According to Storygraph, the service I use to track my reading and occasionally provide recommendations, just over half of the books I have read this year are over 300 pages long. A quick google shows me that 300-350 pages are in the ‘safe zone’– the length that’s considered more or less ideal for a novel aimed at an adult reader; the novel equivalent of the three minute pop song. There are exceptions, and that ‘ideal length’ fluctuates from time to time, but basically that’s ‘novel length’. I’ve read five books this year that break that rule fairly hard– from “Leviathan Falls” at 516 to “The Complete book of the New Sun” (originally published as separate volumes) at 1916, and I am somewhere in latter third of “Bubblegum”, which is 780 pages or so.
I’ve always liked longer books– there’s something about losing yourself in the world as completely as possible. But they have to earn that, to some degree. I wrote a while ago about Moby Dick as sort of a drone– a novel that goes on because it *has* to, and that’s generally my take with any piece of long-form art. Does it *have* to go on the way it does? And I don’t know if “Bubblegum” does, yet. I’m going to reserve that judgement until I’m done; and I will finish– it deserves that. But there are parts that confuse me– there’s a very lengthy chapter which describes, in detail, a video collage-style documentary. My notes read “I GET IT”. There is a lengthy digression about putting honey in coffee. There’s a whole boatload of backstory, and the novel is told out of chronological order; the pieces are made to fit together, but the distance between setup and payoff is sometimes hundreds of pages, and the book overall rewards a close reading; dates are inferred by pop culture references (which leads me to wonder what someone who had never heard of, say “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” would make of it), but sometimes they are spelled out– which can be significant or insignificant, depending.
In all of that, it reminded me of “The Recognitions”, which also is jam packed with obscure references (which, unlike this novel, I had to look up), inferred dates, and has a scrambled narrative. But all of the sprawl of “The Recognitions” felt, as I said before, like it *had* to go on. I’m not convinced that “Bubblegum” does.
Unlike other works I’ve jabbered on about here though, I’m not sure I’m right. It’s fascinating to me in its own way. What does it mean to ‘have to go on’ anyway? In some cases, especially in a lot of fantasy (a genre I don’t spend a lot of time on) it’s done for world building reasons. A lot of fantasy creates a large, alternate history, and history is expansive. It’s notable that the longest book I read this year is (depending on your perspective) fantasy or sci fi. This goes back to the original ‘epics’ — long poems which recounted histories (or deeds). World building can be interesting, but it can very easily fall into a trap of having everyone explain everything, which drives me a little spare.
Epic fantasy (and epic sci fi) are, by and large contract reads. Lengthy status novels are something else. In something like “ducks, newburyport” which is very much a status read, a woman does some baking in her kitchen and free associates the story of her life; there’s no moment to moment narrative to cling to. And it does this for over 1,000 pages, without a lot of punctuation (“the fact that” is a phrase which separates a lot of ‘sentences’)— it’s designed to be a challenging read. I enjoyed it, but honestly, after a while I felt like I was listening to a brilliant musician who didn’t know when to stop playing. Someone more in tune with its quirks may feel differently. But because of its nature, it could, in theory, just keep going. In fact, I found the way that it chooses to finish odd and unsatisfying, but are you ever going to be satisfied with the way 1,000 pages of stream of consciousness writing comes to an end?
Unlike “ducks, newburyport”, “Bubblegum” seems to be attempting to tie its threads together. Some of the subsections of the book are divided by a set of three dots, arranged in a lopsided triangle; at one point in the book, these dots are narratively significant. It’s of note that the narrator is possibly schizophrenic— these associations may or may not be a part of his disorder. It’s a journey worth considering; and when it comes to an end, I’ll write some more about it in detail.