I don’t think it’s controversial at all to say that in the past decade or so, the great majority of the real shoot-for-the-moon, thrilling novels published in English have appeared in translation. Things life Freedom and The Goldfinch may pack in a lot of pages, but in terms of style, theme, and structure, they’re extremely tame. They’re page-turners that are mean to be plowed through, and if you don’t linger over the prose that’s because there’s little there to linger over. They don’t take risks, and they give their audience that they want.
Here’s a book that does none of that.
Increasingly, the truly audacious novels published in English are not originally written in this language, but are translated into it. Consider the projects that have appeared here in just the past five years: the My Struggle sextet by Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard, thousands of pages in length and regularly compared to classics of Modernist literature. Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, an epic of language, geography, politics, and horror. Parallel Stories by Peter Nádas, over a decade in the making and an attempt to sum up all of postwar Eastern Europe. Mathias Énard’s single-sentence, 500-page novel Zone, telling the 2,000-year history of the Mediterranean. The baroque disasters brought to us by Laszlo Krasznahorkai . . .
The list goes on. These books are not only lengthy and ambitious in their subject matter, but they are also formally challenging and take considerable risks with language: extremely long sentences (some as long as fifty pages or more), the incorporation of arcane terminology, the use of mathematical logic and symbols as a part of the prose. It is no exaggeration to call them the works that are driving the novel forward in the twenty-first century, and they are increasingly being studied by students of writing in the United States. To their ranks must be added Mircea Cărtărescu’s 1,500-page Blinding trilogy, originally published in Romanian across the decade from 1996 to 2007, and the first book of which has been published in English this year in Sean Cotter’s marvelous translation.
Insofar as I comprehend it—insofar as it can be comprehended—the aim of this octopus-like work, which seems to move in several different directions on each page . . .