The sprawling narrative and Ta-Nehisi Coates' reading of Middlemarch

In “Into the Canon: ‘Middlemarch,’” Ta-Nehisi Coates says he’s halfway through the novel and that “Eliot’s rather omnivorous employment of voice and excerpt is bracing.” He gives an example and then says: “I wonder if young writers, today, are attempting this sort of sprawling narrative. I’m not particularly well-read–especially in the area of modern fiction.”

My answer: sometimes, but rarely. Two contemporary examples that work come to mind: Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell* and Cryptonomicon. Neither is quite the same as each other or two Middlemarch, but great works of art are supposed to be singular, and both contemporary novels are long, have many moments of weird narrative (in which it’s hard to tell who speaks), and are highly detailed. Perhaps overly detailed.

In Encounter, Milan Kundera says, correctly, that “Almost all great modern artists mean to do away with ‘filler,’ do away with whatever comes from habit, whatever keeps them from getting directly and exclusively at the essential (the essential: the thing the artist himself, and only he, is able to say).” Coates is responding to the contrast between the modern tendency to cut “filler” and get at “the essential;” I think consciously about doing both when I write, and the “filler” often bothers me about 19th C novels—but then I suppose his point about voice is that voice can make filler into the essential, at least for some readers. I tend not to be one of them, but I can make exceptions—as I do for Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell and Cryptonomicon, and as I don’t for the late, tedious novels of Henry James.


* I’m reading Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell at the moment, and, while it’s hard to give an example of the novel’s vastness (do we really need the level of detail we get in the Spanish campaign sections? and what is “need?”), I would note this description of Jonathan Strange following the apparent death of his wife:

[Jonathan’s] words and his face were what all his friends remembered — with this difference: that the man behind them seemed only to be acting a part while his thoughts and his heart were somewhere else entirely. He looked at them from behind the sarcastic smile and none of them knew what he was thinking. He was more like a magician than ever before. It was very curious and no one knew what to make of it, but in some ways he was more like Norrell.

There are a couple of traits similar to the “sprawling” narratives Coates mentions: most of the time we’re listening, as we are here, to a straightforward third-person omniscient narrator, and we’re not motivated to think this observation comes from a particular character’s point of view. Notice how “no one knew what to make of it:” how does the narrator know what everyone thinks, in order to say that “no one knew?”

This kind of pronouncement is uncommon in contemporary novels, or at least the contemporary novels I read. Perhaps more importantly, the quote above could easily be omitted, and Strange’s behavior left to the reader to interpret, without authorial comment. We should be able to infer Strange’s change in character and manner from the way he acts, but Clarke chooses (or, in her mock-19th Century idiom, “chuses”) to give it to us—as she tells us a few sentences later that “They ordered a good dinner consisting of a turtle, three or four beefsteaks, some gravy made with the fat of a green goose, some lampreys, escalloped oysters and a small salad of beet root.” It’s lovely to know they ate “gravy made with the fat of a green goose,” whatever that means, but I’m not sure how desperately we need to know.

In most books such details would be irritating; in this one they’re mostly charming. Call it the book’s magic.

For a similar example in Cryptonomicon, see the famous Cap’n Crunch scene, a portion of which is at the link.

The sprawling narrative and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ reading of Middlemarch

In “Into the Canon: ‘Middlemarch,’” Ta-Nehisi Coates says he’s halfway through the novel and that “Eliot’s rather omnivorous employment of voice and excerpt is bracing.” He gives an example and then says: “I wonder if young writers, today, are attempting this sort of sprawling narrative. I’m not particularly well-read–especially in the area of modern fiction.”

My answer: sometimes, but rarely. Two contemporary examples that work come to mind: Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell* and Cryptonomicon. Neither is quite the same as each other or two Middlemarch, but great works of art are supposed to be singular, and both contemporary novels are long, have many moments of weird narrative (in which it’s hard to tell who speaks), and are highly detailed. Perhaps overly detailed.

In Encounter, Milan Kundera says, correctly, that “Almost all great modern artists mean to do away with ‘filler,’ do away with whatever comes from habit, whatever keeps them from getting directly and exclusively at the essential (the essential: the thing the artist himself, and only he, is able to say).” Coates is responding to the contrast between the modern tendency to cut “filler” and get at “the essential;” I think consciously about doing both when I write, and the “filler” often bothers me about 19th C novels—but then I suppose his point about voice is that voice can make filler into the essential, at least for some readers. I tend not to be one of them, but I can make exceptions—as I do for Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell and Cryptonomicon, and as I don’t for the late, tedious novels of Henry James.


* I’m reading Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell at the moment, and, while it’s hard to give an example of the novel’s vastness (do we really need the level of detail we get in the Spanish campaign sections? and what is “need?”), I would note this description of Jonathan Strange following the apparent death of his wife:

[Jonathan’s] words and his face were what all his friends remembered — with this difference: that the man behind them seemed only to be acting a part while his thoughts and his heart were somewhere else entirely. He looked at them from behind the sarcastic smile and none of them knew what he was thinking. He was more like a magician than ever before. It was very curious and no one knew what to make of it, but in some ways he was more like Norrell.

There are a couple of traits similar to the “sprawling” narratives Coates mentions: most of the time we’re listening, as we are here, to a straightforward third-person omniscient narrator, and we’re not motivated to think this observation comes from a particular character’s point of view. Notice how “no one knew what to make of it:” how does the narrator know what everyone thinks, in order to say that “no one knew?”

This kind of pronouncement is uncommon in contemporary novels, or at least the contemporary novels I read. Perhaps more importantly, the quote above could easily be omitted, and Strange’s behavior left to the reader to interpret, without authorial comment. We should be able to infer Strange’s change in character and manner from the way he acts, but Clarke chooses (or, in her mock-19th Century idiom, “chuses”) to give it to us—as she tells us a few sentences later that “They ordered a good dinner consisting of a turtle, three or four beefsteaks, some gravy made with the fat of a green goose, some lampreys, escalloped oysters and a small salad of beet root.” It’s lovely to know they ate “gravy made with the fat of a green goose,” whatever that means, but I’m not sure how desperately we need to know.

In most books such details would be irritating; in this one they’re mostly charming. Call it the book’s magic.

For a similar example in Cryptonomicon, see the famous Cap’n Crunch scene, a portion of which is at the link.

George Eliot's Daniel Deronda and the Graham Handley's description of it

In his introduction to George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, Graham Handley writes:

Yet if all the research and criticism of Daniel Deronda, including scholarly articles of the type which discover but do not evaluate, were put together, a consensus would doubtless reveal that it is generally thought of either as a remarkable failure, a flawed success, or even an aberration unredeemed by incisive insights or distinguished writing. The character of Gwendolen is always praised; those of Mirah, Mordecai, and Daniel are often denigrated.

It is my opinion, as someone who regularly miscegenates evaluation and discovery, that the critical consensus is correct. I particularly like the description of the novel as an “aberration unredeemed by incisive insights or distinguished writing.” I’m also still amused that Handley would announce this in the introduction, as if inviting us to agree with the consensus and not his defense.

Reading Handley’s defense, it’s hard not to like the critical consensus more:

It is my contention that Daniel Deronda needs no apology. [. . .] Its greatness consists in its artistic integrity, its moral and imaginative cohesion, its subtle and consistent presentation of a character with psychological integration as its particular strength, together with what Colvin called the ‘sense of universal interests and outside forces.’

Most of those words and phrases don’t mean anything on their own. What is “moral and imaginative cohesion?” Do you get it or them with glue and spackle? And how does the “subtle and consistent presentation of a character” work? Those sound like code words for “nothing happens,” other than that characters talk to each other about who’s going to boff who after they get married or, if we’re lucky, before.

The introduction goes on:

The form is fluid and vital, not static and diagrammatic, and the sophisticated and studied use of image and symbol is tremulous with life, with the feelings, responses, and pressures of the individual moral and spiritual experience of fictional character registering with the factual reader.

Spare me “sophisticated and studied use of image and symbol” when they aren’t deployed to tell much of a story. “Moral and spiritual experience” sounds remarkable tedious. Once again, with accolades like these, who needs haters?

I will say, however, that Daniel Deronda makes me feel incredibly virtuous for having read it, or at least parts of it. This is more or less true of every novel I’ve read whose title consists solely of a name.

George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda and the Graham Handley’s description of it

In his introduction to George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, Graham Handley writes:

Yet if all the research and criticism of Daniel Deronda, including scholarly articles of the type which discover but do not evaluate, were put together, a consensus would doubtless reveal that it is generally thought of either as a remarkable failure, a flawed success, or even an aberration unredeemed by incisive insights or distinguished writing. The character of Gwendolen is always praised; those of Mirah, Mordecai, and Daniel are often denigrated.

It is my opinion, as someone who regularly miscegenates evaluation and discovery, that the critical consensus is correct. I particularly like the description of the novel as an “aberration unredeemed by incisive insights or distinguished writing.” I’m also still amused that Handley would announce this in the introduction, as if inviting us to agree with the consensus and not his defense.

Reading Handley’s defense, it’s hard not to like the critical consensus more:

It is my contention that Daniel Deronda needs no apology. [. . .] Its greatness consists in its artistic integrity, its moral and imaginative cohesion, its subtle and consistent presentation of a character with psychological integration as its particular strength, together with what Colvin called the ‘sense of universal interests and outside forces.’

Most of those words and phrases don’t mean anything on their own. What is “moral and imaginative cohesion?” Do you get it or them with glue and spackle? And how does the “subtle and consistent presentation of a character” work? Those sound like code words for “nothing happens,” other than that characters talk to each other about who’s going to boff who after they get married or, if we’re lucky, before.

The introduction goes on:

The form is fluid and vital, not static and diagrammatic, and the sophisticated and studied use of image and symbol is tremulous with life, with the feelings, responses, and pressures of the individual moral and spiritual experience of fictional character registering with the factual reader.

Spare me “sophisticated and studied use of image and symbol” when they aren’t deployed to tell much of a story. “Moral and spiritual experience” sounds remarkable tedious. Once again, with accolades like these, who needs haters?

I will say, however, that Daniel Deronda makes me feel incredibly virtuous for having read it, or at least parts of it. This is more or less true of every novel I’ve read whose title consists solely of a name.

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