On prolixity and abandonment

I have before me a mammoth work; an inexhaustible work; a work, so singular in its import, its vision and execution, that ordinary criteria all but wilt before it; a work which in recent decades has eluded the notice of all but the most adventuresome of readers; a work which I have been reading for some months now, but in which I have failed to progress even past the seventy page mark, in spite of my trying. What gives?

Angel in the Forest, by Marguerite Young, gives. It gives more in its first ten-page chapter than most books give in their entirety. It gives and it gives and then it keeps on giving. It gives more than most readers will care to take. It makes a gift of the world in all its multitudinous complexity; for one, by its endless inventories: its “surplus of deerskins, hogskins, bearskins, wolfskins, horsehides, raccoons, otter, muskrat, beaver, mink, rabbits, pork, venison, hog fat, tallow, quills, feathers, eggs, bristles, bacon, gunpowder, cloth, bags, honey, geese, cider, apples, yarns, chairs, shoes.”

Other inventories, more unruly and anarchic, bewilder all expectation, veer off into inscrutability:

Frederick walked in a larger maze than any he had planned, the wilderness, both actual and political. He was a traveling salesman, purely mundane. In that capacity, he had run into all kinds and conditions of men—desperadoes, carpenters, anchorites, botanists, Indian chieftains without tribes, counterfeiters, ragged tailors, preachers without congregations, blacksmiths, prostitutes who looked like fallen angels and smelled like skunks, giants, dwarfs, a mannish bearded lady in a Kentucky tavern, men whose canes concealed swords, false millenniasts, robber barons quoting the work of John Wesley, pregnant women, Shakers, a Punch-and-Judy show, coffinmakers, teamsters, human imagination gone hog-wild. (54)

Angel in the Forest is a singular work. Yet the reaction it produces in me is not singular, for, in reading other kindred works, I experience a similar sensation of bottomlessness, of being nearly incredulous at the riches they contain, riches which I will probably never be able to digest or fully process. We have seen but a tiny fraction of the whole, and even that tiny fraction boggles the mind. What of the whole in all its teeming, multitudinous immensity? I could adduce here for instance other generous boundary-defying works, whether of the canonized variety, or in a somewhat rather more arcane tradition, books that have stunned and awed me but which I have abandoned midway through. One could make a list of such works: Tristan Tzara’s poetry collection L’Homme approximatif; Georges Bataille’s L’experience intérieure; the Comte de Lautreamont’s Les Chants de Maldoror; Edward Dahlberg’s The Sorrows of Priapus and The Carnal Myth; Djuna Barnes’s Ryder; John Lyly’s two Euphues books from circa 1580. I could surely go on, but to what end? Are these works inexhaustible, or exhausting in their inexhaustiveness? Such works demand more of their readers than most want to give. It’s no wonder they suffer neglect: They are forever happily about their mad business, cheerfully so even, waiting to be discovered anew by hardy readers.

Nevertheless I have found it hard to account for my slowness and the combination of awe and trepidation which I feel before such a work as Angel in the Forest. The problem with such works (if there is one (and there surely isn’t—only with their sometimes readers, like myself, distracted before their gleaming riches)) is that “they exhaust you with their surplus brilliance after half a page.” There, I have borrowed an astute critic’s passing remark and taken it completely out of context (see Martin Amis, “No Laughing Matter,” The War on Cliché). But no matter, for the remark brings us more or less directly to the crux of the matter: These works have surplus brilliance, if not also surplus wit—they are prolixity itself. (Etymology: from Middle English, from Old French prolixe or Latin prolixus, meaning ‘poured forth, extended,’ from pro- ‘outward’ + liquere ‘be liquid’). 

“What a world lay in even a drop of water—immense futurities!” (54). She is right: on the one hand, about the scaleless, blooming complexity of the physical world; and on the other, with respect to the blooming of her prose, which ambitions to convey it to the reader. 

What was the variety of nature—but a construct of the imagination, a public fantasy, a veering, Athena with the face of Mary, Mary with the face of a woman who squatted on the road, as the pod of her body opened? The erection of a conclusive system would probably be forever beyond man’s powers, Frederick thought. There could be nothing simply and absolutely so—but many possibilities, alluring as bypaths, many visions, deformities, grandeurs, scandals, soldier kingdoms, overladen horses, warped glories, holy cities. The external world, on its entrance to the mind at Harmony, had been ferried from reality to the most fearful unreality—as if the kingdom of God cometh not with observation of nature. Suppose the gulf between the finite and infinite to be itself infinite, however? It would be better to accept the tangible reports of the sensations, wherever possible—parasitic tufts on the maple, a bird in the bush, hooked seeds, the zebra stripes of sunlight on dark grasses, orange trumpet flower, a woman’s breasts. Better to have been a nomadic pioneer, wanderer like nature herself, who leaves her footprints in the marshes. Better to have slept all night in an Indian village, among cripples, babies, and old, flea-bitten dogs. Better to have taken a chance with the worst of men, even the gambler, if he gambled for the love of gambling and not for the false love of a false God. For then men would at least be undeceived. (57)

In my after-the-fact rationalization of my literary abandonments of such masterpieces, I waver between ascribing my anomalous abandonments to laziness, or to something more profound and difficult to define. Perhaps there is a misplaced faith that the the act of “finishing” a book represents a kind of mastery of it and transforms the book into a trophy to adorn one’s shelf. Surely there is something in the refusal of that illusion of mastery. Would that we might be so undeceived!