Lately I’ve been pushing Cesar Aira on people, which means I’m having a lot of conversations these days about how Americans don’t respect short novels. They’re insubstantial. They offend our sense of value, always measured by the gross poundage we get per dollar. Let’s just go ahead and say it: they feel European, like one of those pathetic little smart cars.
Cesar Aira seems almost designed to refute these culturally wired reactions against the short novel. Yes, his novels can be read quickly, but they’re so intricately crafted and clever in their ambiguity that any good reader will be pulled back to look back through them again and again. Their value is in the fact that they resist interpretation: they will challenge you far more, keep you thinking longer, and ultimately entertain you better than many a long work. I think of them as the literary equivalent of a beautifully built box that sits on your desk. Yes, it’s a box, that’s all it is. It doesn’t really “do” anything. But it’s so finely crafted and cared over that you’ll find yourself staring at that box for ages, noticing detail after detail, and you’ll love putting stuff in it and watching how smartly the lid slips out just so as you open it, revealing a beautiful inlay. And then one day you will discover the world in it.
Which all brings me to Don DeLillo, who seems to have once again offended many critics by writing another wee, dense novel. Forget that Falling Man is the best post-9/11 novel that I’ve read, dwarfing in stature many swollen collections of pages devoid of the lasting thought and value that you will find therein. Falling Man can’t be that serious because it’s “only” 256 pages, and anyone knows you need at least 400 to do justice to 9/11. (And when did 256 pages become so short? Good thing we weren’t judging DeLillo by pagecount back in the Great Jones Street days.) So with the precedent of Falling Man behind us (to say nothing of Cosmopolis, 224 pages (!)) you can imaging how ripped-off critics felt with the 120-page Point Omega.Only 120 pages? How could DeLillo have possibly said anything of importance with just 120 pages?
John G. Rodwan, Jr has a good reply:
Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Mathew Sharpe notices that critics of The Body Artist, Cosmopolis and Falling Man “seem to want DeLillo to be the Babe Ruth of novelist, to keep writing Underworld and Libra, those long, magisterial books about big events.” He correctly anticipated that such readers would not see Point Omega as “a literary home run.” Even though Sharpe is one of those people who reads novels as being only and ever “about” things, he discerns that Point Omega, even without Libra’s political assassination, White Noise’s airborne toxic event or Underworld’s cold war-era atomic anxiety, could still be “a splendid, fierce novel by a deep practitioner of the form.”
Readers who look to DeLillo as “a kind of secular prophet” (as Esquire’s Alsup describes him) seem to expect answers from him, but he prefers to ask questions. What causes people to surrender their individuality, to lose themselves in crowds or causes – or works of art? What convinces terrorists and dictators to disregard and destroy individuals in pursuit of their aims? How do artists retain and develop their individual identities, explore other people’s identities and persuade people that doing such things matters? Practitioners of both creative activity and political violence aim to make people looks at things in a certain way; what are the implications of this?
Indeed, DeLillo poses the kinds of questions that are worth asking, the ones that take a novel-worth of writing (even a short novel’s worth) to pose properly and that can’t be summed up with a nice little moral at the end. For some great responses to these questions, read Rodwan’s piece. For a lot of not-so-great responses to these questions, read most (though not all, it must be said) of the reviews he quotes.