This essay first appeared on the website Novel Dialogue, our partner podcast for this month’s episodes, and is reprinted by permission, with our thanks. If you like what you read, head over to Noveldialogue.org to read and hear more.
“The novel wraps itself around you like a cocoon.”
In last week’s RtB, Jennifer Egan speaks of Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa (1747) and wonders at the 18th century author’s ability to sustain a creative exploration over “many thousands of pages.” At this prompting, I have been thinking a lot about novels that refuse to let you go. I’ll never forget how Cynthia Wall first introduced Clarissa to our graduate seminar: “you don’t read through Clarissa, you sink into Clarissa. The novel wraps itself around you like a cocoon or being trapped in a web.” Her description was apt. I remember reading for hours at a time, making excruciatingly slow progress through densely packed, oversized pages with teensy font. But I was ensnared by the text’s progress, just as trapped and frustrated as Clarissa herself, and I couldn’t stop reading. I met Lovelaces and Clarissas in the people around me; my emails and texts took on an epistolary verbosity; I dreamt of being unheard, imprisoned, tricked, assaulted; I felt an unfamiliar impulse to write a will and research casket designs.
It’s not that Clarissa is an exceptional novel because of the way it ensnares its reader. Rather it merely exploits, to an exceptional degree, how all novels work. So I believe Richardson would have answered Egan in the same way as a reader would: “you simply get lost in it.” Hearing Egan speak about how A Visit from the Goon Squad (2011) “never felt done” to her, or about Anthony Trollope’s series-within-series worldbuilding, is simply more evidence of the captivating mechanism of novel reading and, as Egan reminds us, novel writing as well. Readers and writers become contained by the worlds novels build. These worlds become touchstones in our own experiences and we cannot help but read our lives through them.
This reminds me of Egan’s other novel The Keep (2006), which I adore for the way it adores its own genre: the Gothic. The Keep gets lost in the Gothic–willfully. Like other Gothic novels, it deals heavily with the theme of confinement. In this, Egan shows us how genres like the Gothic work as relay systems, reverberating through the tropes and stories that precede them. This reverberative quality is symbolized in The Keep’s image of a radio to the dead, a shoebox filled with dust and furnished with an assortment of dials and knobs punched into the cardboard. Ray, the novel’s frame narrator, initially scoffs at the “radio,” but soon realizes he is also ensnared by a voice. Through a kind of portal, Danny, the protagonist of the story Ray is writing, steps across the narrative boundary to whisper in Ray’s ear, forcing Ray to become an unwilling conduit for his tale.
In The Keep, Ray–like Egan herself and I imagine Richardson and Trollope too–is compelled to craft Danny’s story, to continuously add on new rooms with new doors to existing genres. That is, to create new “portals,” to invoke another theme from the episode, that pass on old stories to new writers and readers. Like the radio to the dead or The Keep’s titular castle–a strange amalgamating pastiche of new wings built onto old buildings and even older fortresses–novels simultaneously become conduits and containers for the plots, conventions, and expectations of their genres. Genres are the captors of novels. Writers and readers, in turn, become entrapped by the stories they tell and keep telling. So my question in response to Egan’s is not how Richardson stayed in Clarissa’s head for so long, but rather, how did he get out?
Upcoming episodes: As promised, Crossover Month also includes a second gem from Novel Dialogue, a conversation with Caryl Phillips: if you want to hear more, RtB 53 featured Nobel Orhan Pamuk, RtB 54 Helen Garner. Not only that, we will also smuggle in further bonus content on the fourth Thursday of this month:a fantastic little conversation from our dear friends over at High Theory.