Occasionally a review or description of a book, however it attempts to be favorable, completely convinces me not to read a novel unless forced. This week’s New York Times Book Review describes Mathias Enard’s Zone this way:
[. . .] in “Zone” — aside from three excerpts from an imagined Palestinian fiction — Énard takes up the challenge of writing an endless sentence by including only one period in his long novel. This ambitious gamble won Énard considerable praise in France, and now, with Charlotte Mandell’s lucid translation, readers of English can evaluate his text and larger mythic framework.
The skeletal narrative that carries Énard’s sentence forward is slim, but the book’s implications are broad. The entire novel is trapped within the mind of Francis Servain Mirkovic as he takes a train ride from Milan to Rome.
Novels with a “slim” “skeletal narrative” sound to me tedious. A book with broad “implications” but no real engagement with anything sounds like a tedious postmodernist trick of the sort that I’ve seen before and ignored before. One reason Stephen Burn’s review of Zone caught my attention, however, is its introduction, which is dense with ideas:
Near midnight on a Friday in April 1854, Gustave Flaubert wrote one of his many letters to Louise Colet. Flaubert had spent days hidden away in his Croisset retreat, researching theories of clubfoot and discarding pages from the manuscript of “Madame Bovary,” and he told Colet that he had come to the conclusion that “the books from which entire literatures have flowed, like Homer, Rabelais, are encyclopedias of their time. They knew everything.” This conception — the novel that knows everything — would come to obsess Europe’s modernist writers, who dreamed that a narrative of infinite detail and esoteric knowledge could blur the boundaries between traditional genres, with fiction shading into nonfiction, poetry bleeding into history.
I too aspire to write and read encyclopedias of my time. Some of my favorite books—Cryptonomicon, The Name of the Rose, The Secret History—have that kind of feel. It is always a good time to blur traditional genres—to paraphrase, as James Wood said, “it is always a good time to shred formulas.” But the novel has been blurring genre since its inception: one could argue that the only way to blue genre these days is by upholding genre, whatever that might mean. Like the dream of the novel-encyclopedia, it is probably impossible, however desirable it may be. I doubt that Zone gets very close.