One of the things I like about novels is that they’re excessive by nature. My creative writing teacher in college made the point that short stories are snapshots – perfect little bubbles in time – and novels are more like films, much larger, with much larger scope, and not necessarily as clean; but I still don’t think this really captures the expansive nature of novels, which are capable of going down rabbitholes and exploring avenues of thought film just doesn’t have the resources or time or even the ability to do.
This is not to say that all novels, by nature of their medium, contain excess: Dashiell Hammett’s work is as efficient and engineered as a scalpel, without a trace of fat on it, neither needing more nor wanting it. Nor does it mean that excess is a virtue in novels: tepid navel-gazing will always be an offense, without question.
But there are certain works that somehow use the everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach to writing to marvelous effect, huge, magnificent dirigibles of books that build and build until they’re towering cumulus clouds of words that can only dash themselves apart in the end, victims of their own tremendous gravity.
These are the “hot mess” novels I know and love, the tomes of excess that I find tremendously exciting for the same reason I find mountains and skyscrapers exciting: they are, when they work, enormous accomplishments utilizing huge forces, often with a lot of style.
However, this style of book is profoundly hard to actually make work, unsurprisingly: size and scope do not justify themselves. Materials and fatigue are factors in books just as much as in physics, so the issue is one of structural support.
In other words, to make big stories work, one must write about big things.
This is why I doubt if anyone ever sits down, says, “I’d like to write a really, really big book,” and does so to any degree of success. Hot mess novels of excess (if you will, HMNoEs from here on out), if they ever work, work because the author is examining a big subject they feel deeply ambiguous about, a subject with a lot of facets and sides to it. As Neil Gaiman put it, “I write to figure out how I feel about things,” and in the case of HMNoEs, the author is usually trying to figure out how they feel about something very big.
So, size does not justify itself: rather, the scope of the novel is often forced to fit the subject.
Another requisite needed to make a HMNoE work, I think, is voice, one of the most abstract, vague, frustrating, but absolutely necessary components of any story. However, in the case of a HMNoE, it’s doubly needed, because if you’re expecting readers to sit through a 200,000-plus word story exploring dozens of facets of this one big abstract, you sure as shit had better have a compelling voice for them to listen to. Otherwise they’ll walk away, like any reasonable person would.
So what are some books I consider to be great HMNoEs?
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is a horrible book to take on an airplane, yet this is exactly what I did in 2010, on a trip to Spain with my wife: I ran around airports all over Europe with this massive, huge brick of paper stuffed under my arm, into my bags, into the side of my seat, etc. (The book turned out to be important in a lot of ways.) But the size of this book is, I think, warranted: Susana Clarke is not writing about magic, but about England, about its history, about its many moral transgressions, and you can tell right at once she both loves England’s past (hence the chilly romanticism with which magic is viewed) and hates it (hence the examination of the brutal racism, prejudice, class divides, and callous, gleeful war).
And she has a powerful voice and mechanism to go with it, an involving, thoughtful, clever pastiche of Austen meets Academia. She explores a big, complicated subject she feels decidedly ambiguous about, and does so in an interesting, unique fashion I found terrifically engaging.
A second example of a HMNoE would be, bizarrely, Craig Ferguson’s Between the Bridge and the Water.
Yes, the Craig Ferguson: it’s frustrating and irritating that someone who’s had success as a comedian and talk show host should also prove to be a pretty damn good writer.
Between the Bridge and the Water is one of those Vonnegut-like all-over-the-place anywhere-and-everything books, a story about (somewhat) two Scotsmen who grow up very differently: one becomes a washed up Hollywood entertainer, the other lives a mildly contented middle class life until being diagnosed with terminal cancer. The book examines the following days and weeks of their lives as they try and grapple with their stations.
Is the book about death? Yes. Is it about Hollywood? Check. Is it about God? Why, yes. Is it about despair? Sure. Is it about Scotland? Possibly, yes.
This is probably the hot-messiest of the HMNoEs, a giant, galloping, rambunctious tale of philosophy that probably only succeeds because of Ferguson’s autobiographic touches and his Vonnegut-like asides, where he explains to the reader that, say, rage is genetically inherited, explaining why African-Americans, Celts, and Native Americans sometimes seem to have problems with their temper: past traumas echo through to the present, and they’re hearing them. It’s this kind of shit that would be the very first thing to get cut in a clean, streamlined, plot-oriented novel, but succeeds pretty well in a HMNoE, which neither knows boundaries nor cares to.
Another HMNoE – from an author more or less known, if not loved, for making HMNoEs – is Cryptonomicon, a huge, sprawling, hyperactive tome exploring, well, technology and cryptology’s effects on the globe for over nearly 70 years.
So, yes. A very big subject indeed.
The story unfolds in two eras: one, during the Second World War, as a borderline-autistic savant skyrockets to the top of the Allied code efforts; the second in the late 90’s, just past the peak of the tech boom, as the savant’s grandson attempts to create an international safehaven, with much corporate malfeasance.
However, I personally think that Stephenson’s book might actually explore the story of the techie: the usually white, beta-male-ish, fairly-out-of-touch technology guru who inevitably finds himself butting heads with his usually more masculine, aggressive counterparts – and winning. Though this lens, it makes sense that Stephenson spends pages and pages exploring:
- Charts and graphs examining how much satisfaction masturbation or sex provides, and when, and with who.
- Why tech nerds do not like to wear suits, and why they like cereal so much.
- What it’s like to not know how to dance but to have to dance with a fairly attractive woman.
- The eternal struggle between IT reps and the IT users.
- What it’s like to be at a table of big important businessmen, just because you’re the tech guy.
- What it’s like to not masturbate for weeks and weeks and weeks.
Is any of this necessary to the plot? Hell no. Is it necessary to understand how a brainy breed of beta-male rose to be the dominant force in the global economy? Probably, yes.
And my last HMNoE is… difficult. I am not sure if it’s either a hot mess, or if it’s excessive… because the nature of this book is so elusive, and frequently so impenetrable, that even though I’ve read it three times I’m still not quite sure what to say about it.
Little, Big by John Crowley is a story about the Drinkwater family, who live in a large house in New England. The nature of this house is strange: in places it expands, in others it contracts; though one is never quite sure of this. The same could be said of the woods surrounding the house: their nature throughout the book is hinted at, but never totally explored.
Because, you see, there are fairies living in the woods. The fairies, for reasons unknown, are influencing, affecting, and preparing the Drinkwaters for… something. This preparation takes decades and generations to arrange, and each generation of the Drinkwaters is led on their own path: some to the woods, some to the house, and some to the city, unnamed and far away.
This is a meandering, twisting, beautiful, and sometimes frustrating story that explores family, fate, nature, and responsibility in a manner so peripheral, so quixotic, so metaphysical, that it’s difficult for me to tell what is excessive and what is not – and I definitely can’t apply the term “hot mess” to it, by a long shot. It wanders many paths through many strange places, content with its own slow, summer-day-lazy pace and its metaphysical twist on everything, and doesn’t even bother to try to construct a pneumatic, high-functioning plot – to, in my opinion, great success.
Little, Big, as you might guess, was a very big influence on my own HMNoE: both it and American Elsewhere are about an isolated community being influenced by hidden things in the countryside. (There the comparison ends: I don’t claim to be anywhere as good of a writer as Crowley.) It might be because both books are about communities with lots of people, but I will say that I know I never sat down to write a HMNoE, yet nor do I regret writing such a very long and often excessive book.
This is because I felt, and still feel, deeply ambiguous about the book’s subject.
American Elsewhere is a book about nostalgia, about how we know such wistful reminiscence is a romanticized lie, but we love it anyway.
It is a book about trying, strenuously, to be happy, and how such efforts frequently fail.
It is a book about how we try to mimic pictures, not realizing that the beatific joy of an old photo is likely more in our heads than the photo.
It is a book about mid-century America, about optimism, about the West, and about the future.
It is about our parents, and our grandparents, and the unfounded jealousy later generations feel for those who lived in a supposed Golden Age.
It is a book about the American Dream, a mutt of a national self-image, pulling from many places and times.
And it is about how trying to live this dream often brings not joy, but bitter harm.
At least, I think it is about these things: to be frank, writers never really know entirely what they’re writing about, anymore than they know themselves.
When you’re not sure how you feel about what you’re writing about, you want to do what anyone else would: you want to look at it from a different angle. This is what I found myself doing in American Elsewhere, looking at Wink not just from the point of views of the protagonists and the antagonists, but from those of the people who live there, from the people trapped within this thing that I, the writer, was looking at.
It stopped being a story about a woman trying to know her mother, and started being the story of a town, told from the point of view of many of the town’s inhabitants. And each time I looked at Wink through a new set of eyes, I saw a little more of it, and learned a little more.
Will I ever write a HMNoE like American Elsewhere again? Probably not. I felt vastly divided about the many things I looked at in that book, and I doubt if I’ll ever feel that way about a subject again.
After all, when you think about it, most books – if not most art – are functionally unnecessary. And when I consider the usefulness and function of any single book, or even any scene in a book, I’m often reminded of a story:
It’s said that in Paris in 1783, when Benjamin Franklin watched two balloonists sail away into the air, a bystander scoffed, and asked what the use of such frippery could be; Franklin’s simple response was, “What’s the use of a newborn baby?”
Excessive novels, perhaps, explore big, unknown territories, and one must release quite a lot of balloons to see the whole of them – and though an author might not be able to argue that all their balloons are necessary, nor can they imagine doing away with a single one.