A.S. Byatt, in her delicious, capacious, didactic, magical, magisterial new novel, The Children’s Book, both makes/recreates a world and tells a long, rich story. I confess that, though I love many minimalist works, this is the kind of writing that brought me into a life of reading and writing stories, helping other writers figure out how to tell their stories, spending many evenings in bookstores or auditoriums where people read their stories…a strange life for an adult. But I digress. And so does A.S. Byatt. And Orhan Pamuk and Salman Rushdie, two more of the writers who make fearlessly, recklessly dense and enticing worlds.
For a while, I admit it, I let myself be stampeded by the tyranny of the idea of “fast-paced” as an adjective of unquestioned admiration. “Slow-paced=bad, fast-paced=good” is the contemporary “Four-legs-good, two-legs-better.” It assumes that because our lives are whirling along at top speed we want our fiction to do so as well. A book had better be quick and easy to read: it’s competing with TV, the internet, the jobs, the life, the abundance of opportunity, and it had better not make too many demands -- not require us to have political or historical or artistic knowledge, and especially not ask us to have patience, or the ability to make a substantial commitment of time and focus. Following the leaps of these writers, though, is like dancing, suddenly figuring out how to do a new step and experiencing that surge of delighted discovery, as in the Rushdie passage below:
Chekhov had a few people over for dinner at his modern-style official residence in a private road in Hampstead: a Very Big Businessman he was wooing, journalists he liked, prominent India-lovers, noted Non-Resident Indians. The policy was business as usual. The dreadful event must not be seen to have derailed the ship of State: whose new captain, Chekhov mused, was a former pilot himself. As if a Sulu, a Chekhov had been suddenly promoted to the skipper's seat.
Damned difficult doing all this without a lady wife to act as hostess, he grumbled inwardly. The best golden plates with the many-headed lion at the centre, the finest crystal, the menu, the wines. Personnel had been seconded from India House to help them out, but it wasn't the same. The secrets of good evenings, like God, were in the details. Chekhov meddled and fretted.
The evening went off well. Over brandy, Chekhov even dared to introduce a blacker note. "England has always been a breeding ground for our revolutionists," he said. "What would Pandit Nehru have been without Harrow? Or Gandhiji without his formative experiences here? Even the Pakistan idea was dreamed up by young radicals at college in what we then were asked to think of as the Mother Country. Now that England's status has declined, I suppose it is logical that the quality of the revolutionists she breeds has likewise fallen. The Kashmiris! Not a hope in hell. And as for these Khalistan types, let them not think that they are evil deed has brought their dream a day closer. On the contrary. On the contrary. We will root them out and smash them to -- what's the right word? -- to smithereens."
-Salman Rushdie, “Chekov and Zulu,” from East, West (164)
The revolution that the makers of large, rich, demanding worlds-in-the-form-of-novels offer us is that of turning all the electronics off and settling into a different time frame. “Fast-paced,” while excellent for water-skiing, doesn’t leave any time for exploring the underground caverns, or the depth and richness of life underseas. And “slow-paced” may be exactly what we need -- to stop and think, to achieve a new perspective. The books I’m reading now, though, can’t be fit into either of those boxes -- they rush along with long sentences, jumping over great swathes of time -- but then they also force a reader to slow down and fully enter their worlds.
I’ve recently finished Rushdie’s East, West and Haroun and the Sea of Stories, and now am reading Children’s Book and making notes on Pamuk’s My Name is Red for teaching this winter. On the nonfiction side I’m making my way through, among other things, Norman Doidge’s Brain that Changes Itself, an examination of the scientists studying the plasticity of the brain and the ways people remake their brains. The old maps of the brain, with their fixed functions and locations, seem Newtonian, by contrast.
We say, as if it were speculative, that spending so much of the day on the internet might be changing our brains (now that we have proof that they do keep changing, long after childhood ends): of course it does. Maybe the time we spend reading, especially reading books that may require us to make new pathways in our minds -- just as learning new dances seems to help protect against Alzheimer’s -- is a counter-revolution in our brain transformation. Whatever we lose in multi-tasking may be returned to us by long, rich stories. And some of what we lose (perhaps) by increasing numbers of attenuated internet relationships may be returned to us in our imaginative relationships with characters we come to know deeply:
Dorothy had indeed, more or less accurately, followed Philip's thoughts. She did not know how she had done that. She was a clever, careful child, who liked to think of herself as unhappy. Faced with Philip's hunger and reticence, she was forced, because she had been brought up in the Fabian atmosphere of rational social justice, to admit that she had "no right" to feel unhappy, since she was exceedingly privileged. She was unhappy, she told herself, for frivolous reasons. Because, as the oldest girl, she was treated as a substitute nanny. Because she was not a boy, and did not have a tutor, as Tom did, to teach her maths and languages. Because Phyllis was pretty and spoiled, and more loved than she was. Because Tom was much more loved. Because she wanted something and did not know what it was.
She was just eleven -- born in 1884, "the same year as the Fabian Society," Violet pointed out. They had been the Fellowship of the New Life, in those days, and Dorothy was the new life, drawing in socialist ideals with her early milk. The grown-ups made further pointed and risky jokes across and about her, which irritated her. She didn't like to be talked about. Equally, she didn't like not to be talked about, when the high-minded chatterer rushed on as though she was not there. There was no pleasing her, in fact. She had the grace, even at 11, to know there was no pleasing her.
She thought a lot, analytically, about other people's feelings, and had only just begun to realize that this was not usual, and not reciprocated. She was busy thinking about Philip. He thinks we are being kind out of condescension, whereas actually that isn't so, we are just being friendly, like we always are, but it makes him suspicious. He doesn't really want us to know about where he comes from. Mother thinks his home is unhappy and his family are cruel -- that's one of her favorite stories. She ought to see -- I can see -- he doesn't like that. I think he feels bad because they don't know where he is or how he is. He feels more bad now we're making all this fuss of him than he did hiding under the Museum.
-A.S. Byatt, The Children’s Book (27-28)
Part of what’s brought all these thoughts together for me is the Husain Haddawy translation of The Arabian Nights (from Norton, “based on the text of the fourteenth-century Syrian manuscript, edited by Muhsin Mahdi” and translucently free of earlier barbarisms, Orientalism, expurgations, and additions). It’s The Arabian Nights that serves as one of the primary lineage lines for all the others. Story unfolds from story -- just as we remember from childhood or earlier versions, but here with all the poetry returned. And it’s a re-education in patience, in postponement, in holding an array of stories in different tones and moods in your head all at once. (I know people who read one book at a time, and I usually wish I could also choose only one thing and set everything else aside, but maybe those of us who read ten or twenty things “at the same time” -- in a kind of rotation, at least -- can stop blaming ourselves for yet more multi-tasking and console ourselves with the idea that we’re creating our own kind of Arabian Nights juxtaposition of ideas and moods and stories.)
The other night, in Berkeley, I became part of a large, ruly mob of Orhan Pamuk fans who crammed ourselves into the pews of the Congregational Church near UC Berkeley to hear what he had to say: a mix of jokes and historical information and digressions and literary and political opinions pouring out with a speed and brilliance that made a two-hour evening about as exhausting and exhilarating as chasing quintuplets while trying to listen to some alternate-world version of the evening news, in which everything appeared in all its historical context and outrageous possibilities. It’s not as simple as fast-paced/slow-paced, but both at once, a torrent of words and imagery and then a complexity of thought that demands that we remake ourselves (our brains as well as our imaginations) in order to receive it.