Another note on digression

The release of the new volume of A Song of Ice and Fire, which several of my friends are either reading or getting ready to read, has got me thinking about digression again.

I like reading fantasy and SF series when I have the time, but as a rule, I only read them when they’re complete (meaning that the final volume is explicitly identified as such, and at least has a firm release date). I learned this hard lesson from Stephen King’s Dark Tower series—if I remember correctly, I was a high school sophomore when The Gunslinger came out, and by the time the series was complete I had a Ph.D. The wait between volumes wasn’t pleasant (especially when I was an impatient teenager with a low tolerance for cliffhangers), and the conclusion, when it finally came in a rush of three fat volumes published within eighteen months of each other, left me somewhat unsatisfied (but fans have spent millions of words hashing that ending out online, so I won’t go into it here).

In comparison, I remember seeing a trade paperback of Robert Jordan’s The Eye of the World in a Barnes and Noble one day (this is back when The Wheel of Time was intended to be a trilogy) and thinking, “Well, I’ll just wait until the last volume comes out in a couple of years, and then I’ll buy them all at once.” That decision may have inadvertently granted me an extra several months of life (since my habit was to re-read all the earlier volumes in a series before the new one arrived in stores, and I can’t imagine doing that with The Wheel of Time).

So I admit to feeling a little left out with all the hubbub that’s presently surrounding the publication of A Dance with Dragons—I remember from reading his stories in the Wild Cards shared-world series that Martin’s a strong writer, and whenever I leaf through one of the volumes in A Song of Ice and Fire, good sentences tend to jump out at me. But if the series of books is intended to be perceived as a single work instead of a series of discrete stories, then I’ll read it when it’s complete, and if it’s good now, it’ll be good in ten years. So I’ve yet to even read A Game of Thrones—I watched the first episode of the HBO series, but that’s it.

However, I’m starting to think that there may be an upper limit to how long a narrative can be before it ceases to be a narrative in the traditional sense and becomes something else, a shaggy-dog story. Earlier this year I finished reading the Penguin translation of The Arabian Nights (which is about a million words), and the joke of that (as I mentioned here) is that due to its metafictional conceit, we’re allowed to experience the pleasures of digression without feeling that we ourselves are being taken for a ride. Sure, it’s a shaggy-dog story, but it’s explicitly identified as such (and pays off in the final night of the sequence with a couple of very good jokes that I won’t spoil here). But The Arabian Nights is pleasant because you’re not King Shahriyar, not the one being strung along unknowingly.

In general, I love digressiveness, and I often feel that there’s not nearly enough of it in contemporary literature, which regularly seems to me to hew needlessly close to a rigid, linear, three-act narrative structure inherited from commercial films. (The other night I was talking with a friend about Les Misérables, and she described its inclusion of a fifty-page description of the Battle of Waterloo as “something you can’t do anymore.” But that description pays for itself, even if you don’t know why it’s being included until you reach the end of it.) But if given free rein, is there a point beyond which digression inevitably stops adding flavor to a work and becomes cancerous instead, suffocating the central narrative and killing its ability to provide a feeling of continuous progression (however slow and carefully measured), or the satisfying sense of an ending? Or, like anything in art, is this merely a matter of taste?

Which is to say that if and when I do finally read A Song of Ice and Fire (which, if I stick to my rule about fantasy series and Martin sticks to his production rate, will be quite a while from now), I’ll read it wondering if it will turn out to have the shape of a story. A tale of that length with a measured pace and lots of asides and lovingly rendered details sounds like a rare gift to me, a work that makes me forget to look at a clock.

But the longer a work gets, the harder it is to end satisfactorily, and though there are as many ways to structure a story as there are possible stories, endings matter. (A work of narrative art is always remembered as marred if it’s seen to have a bad ending, no matter what comes before it, but a strong ending can convince an audience to forgive all manner of prior sins.) The laudatory New York Times review of A Dance With Dragons says the series has already exceeded 1,700,000 words, leaving The Arabian Nights well in the dust. With the last two volumes still unwritten, a strong ending could happen—nothing’s impossible, and what I’ve read of Martin’s writing, I’ve liked a lot, so my guess is that if he can’t pull it off, it’s because no one can. But either the series as a whole will be deeply disappointing, or miraculous.

Personally, I am hoping for a miracle, and I’m looking forward to blocking off time for it in my calendar.

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