What is the maximalist novel? Yes, it’s a novel that takes a long time to read. But more than that, it is its own genre aiming at a totalising representation of the world in a single work of fiction. In his book The Maximalist Novel: From Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow to Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, recently out in paperback, critic Stefano Ercolino defined and delineated this genre as one of the most significant literary products of postmodern culture.
Ercolino studied at the University of L’Aquila and then moved to the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Sydney, and the Freie Universität Berlin. As a Fulbright Grantee at Stanford University he worked on the novel-essay (his monograph The Novel-Essay, 1884-1947 was published in 2014), under that titan of literacy criticism, Franco Moretti. To understand the maximalist novel, Ercolino draws a line from Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow and continues through Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, Underworld by Don DeLillo, White Teeth by Zadie Smith, The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen, 2666 by Roberto Bolaño and, finally, the untranslated Italian novel, 2005 dopo cristo by Babette Factory.
According to Ercolino, there are ten elements that are co-present in all of these novels:
1. Length (the novels are very long).
2. Encyclopaedic Mode (novels as archives).
3. Dissonant Chorality (composed as a chorus, but lacking in harmony).
4. Diegetic Exuberance (multi-plot organisation of the narrative and proliferation of digressions).
5. Completeness (reading it is to enter a unique and self-contained world).
6. Narratorial Omniscience
7. Paranoid Imagination (finding patterns in chaos).
8. Intersemioticity (referencing other artistic languages, especially the visual arts).
9. Ethical Commitment (engaging with contemporary ethical issues).
10. Hybrid Realism (the fictional world, generally, follows the laws of physics).
Maximalist novels are large works that will strain the hands if you read them while standing on the bus. And to encompass these various books and trace out a common strand of meaning—to comprehend order in their chaotic vision of the world—is quite a task. Simply put the maximalist novel exists, according to Ercolino, to show the reader what it means to be human in the postmodern age.
Ercolino researches and teaches the maximalist novel and the novel-essay at Yonsei University’s Underwood International College in Seoul, South Korea. We had our discussion in a small café in a part of Seoul called Digital Media City and I started by asking about the difference between the maximalist novel and the novel-essay.
Stefano Ercolino: They are two distinct novel genres. What they share is a certain attraction to totality and the fact that they are both hybrid forms. Morphologically speaking, the novel-essay—think of The Man without Qualities by Robert Musil, for instance—combines chiefly two literary forms: the novel and the essay. The maximalist novel includes essayistic passages as well but it aims to address the complexity of the contemporary world by raiding the whole morphosphere of the Western novel. The maximalist novel and the novel-essay also differ in terms of origin and symbolic function: the novel-essay was born in fin-de-siècle Europe to try to make sense of the demise of the ideological apparatus of modernity.
JE: So as a reaction to the death throes of a cultural period?
Yes, meditating upon, but also trying to posit a utopian answer. In the last decades of the nineteenth century, by hybridizing the novel with the essay, the novel as a form tried, at the aesthetic and symbolic level, to put back together the pieces of a fading world. Some of the most significant works by Joris-Karl Huysmans, Walter Pater, and August Strindberg can be read in this sense. The same impetus was later used to ponder the catastrophes of both the first and second world wars.
You note Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow as a keystone in the growth of the maximalist novel. It is interesting how this work also mediates on the fall out of the second world war.
Yes, but here we can see how the maximalist novel differs from the novel-essay and this speaks to its roots. Unlike the state of collapse that served as the background to the emergence and development of the novel-essay, the maximalist novel appeared during the ‘boom’ period after the second world war. Along with new internal and external social and political conflicts, when William Gaddis published The Recognitions (1955) the United States were undertaking an intense economic expansion.
You start your discussion of the maximalist novel with Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon. But this novel seems obsessed not with growth, but with the apocalypse. And it’s interesting how the apocalypse changes in maximalist novels. If we look at newer versions of the maximalist novel, such as Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections (2001) it seems like the apocalypse has come and gone and now everything is numb. For Chip sex is numbing and he can only perform after taking the fictional aphrodisiac Mexican A(slan). The mother, Enid, is also emotionally numb and hence she sings the glories of both cookie-cutter suburbs and banal cruise ships.
Also the 1990s maximalist novel is haunted by images of large-scale destruction. In Infinite Jest the apocalypse is encoded even into the plot. Infinite Jest is the title of the novel and, inside of that novel, the title of the video cartridge that will kill anybody who watches it. The terrorist group named the ‘Wheelchair Assassins’ want to disseminate this lethal form of entertainment to exterminate the American people. In The Corrections something has changed. Franzen’s novel was published when the millennial anxieties of the maximalist novels from the 1990s had partially vanished. The relative absence of the apocalypse in this novel is an exception due, probably, to its predominant obsession with petty-bourgeois concerns. But, in Bolaño’s 2666 and 2005 dopo Cristo by Babette Factory the apocalypse returns with a vengeance.
And yet this view of the apocalypse is missing its pilot: the Antichrist.
The Biblical Apocalypse has often been resemantised as a lay apocalypse in postmodernity. This applies to Underworld, for instance. J. Edgar Hoover’s fetishisation of Pieter Bruegel’s The Triumph of Death, with its horrific display of skeletons slaying men, is a telling clue: no God, no Antichrist and no possibility of redemption. The apocalypse as envisaged in Underworld is similar to The Triumph of Death’s, however it’s not skeletons with sickles but a nuclear holocaust—an apocalypse that was thought of, generated and delivered by man. Yet a strain of a disguised, half-serious, mysticism does linger through the pages, such as the apparition of little Esmeralda’s face on a Minute Maid billboard in the wastelands of the Bronx. In line with postmodernism’s aversion to strong categories, no surprise that, in the maximalist novel’s imagining the apocalypse, the sacred is often degraded. In the post-apocalyptic world of Gravity’s Rainbow we can already see how drugs are a gateway to the sacred, laying bare the conspiracy theory credo that everything is connected.
The paranoid imagination is a key trope of the maximalist novel. In Gravity’s Rainbow and Underworld there seems to be knowledge that the sacred is out there but it is only the paranoids that seem interested in finding it. It’s ‘sane’ people that are blind to the existence of the sacred, thus, making the paranoids kind of secular age prophets.
Essentially, in the maximalist novel the paranoid imagination embodies a desire for meaning as the contemporary world has become indecipherable.
In postmodernity, the paranoid imagination started as an American phenomenon. But as the maximalist novel migrated to Europe did this paranoid imagination move with it?
There is certainly something specific in the connection between paranoia and American fiction—the latter’s obsession with plots of all kinds is overt and very well researched by now. However, in the case of the maximalist novel it would be more correct to consider its paranoid search for signifying patterns within the chaos of contemporary existence from a transnational perspective. For regardless of geographic boundaries, postmodern culture as a whole has often looked at paranoia as a possibility to reinterpret ancient anthropological needs, such as the yearning for transcendence. This is true for Gravity’s Rainbow and Underworld as much as it is for 2005 dopo Cristo.
Milan Kundera, in his book The Art of the Novel, argues that there are two divergent paths that the novel took at its inception in the eighteenth century. There was the realist tradition of Defoe and Fielding, and the anti-realist tradition of Sterne. Kundera believes it was a mistake that the novel followed the realist tradition when it should have followed the anti-realist Sterne. The maximalist novel seems like a new chapter in the Sternian tradition.
There would be morphological features of the maximalist novel that point in that direction: the great amount of digressions, the multi-plot organisation of the narrative, the encyclopaedic, at times playful, attitude towards language, and so on. But the maximalist novel, ultimately, holds to both traditions. Novel genres that belong to the realist tradition such as the bildungsroman, the historical novel, the social novel, etc. are there in the maximalist novel. In Infinite Jest we are confronted with a highly experimental narrative but the story of Hal Incandenza, for instance, could be regarded as a kind of failed bildungsroman.
So the maximalist novel sidesteps this dichotomy?
It does not recognise it. DeLillo’s Underworld is realistic in its descriptions of the desolation of the Bronx but unrealistic in the presentation of characters like Sister Edgar, a grotesque reincarnation of J. Edgar Hoover. David Foster Wallace believed, as pointed out in a famous interview with Larry McCaffery released a few years before the publication of Infinite Jest, that realism had acquired an anaesthetic character due to it being absorbed by the language of television and commercials. So in order to restore its early critical power, serious 1990s realist fiction had to aim, paradoxically, at a defamiliarisation the real. Mimetic and anti-mimetic strains merged in the maximalist novel; the result was a hybrid realism.
You have written that Bolaño’s 2666 is a wonderful synthesis of genres and it also has a clear ethical commitment. Could you expand on the ethical commitments of that novel? You mentioned in your book that it engages solidly with the condition of women.
This comes mostly from the part of 2666 called ‘The Part about the Crimes’.
What genre would that be?
It’s close to a non-fiction novel. Because it’s based on a series of actual murders of young women, many of who were working in the Ciudad Juárez maquiladoras on the US/Mexican border. I say ‘close’ because Bolaño transfers the serial murders to the urban and suburban areas of Santa Teresa, reinventing them fictionally.
Bolaño’s engagement here is quite interesting. For he doesn’t just state that women are being murdered. He introduces each victim as if they were a character and then he includes quite specific forensic details of the crime. And he does this for victim after victim after victim.
‘The Part about the Crimes’ is a powerful critique of the serial logic of the capitalist mode of production and, in particular, a critique of late capitalist outsourcing and exploitation of labour in emerging economies. In ‘The Part about the Crimes,’ the obsessively repetitive report of the murders of young female maquila labourers is a symbolic correlative of the alienation of capitalist production and the inescapability of the dreadful social consequences of the brutal clash between emerging and advanced market economies.
So these women are going to factories and investing their labour into shoes and then they go home and are murdered in a horrifying manner. A few months later a young man is walking around New York City, wearing those shoes: the very shoes that that victim has invested herself in. It’s an ethically committed imagination that can make that connection.
Yes, it is. It is also an indirect call for responsible consumption.
Can you introduce Babette Factory’s 2005 dopo Cristo? What is the nature of its ethical commitment?
2005 dopo Cristo (2005) is a maximalist novel authored by a collective of Italian writers, Babette Factory, composed by Christian Raimo, Francesco Pacifico, Francesco Longo, and Nicola Lagioia. Most of the narrative gravitates around a plot hatched to assassinate former Prime Minister of Italy, Silvio Berlusconi. The plot is based on a mythical paradigm, the ritual murder of the king in the woods of Nemi; a mythical paradigm made famous by James Frazer in The Golden Bough, and which has enjoyed great fortune—from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness to T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, from the music of The Doors to Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. With Berlusconi regarded as a king who has to be killed in order to regenerate the country, myth acts as a catalyst for one of the most important thematic nuclei of the novel, Italy’s need for political and moral renewal.
To finish how do you think the maximalist novel will change and adapt in the future?
It is difficult to say. As a genre the maximalist novel answers a very ancient need for synthesis and meaning of the Western man, which, in literature, was first embodied by Homeric epic. It’s a symbolic need that at times may regress and at times will take centre of the literary field, as the history of narrative forms in the second half of the twentieth-century shows us. Probably, the totalising impulse to capture the entire world in a single work of art will never end.