Mexican novelist and part-time literary prankster Mario Bellatin is up to his old tricks again. This time, the one-armed author/provocateur has decided to wage war against his own publisher. Bellatin claims the twentieth anniversary edition of his classic Beauty Salon was published too early and without his express consent–a brief “coda from the author” was included which Bellatin insists was nothing but a draft in progress. As such, he has been urging fans not to purchase his book.
César Aira’s novels are the narrative equivalent of the Exquisite Corpse, that Surrealist parlor game in which players add to drawings or stories without knowledge of previous or subsequent additions. Wildly heterogeneous elements are thrown together, and the final result never fails to surprise and amuse. Aira is wacky enough to play the game by himself, but the reader isn’t left out either. Instead, Aira conditions his readers, writing so that devotees — what Aira calls his “deluxe” readers — can recognize the ingenious repetitions that connect his vast and bizarre body of work.
The author of more than 80 books, most of them short novels, Aira tells interviewers that he writes a page and a half each day in neighborhood cafés of Buenos Aires. He also famously denies revising anything he writes. Instead, as he explained to María Moreno in BOMB magazine, he allows real-life distractions and interruptions around him to appear in his narratives and push them along: “If a little bird enters into the café where I’m writing — it did happen once — it also enters into what I’m writing. Even if a priori it doesn’t relate to anything, a posteriori I make it relate.”
This a posteriori technique of “making it relate” is a modified Surrealist technique that Aira sometimes calls his “flight forward.” It’s a creative process favored not only by Aira himself, but also by some of his characters: the title character of The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira and the Mad Scientist protagonist of The Literary Conference both mention “flight forward” as an element of their respective modes of invention. “Deluxe” readers with more extended immersion in Aira’s zany brain take delight in the metaphysical fugues that result from this madcap method: it is not uncommon for Aira’s unhinged narratives to devolve into delirious flights of reason capable of overthrowing the entire plot, just when the reader least expects it. As Dr. Aira believes: “Reason is one mode of action, nothing more, and it has no special privileges…In order to be effective, one had to depart from the purely reasonable, which would always be an abstract way of thinking devoid of any truly practical use.” Here we have César Aira’s philosophy of fiction, thinly disguised as the professional opinion of “Dr. Aira.”
On a narrative level, “a posteriori” narration seems to work in at least two different ways. Sometimes Aira begins a novel by placing ambitious distance between its starting point and putative end: this is the case in How I Became a Nun, which begins with a male child narrator called César describing his first visit to an ice cream parlor with his father. Other novels begin with a highly improbable combination which Aira then relates, a posteriori, as he goes along. This is the case with The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira, which tells the story of a blundering middle-aged miracle worker beleaguered by his nemesis Dr. Actyn, a conventional MD bent on ruining Dr. Aira’s reputation by using hidden cameras to expose him as a fraud. Employing hordes of extras and elaborately staged verité snares, Actyn has made Dr. Aira’s life a living hell by subjecting him to the constant suspicion that he’s being duped. Miracle work and hidden-camera reality TV shows are far from peanut butter and jelly, but Aira’s flair for a posteriori plotting is seventy-something novels in the making. He pulls it off.
There isn’t much else to the plot. Even if I revealed whether or not Dr. Actyn succeeds, I wouldn’t haven’t spoiled anything. Like most of Aira’s novels, the plot of The Miracle Cures is scaffolding. The book is mostly an erratic hodgepodge of digressive interior monologue, and the tale of the persecuted miracle worker playfully flirts at being nothing more than a metaphor for Aira’s flighty methods of literary creation. For instance, when Dr. Aira gets talked into granting another Miracle Cure after swearing them off, the narrator observes:
Dr. Aira could have gotten out of it by telling them that there had been a mistake, a misunderstanding; he was a theoretician, one could almost say a “writer,” and the only thing that linked him to the Miracle Cures was a kind of metaphor…
Such blunt meta-referentiality may appear tedious, but it’s actually hilarious. The joke will be half-lost on novice, non-deluxe readers, so those new to Aira ought to begin by reading a few of the other novels available in translation. This kind of readerly “training” will reveal that enjoyment of Aira’s novels has much less to do with what happens than with the digressive commentary on and acrobatic connections between what few plot elements there are. As he told María Moreno,
In spite of all my admiration for Surrealism and Dadaism I never liked the mere accumulation of incongruous things. For me, everything has to be sewn together in a very conventional fashion…That sinuous thread in my novels is more interesting to me, more writeable, than a linear plot.
To extend the sewing metaphor: Aira is like Penelope at the loom, but a sort of Penelope on speed. Instead of unraveling his creations in order to avoid completing them, Aira hurtles forward, churning out finished texts that seem to unravel themselves as they’re read.
Over the last twenty years, Aira has made a trademark of writing at a rate that seems intended to prevent readers from ever catching up with him, a superproductivity that has also earned him criticism as a dilettante obsessed with lowbrow genre-fiction. Even for native Spanish readers in Latin America, access to Aira’s total catalog is difficult. He does this on purpose, requiring readers to search him out by favoring what he calls “those independent, almost clandestine publishers” that produce artisanal editions of his novels. This includes the cartonera presses in Latin America, which publish handmade books on recycled cardboard and paper collected by underemployed urbanites. Some of his novels, snatched up by collectors and foreign libraries, are hard to find. This means that Aira’s own method for reading — “when I start on an author I read him completely” — is unavailable to his own readers.
Catching up with Aira in English translation will take even longer. Although he has been publishing steadily since the early 1980s — several novels annually in nearly every year since 1991 — English translations have lagged. The Miracle Cures is only the seventh of Aira’s books to be translated to English. This might have less to do with Aira than with vagaries of the North American publishing industry. New Directions is of course responsible for Anglophone readers’ access to Aira’s work, having published six of the seven available translations. For this we must be grateful. But they also appear to have delayed a more ambitious translation schedule for Aira until they have squeezed every last story and novel out of the desk stuffed with manuscripts that Roberto Bolaño seems to have left behind when he died in 2003. In any case, readers smitten with Aira’s whimsical philosophizing and swerving narratives need not fear further delay: Aira’s star is now on the rise among the Anglophone literati. Varamo, the most recent Aira translation, received praise from The Nation, The New Yorker, The New York Times, and the ever-hip Patti Smith.
Bolaño nevertheless remains a looming presence — he is often mentioned when likenesses to Aira are sought. The comparison is perplexing, though, as the two writers have little in common from a stylistic standpoint. Descriptions of Aira as a 21st-century Borges are also inevitable; comparisons of the two Argentines are instructive, but remain inadequate. A closer resemblance might be Peruvian-Mexican writer Mario Bellatin, whose work remains untranslated but for his novel Beauty Salon and the three others collected in Chinese Checkers. Like Aira, he publishes at a frenetic rate (more than 15 books since 2001), having abandoned the modernist prerogative of the masterpiece novel in favor of larger, complex novel-systems composed of dozens of short novels that intersect and recycle characters and plot elements. Both writers also indulge in a habit of styling their protagonists after themselves, with many a “César” and “Mario” — and the occasional “Dr. Aira” — between them.
These personalized novelistic universes have exploded with a Big Bang in Latin America, where writers struggled for decades to emerge from the long shadow of “Boom” generation writers like Mario Vargas Llosa and Gabriel García Márquez. Now that the reverberations are finally getting across the language barrier — and getting hyped by Patti Smith — we can anticipate an accelerated explosion of César Aira’s universe in English.
Is Google making us stupid? Is reading in America a dying pursuit? Will novel srviv in age of twtr? String together enough of these think-piece propositions, and you begin to notice a pattern. Ostensibly open-ended, their very existence presumes an answer in the affirmative: yes, Google is making us stupid…at least, too stupid to entertain the possibility that this is other than a yes/no question.
If the presumption is correct, we might reasonably expect to see it reflected in the evolving form of the literary novel. Just last month, in a cover story on Jonathan Franzen, Time’s Lev Grossman postulated that “the trend in fiction over the past decade has been toward specialization: the closeup, the miniature, the microcosm.” And in practice, a young writer presenting her manuscript to editors quickly surmises that the working definition for a novel is no longer Randall Jarrell’s “a prose narrative of a certain length that has something wrong with it,” but “a prose narrative of 235 to 325 pages that we can bring out as a paperback original.” Joshua Cohen, the 29-year-old author of several books, recently told The New York Observer that, of the eight publishers who passed on his novel Witz (800 pp), “One of them told me they would publish it if it was 200 pages…. One said 10 years ago they would have done it, back when people read novels.”
But if, as Grossman suggests, the “literary megafauna of the 1990s” no longer roam the earth, how to explain Time’s interest in Freedom (576 pp)? Moreover, how to explain the thicket of big novels that surround it on the shelves of America’s bookstores – not only Witz, but also A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book (675 pages), and Brady Udall’s The Lonely Polygamist (599 pp), and Rick Moody’s The Four Fingers of Death (725 pp), and Karl Marlantes’ Matterhorn (592 pp), and Ralph Ellison’s Three Days Before the Shooting (1136 pp), and Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall (560 pp), and Javier Marías’ Your Face Tomorrow trilogy (1255 pp) and Adam Levin’s The Instructions (1030 pp)? Surveying those shelves, one begins to suspect that the spread of micro-designations like “literary megafauna” (or less charitably, “phallic meganovels”), rather than the plenitude or scarcity of the species in question, is the true marker of our changing culture.
Not so long ago, the phrase “long novel” was no less redundant than “short novel.” The serial publication practices of the 19th Century nudged the Victorian novelist toward amplitude. Multiply 16 (the number of pages in a signature) by two (the number of signatures in an installment) by 20 (the number of installments favored by Dickens and his publishers), and you get 640 serial pages – the length, give or take, of Dombey and Son, Little Dorrit, and Bleak House. Not to mention Vanity Fair and Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda… Soon, Trollope would be conceptualizing his novels explicitly as two- or three-volume affairs. My Oxford World Classics edition of Barchester Towers retains its two-volume pagination; it runs from 1 to 271, and then from 1 to 280. Toward the end of the second volume, the author begins to make asides about having to reach a certain page count.
In the age of offset printing, the long novel is more heterodox. Not much unites Moody and Marías and Mantel, other than the fact that they are currently stacked half-read on my nightstand. (There’s nothing like the birth of a child to foreground the sheer length of a book in one’s mind.) To yoke these writers together is thus to risk several kinds of reductionism. Most importantly (and speaking of Trollope): one doesn’t want to conflate geometric greatness with the aesthetic kind. Some of the best novels I’ve read recently are shorter than American presses tend to publish. (In the Spanish-speaking world, in particular, the short novel seems to have thrived in a way it hasn’t Stateside. A parallel essay may be warranted). Still, the current profusion of long novels would seem to complicate the picture of the Incredible Shrinking Attention Span.
Publishers’ willingness to take a chance on a long book circa 2010 may be directly connected to chances taken in the past. The fierce bidding, in 2007, for Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones (992 pp), a demanding work in translation, surely owes something to the rapt reception of Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives (600 pp) and subsequent widespread anticipation for 2666 (912 pp). McSweeney’s may be hoping The Instructions repeats the success of Chris Adrian’s The Children’s Hospital (615 pp). And David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (1104 pp) continues to have a remarkable second life on the backlist, which is still the publisher’s bread and butter. Biographical books and articles by David Lipsky and D.T. Max, as well as copious online discussion, sustain interest in the book. A clerk at a local bookstore told me last week that, for the last two months, it’s been flying off the shelves. Indeed, après Jest, doubters may catch a whiff of decadence, or at least self-consciousness, around the efforts of Cohen, Levin, and other candidates for wunderkindency.
To be even more crassly economic, in the slog of the Great Recession, the long novel offers readers a compelling value proposition. One may revile all the works of William T. Vollmann, and admire those of the Mexican novelist Mario Bellatin, but even at 55 bucks, Imperial (1344 pp) offers a wildly higher hours-to-dollars ratio (it’s roughly one-to-one) than The Beauty Salon (72 pp). (Well, Imperial isn’t actually a novel, but it feels weird to discuss long books and exclude Vollmann’s megaliths.) To put it another way: Ann Beattie’s Walks With Men (102 pp) will cost you about as much as a trip to the local multiplex, and last about as long. And let’s not forget that publishers can charge more for a long book than a short one. This helps explain why the Harry Potter novels kept getting longer and longer… On the other hand, barring a guarantee of Potter-like sales, publishers hate big books, as Cohen learned the hard way. They’re expensive to print, to ship, and to warehouse. And, to compound the problem, reviewers hate long novels. How much easier to say of Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists (288 pp) than of, say, Joseph McElroy’s Women and Men (1191 pp), “It’s so good I had to read it twice.”
For a deeper explanation of the long novel’s enduring health, we have to look toward something harder to quantify: the construction of the reader. The more we’re told we’re becoming readers of blogs, of texts, of tweets, of files the more committing to a big book feels like an act of resistance. To pick up a novel in excess of 600 pages is to tell oneself, “I am going to spend twenty-four to forty-eight hours of my life with a book, rather than the newspaper, the internet, or the smartphone. I am going to feel it in my muscles” (Some will object here that lugging Infinite Jest on the subway is more a way of saying, “Look at me!” But surely matters of style, and of gender, are at play here; no one levels the same charge at readers of Marguerite Young.) The desire to escape the hive-mind of cyberspace – to be, once more, a solitary reader – may also be at play in the rise of “the Kindle-proof book”: the book so tailored to the codex form that it can’t yet be reproduced electronically. Think of The Original of Laura, or of Reif Larsen’s The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, or of New Directions’ editions of B.S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates, or Anne Carson’s Nox (actually more of a scroll), or Robert Walser’s Microscripts.
At the very least, the current boom, or miniboom, in big books should tell us that novelists still believe in this kind of reader. In the end, this may be enough to ensure her survival; just as the audience shapes the writer’s habits, the writer, by the demands she chooses to make on her imaginary readers, calls her audience into being. One of the underappreciated things about Franzen is that he writes as if the novel still (as Benjamin Kunkel puts it) “dominate[s] the landscape like a mountain range.” And lo and behold, there he is on the cover of Time!
One doesn’t want to draw a veil over the various corporate machinations that made that possible. At the end of the day, though, a large number of readers are, like their 19th Century antecedents, currently reading and thinking about and talking about a work of fiction whose physical dimensions signal a corresponding largeness of intellect and spirit. Surely, we can agree that that’s a good thing. For amid all the debatable, slippery stuff about our evolving consciousness, the relationship between the novel and a certain quality of attention appears to be inescapable. Whether in long or otherwise demanding books, or in long or otherwise demanding sentences, or in prodigious subtleties of perspective, writers of the 21st century continue to seek out an audience possessed of that attention. And, in defiance (so far) of predictions to the contrary, readers keep rising up to meet them.