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The Return of Big Books

“Summer reading” often comes down to unnerving medical thrillers, or crime novels where the dialogue is metabolized quicker than one of the mega sugar-caffeine tidal pools people love to quaff. The Dennis Lehanes and Richard Prices of the world exist to supply that rush. But in the season of snackable reading we sometimes crave a dense, unpredictable page-turner. For that, consider the Vollmans and Danielewskis.

Maybe you haven’t heard of them, but you will. For some cultural and qualitative reason this summer has seen a windfall of long books; on the order of 800 to 1,500 pages – so big you notice when it’s added to the beach tote. This is good, because attention spans have been on an alarming decline. Pushback was overdue.

One of the authors resisting attention deficit is Mark Z. Danielewski. He unsettled the fiction world back in 2000 with House Of Leaves. At 709 pages it’s a sprawling but compelling experimental leavesplayground of characters, perspectives and voices. The Familiar is likewise absorbingand it’s only volume one of what Danielewski says will be a 27-volume work. At 880 pages, The Familiar by itself is roughly three Jodi Picoult novels. The plot is almost secondary. There are nine main characters. Street gangs. Dogs. Therapists. The only common thread is that they’re all forced into making choices under pressure, as all good literary characters must.

Like David Foster Wallace, Danielewski has invented so many ways to read a book that length is subordinate. And it’s not an ordeal like Marcel Proust. Not something you “really ought to read at some point” like Thomas Mann’s epics. It turns the limits of concentration on their head. The Familiar knows you’re having problems focusing. It knows there’s an iPhone calling out to you. So, Danielewski keeps throwing out one seductive passage after another. It’s a mandala of different texts, with prose poems and maybe a traditional chapter. Long perhaps, but never dull.

Going deeper into long-form territory, William T. Vollmann has pretty much created his own genre. The Dying Grass: A Novel of the Nez dyinggrassPerce War is 1,376 pages. It is the latest in a bizarre and brilliant career – and Vollmann is a weird dude by any estimation. In 1982 he fought in Afghanistan as if on Osama Bin Laden’s side, just for research. He has also been homeless for research. The FBI actually kicked his tires in the early 1990s because they thought he might be the Unabomber.

The Dying Grass returns Vollmann to something close to mainstream. It focuses on the story of the Nez Perce War, with flashbacks to the Civil War. The Nez Perce tribe went on the warpath in 1877 as they fled from northeast Oregon across Montana to the Canadian border, subjecting the U.S. Army to its greatest defeat since Little Big Horn. Vollmann’s main character is not the legendary Chief Joseph, but his pursuer, General Oliver Otis Howard, the tormented, devoutly Christian Civil War veteran.

As James Joyce said in Ulysses, (also a long book): “The supreme question about a work of art is out of how deep a life does it spring.” By those lights, this season’s long reads have some depth to offer.

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