The Great Gatsby is a slim 180 pages. That’s all it takes for Fitzgerald to recreate the Roaring 20s and give us the quintessential American striver.
Ernest Hemingway is a master of economy, using just 251 pages to tell the tragedy of The Sun Also Rises.
A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh is another brilliant little book from the interwar period. It traces the fall of the British aristocracy in just 264 pages.
Yet, contemporary books seem to sprawl unfettered, as if editors have just given up on their duties. Authors ramble, they discourse, narratives go off into tangents and down weird little cul-de-sacs.
For example, Swamplandia! by Karen Russell. It clocks in at a wearying 416 pages.
The novel starts off incredibly strong, giving us the colorful portrait of the Bigtree family, famed alligator wrestlers of the Everglades. Being from Florida myself, I’ve felt that the comic potential of the state has been underutilized. From exiles plotting revolution to greedy condo flippers, if any state could produce The Great American Novel, it’s this one.
The collapse of the Bigtree family mirrors what’s going on in “mainland” society. Their struggles are shared by many in more prosaic circumstances – they lose it all and the family falls apart.
The section of the novel where the Bigtrees adapt to normal life is fascinating. I loved Russell’s depiction of The World of Darkness, a hell-themed amusement park on the mainland. It’s like a Disney World created by sadists.
But then the book rambles, in an endless journey through the swamp as 12-year-old Ava Bigtree goes in search of her older sister. Lush descriptions of flora and fauna are piled one upon another, creating a mangrove thicket of prose that nearly stops the reader cold.
It’s one of those books where you find yourself peeking ahead a few pages. When is the story getting back to the World of Darkness?
The odyssey in the Everglades takes so long that the ending feels rushed, unresolved, leaving dramatic threads hanging.
Swamplandia! is a good hundred pages too long.
Despite growing up reading books, even I turn away from novels that resemble doorstops. Reamde is a book that I desperately want to read. Yet, at more than a thousand pages, I don’t even want to start it. The novel represents too much of a time commitment in our distracted age.
It’s ironic. The Internet and our ever-present electronic devices have collapsed attention spans. Yet, our books keep getting longer and longer.
No wonder why so few people read novels.
Our lives are crowded with information. In order to break through the electronic din, a novel has to be concise and powerful, a book that looks more like The Great Gatsby than Swamplandia!