When I say, referring to Bleak House by Charles Dickens, “They don’t write books like that anymore,” I really mean it. Reading it is like a guided tour of things serious authors aren’t allowed to do. Exactly two of the characters are complicated and unpredictable, everyone else is either angelic or demonic. Dozens of pages go by with nothing happening except amusing characters having silly conversation. Halfway through the book an entire chapter is devoted to introducing a new character who never goes on to do anything integral to the story. And a few of the characters start crying almost every time they have a conversation.
Bleak House felt unlike the modern fiction I’m used to reading until I realized that the comparison is a disservice to Dickens. You have to embrace Bleak House for what it is – a rambling, confusing, verbose, over-populated, vastly improbable story which substitutes caricatures for people and is full of puns. In other words, an 800-page Dickens novel.
And that description only fits if you want to call it a novel. Its original readers read it in 20 monthly installments. Reading it in a matter of weeks is kind of like watching a season of Lost on DVD over a weekend. You start to notice how often character descriptions are repeated, how many important topics are discussed at regular intervals, how new characters and twists are fabricated to buy time.
As a serial, it’s much more likeable. I started to read Bleak House slowly, and found that dropping in on its world was reliably amusing and full of pathos. Some episodes of the story stand alone. They don’t advance the plot or broaden the characters, but rather stop to ponder what happens when a London street urchin needs a place to sleep, for instance. Once I’d abandoned hope of narrative momentum in Bleak House, the episodes were nice to read. Dickens may have slowed the story to a crawl to prolong the income he was getting from it, but even when he writes about unimportant characters accomplishing very little, there’s something to like on every page.
Dickens, a keen observer of mankind, was one of its sharpest critics and proud champions. He was viciously capable of drawing cruel, unapologetic characters, but he seemed more fond of creating characters that he liked – either because they were heroically good-natured, or because they were so bizarre that he had no qualms about making them look ridiculous. Unlike many modern writers, as he’s toying with the fortunes of his characters, he doesn’t mind that you can tell how much fun he’s having.
In one scene, a gentleman whose dignity is being insulted reacts by appearing as magnificent as possible until, at the final insult, “Sir Leicester’s magnificence explodes. Calmly, but terribly.”
Bleak Houses’s jester, Guppy, is always bursting in on people and subjecting them to ludicrous conversation, which Dickens delights in relating. During one exchange in which he is being particularly bothersome to his interlocutor, “Mr. Guppy considers this a favourable moment for sticking up his hair with both hands.”
These goofball scenes, of course, are juxtaposed by the depraved condition of man that Dickens is also always so eager to show us, and the predictably rosy ending for Dickens’ favorites among the cast is offset by a surprisingly high body count.
I can’t escape the impression that Dickens was just mucking around half the time. (In order to get rid of one character whose usefulness was over, he killed him by spontaneous combustion.) But if Dickens is only trying half the time, you’ve still got an enjoyable book. I wouldn’t want all of the books I read to be so meandering and indulgent, but it was nice, in this case, to sit back and watch Dickens amuse himself.