Consider the Novel
The idea of the novel as contradictory, double-dealing, and secretive, the secret agent of literature, is matched in all these critical commentaries by an equally strong idea of the novel as multifarious, polymorphous, expansive, and superfluous, the behemoth of literature. For the prose of the world to be turned into the world of prose, superfluity, spilling-over, and generous abundance are called for. These critics show how even the most formal and aesthetically stringent of novelists also have appetites for excess. A.S. Byatt on Balzac eloquently celebrates his "manic inclusiveness." One critic of
Ulysses describes it as investing in "an ideal of exhaustiveness." John Mullan points up the "sheer energy" in Philip Roth's rhetorical strategies of "amplification": "You say something, and then you say it again in a different way." In all the generalizations about the novel, it's the places where the critics take on the stuff, the prosaic detail, the thinginess of fiction, "the clutter of life," that most speak to this reader: how the summer heat of Ian McEwan's
Atonement infiltrates the plot, the forceful presence of meals in Dickens, Catherine and Heathcliff's sharing their clothes in childhood as a mark of their indivisibility, "ordinary things" interrupting the visionary dream of the traveler in
Often, in reading fiction, or reading about it, one comes on the idea of a journey: a worn path, a day's walking through a city, a quest, a progress, a journey through time, with deviations and stoppages—at its most extreme, a journey into the coffin, or a description of one's own death. It is permissible to think about characters in novels as people, and it is not necessarily sentimental or naive to think about what might happen to them after we stop reading—since the novel, as Mullan observes, "is a genre that would have us believe that its characters might have a life beyond its pages."
In the New York Review of Books.