“Such are the perfections of fiction...Everything it teaches is useless insofar as structuring your life: you can’t prop up anything with fiction. It, in fact, teaches you just that. That in order to attempt to employ its specific wisdom is a sign of madness...There is more profit in an hour’s talk with Billy Graham than in a reading of Joyce. Graham might conceivably make you sick, so that you might move, go somewhere to get well. But Joyce just sends you out into the street, where the world goes on, solid as a bus. If you met Joyce and said 'Help me,' he’d hand you a copy of Finnegans Wake. You could both cry.” – Gilbert Sorrentino, Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Struggling through Peter Nadas's Parallel Stories

Peter Nadas's 1138-page novel Parallel Stores was published by Farrar Straus and Giroux at the end of October, and it's being touted, by its publishers at least, as a Proustian "masterwork" of world literature, much in the way that Roberto Bolano's 2666 (not coincidentally also published by FSG) was back in 2008. The novel took Nadas seventeen years to write, and was another four in translation, so it has been germinating for a long time. The book has also begun to receive some glowing reviews (see here, here and here). Before talking a little more about why I think there's good reason to be skeptical of these claims, I want to note two things: 1) there are some absolutely brilliant moments in the book (the opening forty pages, in particular, are excellent), and 2) I actually have only read about 400 pages of it. I realize that point #2 should disqualify me from making any comment at all, but I think there are very specific local issues with the book, and I haven't yet seen these noted in detail, although Scott Esposito's post at Conversational Reading does deal with many of the other problems (and this post is also meant to serve as an explanation of why I am unlikely to finish the book).

Parallel Stories does many things well: its ability to shift between perspectives and characters, often across decades, in a single sentence is impressive and effective, even if it isn't particularly inventive or new (these kinds of shifts, to my mind, are pretty much the stock gesture of what we conceive of as literary Modernism, as evidenced in Joyce, Faulkner, Proust, Woolf, etc., etc.). Moreover, Nadas does a good job of creating a consistently tense atmosphere, and his psychological evocation of characters, particularly the young Dohring and Gyongyver, are also wonderfully evoked, if also heavily indebted to the Modernist psychological novel [Added later: yes, I just said that an "evocation" is "wonderfully evoked," proving that this editor needs an editor]. But the problems with the book are legion and, to my mind, fairly obvious.

Despite all of the brilliant bits in the book, there's basically just no excuse for passages like this: "To this day, he urinated like a little boy. He did not pull back his wrinkly, unusually long, funnel-shaped and pointy foreskin from his bulb, and when he finished he barely shook his member, letting some of the fluid be smeared on his fingers. He'd dig in with his fingers between his thighs under the testicles, where he always found for himself some worthy odor. Only rarely did he risk invading the cheeks of his buttocks to touch the crimped edge of his contracted anus. Perhaps to rub it just a little bit, to reach into it, as an experiment. But it did happen on occasion. The various odors nicely mingled on his fingers where he preserved them for the rest of the day. He saved them for the night, when he would have unhindered access to his body, though he had to be on his guard in the bluish light of the dormitory, listen for and follow with open eyes every little stirring [...]When he couldn't tuck his weenie between his thighs, or couldn't touch it, not even through his pants, because in the boarding school everybody was watching everybody else all the time, he consoled himself with these odors. And this remained the same later too, with his cock, though its odor had become more penetrating."

One's ability to enjoy Parallel Stories is predicated on whether or not you find this kind of writing revelatory, especially since such passages appear on virtually every other page.

Look, I'm not trying to be a prude here--I like Swift's scatological poems, and Joyce's Ulysses and Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, which both have passages that deal with similar, uh, material--but the frequent passages like the above seem indicative of a kind of facile Freudianism (one that's unfair to Freud), which permeates Parallel Stories. One review of the novel, which annoyingly praises Parallel Stories for its "almost Facebook-like approach" also claims that what is remarkable about the book is how it makes "you painfully more aware of your physical body." Although I suspect this was Nadas's intent, I don't think it justifies the ceaseless repetition of passages like the above, and, moreover, the fact is that Nadas's focus on the body, with a few exceptions, is almost always scatological; in this sense, the book actually ignores most of the body in order to focus on a specific set of bodily processes.

I generally like long and "difficult" books, but there's a danger in calling every long and difficult book brilliant simply because of its length and difficulty. Parallel Stories is not a disaster on the level of Harold Brodkey's Runaway Soul, but neither is it a book on par with The Recognitions or 2666. Like many other long books that display brilliance, but aren't complete successes--and I'm thinking of books like William Gass's The Tunnel and Joshua Cohen's Witz, which both veer between the enlightened and the simply tedious--there's no point in attempting to ignore Parallel Stories' significant flaws. And, to me, viewing such work uncritically also gives ammunition to those anti-intellectual readers who believe only pretentious snobs enjoy reading "difficult" books...

Anyway, I am still hoping to finish Parallel Stories, but given my experience thus far, it's probably something I will return to now and then over the course of the next year, rather than feeling compelled to read all of it at once.


brooks said...

I found your site while looking for info on Parallel Stories. Thanks for your review! It feels like people are falling all over themselves in an effort to say how wonderful it is. I'm certainly interested in reading it - but with the other door-stop books I've got sitting around here (1Q84, The Instructions, A Moment In The Sun) I'm not sure if I'll ever get to it!

Steven Augustine said...

"Parallel Stories is not a disaster on the level of Harold Brodkey's Runaway Soul..."

Runaway Soul is unfashionable, yes; a "disaster", no... unless Beckett's "Molloy" is a disaster. In which case: more "disasters", please! What is a "complete success", in book form, and how much work is required, on the part of the reader, to make this determination... credibly?

I think we read too much (cram/ skim/ stack our conquests on the nightstand) and therefore read too fast and, as a consequence, make too many consensus-abetted snap-judgments.

Brodkey is funny, here, on Beckett (at the 15:00 mark, I think)


Emmett Stinson said...

Thanks for your comment, Stephen, and for the video link. It's been a decade since I've read Brodkey, and my taste has changed quite a bit in the interim, so it's possible there's more merit to the book than I recall. At the time, I really loved many of Brodkey's early short stories (though not all of them), and so I had high expectations of the book, which may also have affected my opinion.

I will briefly note an objection to the following, however: "I think we read too much (cram/ skim/ stack our conquests on the nightstand) and therefore read too fast and, as a consequence, make too many consensus-abetted snap-judgments." I hope it's clear from this blog that I absolutely don't do this (and, in fact, this post was written in response to a consensus around a book that wasn't borne out by my reading). I've tried to emphasise this here by admitting that I haven't finished Parallel Stories, and to explain why I wouldn't...rather than just skimming/cramming it and describing it as a "masterpiece"...

Steven Augustine said...

Emmett, that second part of my comment ("cram/skim") was connected to the first bit in a from-specifics-to-generalities way; I don't think *you've* been cramming and skimming (I haven't been keeping you under surveillance--- laugh), but I do think that Runaway Soul's generally catastrophic dismissal (in America) was owing, in part, to just that.

Ironically, I've recently read praise for Runaway Soul that compared it, favorably, to Underworld... on the basis that DeLillo was supposedly more interested in "global events" than in particulars of character! Ie: the article-writer had not read very much of Underworld!

Steven Augustine said...

PS Are you familiar with this one...? In one or two ways it's remarkable:


Post a Comment