You finish the last page of a book like Gravity’s Rainbow and—even if you’ve spent much of it in a state of bewilderment or frustration or irritation—you think to yourself, “that was monumental.” But it strikes me that this sense of monumentality, this gratified speechlessness that we tend to feel at such moments of closure and valediction, has at least as much to do with our own sense of achievement in having read the thing as it does with a sense of the author’s achievement in having written it. When you read the kind of novel that promises to increase the strength of your upper-body as much as the height of your brow—a Ulysses or a Brothers Karamazov or a Gravity’s Rainbow—there’s an awe about the scale of the work which, rightly, informs your response to it but which, more problematically, is often difficult to separate from an awe at the fact of your own surmounting of it.
Since I posted yesterday about my return to reading, this reminded me of how I used to love (and still do, I suppose) the great months-long commitment to a mammoth novel. O’Connell expresses the rewards far more succinctly than I can … but let me just add, that I simply admire and respect the ability to create a world where the reader simply loses himself. The epic novel transcends all reason, actually and especially when so many “easier” reads await in the wings.
I remember reading Gravity’s Rainbow for a novel seminar back in 1988, hating it at first and then loving it—the mood swing was simply a matter of finally surrendering to the style. Once I stopped fighting, it all made sense in its rambling imagery and nonsensical dialogue.
I took on War and Peace when I was a teenager and adored each word as if I was proving my adulthood page after page.
There have been many other epic novels in my life, of course. But just seeing those titles in that article brought back the memories of accomplishment. Not only did I finish the tomes, but absorbed some sense of purpose out of the deed. And out of the novels themselves, too.
As for Ulysses … I’ve tried twice to read it (at 19 and then again at 29) but found myself stuck both times, unable to force myself to continue, around the page where any minor cohesion of plot and character gives way to the confusion of whatever Joyce wanted to say. I have Ulysses on my current reading list, already downloaded and waiting. I plan to tackle it again this year. When? I’m sorta delaying a specific date. Yeah, that hesitation is a form of dread.