by having fast expectations. These subtleties are the art of living for Kundera. Without them, we do not actually experience the world. (I don’t know if you’re a Kundera fan. If not, I apologize.)

    I once got through 400 pages of a sci-fi novel by Bruce Sterling, only to put it down, disgusted. (Ironically, the novel, Distraction, won the Arthur C. Clarke award – the sci-fi equivalent to the Nobel prize. Perhaps there is something to not finishing famous books?) Distraction is 532 pages, but I simply couldn’t stand how omniscient the protagonist was. He knew everything. He could predict everything. He was the hugest smart-ass on the planet and, somehow, other characters liked him. Though, I wouldn’t say that I could properly appreciate the book, even after 400 pages. On the contrary, every page made me lose appreciation for it.

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