A collection of posts regarding the "encyclopedic novel," a concept described as "an attempt to render the full range of knowledge and beliefs of a national culture, while identifying the ideological perspectives from which that culture shapes and interprets its knowledge." Due to the considerable overlap between the nebulously defined encyclopedic novel and the similarly nebulous term of "maximalist novel," I aim to examine the novels "emblematic" of this concept as defined in Stefano Ercolino's essay "The Maximalist Novel."1
Zadie Smith's 2000 debut novel White Teeth is a multifaceted story concerning the relationship between Britain and its growing number of immigrants. It primarily follows the families of two English World War II veterans; the native Archie Jones and the Bengali Samad Iqbal. The two veterans, joined by a traumatic experience that took the lives of their platoon in the final days of the war, have become troubled in the decades following; Archie has married, divorced, and remarried with a girl a half his age while Samad has taken part in an increasingly unhappy arranged marriage with the similarly young Alsana. Archie fathers a daughter with his second wife, the Jamaican-born Clara, while Samad fathers two sons; it is through the lives of these youths that the experience of a colored person in England is explored. Irie, Archie and Clara's daughter, is one of the scant few mixed-race people in her school group, leading to insecurities regarding her appearance, compounding the usual struggles of puberty. Meanwhile, the younger Iqbal son, Millat, finds a lack of identity as he is drawn towards Western pursuits and interests, much to the chagrin of his father. Samad, a devout Muslim, struggles with his faith; he is tempted by Poppy Burt-Jones, one Millat's teachers. Later on, Samad comes to believe that there are irreconcilable differences between an Eastern and Western upbringing and, without his wife's knowledge, he arranges for his oldest son, Magid, to be shipped away to Bengal where he will be raised in a more traditional environment. Naturally, this proves to have the opposite effect of what Samad intends; when Magid comes of age, he becomes enamored with law and later is taken under the mentorship of genetic scientist Marcus Chalfen.
Marcus Chalfen and his family are one of the more interesting elements of White Teeth's narrative; the family doesn't appear until around halfway through the novel, however their appearance becomes the dominating force of the story as the Chalfens become increasingly involved with the Jones and Iqbal families, culminating in the third act wherein Marcus Chalfen's recent work in genetic experimentation sparks national backlash as explored through the lives of the younger generation of characters. The Chalfens consist, largely, of Marcus, his doting wife Joyce, and Joshua, one of their four sons.
Each of these three youths, Irie, Millat, and Joshua, find themselves by separating almost completely from their parents; Irie runs away from home to live with her grandmother, Hortense Bowden. Hortense is strongly connected to her Jamaican heritage as well as the religious background assoacited with it. Most interestingly, Hortense's religious beliefs stem partially from her own mother, Ambrosia Bowden (the source of Irie's middle name). Ambrosia's story is one of the more interesting anecdotes the story includes and we'll discuss this later on.
Millat's relationship with his family is strained from an early age due to the Western influence Millat has taken to. As a result, Millat rarely comes home after he befriends the Chalfen family, and his whereabouts are largely unknown as he mills around town, attempting to find himself through his increasing involvement in religious fundamentalist group KEVIN (Keepers of the Eternal and Vicious Islamic Nation). This show of "out-Islaming" his father continues to a fault as KEVIN begins a slow transformation into a terrorist organization.
Joshua begins his story through the connection of Irie and Millat; the three are involved in long-standing love triangle as Joshua has a crush on Irie while Irie maintains a crush on Millat. As Irie and Millat are displaced from their families and begin spending more time with the Chalfens, Joshua comes to hate the singularness of his own family, designated as "Chalfenism," and grows a notable dislike for his father, Marcus. When Marcus's experiment, the "FutureMouse," is scheduled for a public demonstration, Joshua rebels in the most extreme way possible by joining the eco-terrorist cell FATE (Fighting Animal Torture and Exploitation), who are planning an attack on the FutureMouse conference.
The final act of the FutureMouse conference also includes one of White Teeth's most fascinating elements; its use of "hybrid realism" in its historical narratives. This, like the main drivers of the story, takes three different forms; The first is the oft-repeated story of Mangal Pandey, a real person whom Samad claims is his great-grandfather. Samad is singularly obsessed with Pandey's story, especially in regards to how he fired the frist shot of the Indian Rebellion of 1857.
The second is the aforementioned story of Ambrosia Bowden, Hortense's mother, Clara's grandmother, Irie' great-grandmother. Ambrosia, a second-generation slave, is brought into the fold of Christianity and, while pregnant with Hortense, is almost raped in a cathedral. However, she is saved, near-biblically, by the 1907 Kingston earthquake, which kills her attacker mid-assault. This event is what eventually leads to Hortense's devout religious faith. Despite the relative brevity of this story, its the most prominent example of the hybrid realism demonstrated in the narrative.
Finally, the culminating moment of the FutureMouse conference harkens back to chronological start to this whole story; Archie and Samad on the ground in World War II. With the rest of their platoon completely wiped out, Archie and Samad come across a Nazi scientist. Archie is given the task of killing him, while Samad stays near their damaged Humvee. The first time we hear this story is from Samad, who recalls how he heard the gunshot and how Archie returned to the Humvee alone shortly afterwards. The second time we hear this story is amidst the FutureMouse conference; FATE, with Joshua in tow, is planning to attack the conference and free the mouse at its center. Meanwhile, KEVIN, with Millat in tow, is planning the same, though their motivation is to kill Marcus Chalfen, seeing his experiments as an affront to God. Irie is at the conference as well, as she had been working as Marcus's secretary for past few months against Hortense's wishes. As Marcus begins the conference, Archie, who is in the audience, recalls his time in World War II and we see his interaction with the Nazi from his perspective. Archie, whose marked indecision is a recurring part of his character, is troubled on whether to execute the Nazi and instead flips a coin, with heads meaning he'd kill the Nazi and tails meaning he'd let him go. He overshoots the coin flip, causing it to land several feet behind him. As he goes to retrieve the coin, the Nazi takes his gun and shoots him in the leg. Archie chastises the Nazi as he takes his gun back, pointing out that the coin landed on tails. When Marcus Chalfen announces his co-workers on the FutureMouse project, both Archie and Samad recognize one of the names; the aforementioned Nazi scientist. This novel-spanning callback serves as White Teeth's final moments; Archie sees Millat pull out a gun to shoot the Nazi and instinctively rushes towards the stage, where he takes Millat's gunshot in his leg. All the while, Samad curses at Archie as he realizes Archie has now spared this Nazi twice.
Hybrid realism is an element of "maximalist novels" as defined by Stefano Ercolino. Ercolino coins "hybrid realism" as a term to demonstrate the anti-realist tendencies derived from the rise of magical realism in 20th century literature, including things "plausible" or "ridiculous" in otherwise grounded narratives. While Ercolino explicitly calls out White Teeth's KEVIN as an example of this due to the absurdity of their acronym, I find that a sentiment of anti-realism demarcates the above historical stories in White Teeth's narrative. While Zadie Smith does not pursue this thread of anti-realism as far as her contemporaries in maximalist novels do, elements of it are nonetheless still present in the three stories I described. As someone with great interest in maximalist novels, I find the hybrid realism on display, most especially in Ambrosia's case, to be fascinating narrative tools.
Speaking of maximalist novels, this particular "genre" of literature is quite nebulously defined and the term "maximalist novel" is often interchanged with "encyclopedic novel" and "hysterical realist." In fact, the term "hysterical realism" originated in a review of White Teeth, harkening back (perhaps unintentionally) to the oft-used diagnoses of hysteria commonly applied to women. "Hysterical realism" was derisively coined to describe White Teeth and its cavalcade of interconnected stories, claiming that, "since the characters in [this novel] are not really alive, not fully human, their connectedness can only be insisted on." Nonetheeless, Smith embraced the company the term "hysterical realism" associated her with, including authors David Foster Wallace, Don DeLillo, and Thomas Pynchon.
While there's no denying Smith managed to find intertextual connections wherever she could within White Teeth, it would be an immature assumption to make that this cheapens the thematic impact and relevance these connections manage to impress upon the reader. While Smith's later work distances itself somewhat from the maximalist elements of White Teeth, this debut novel, as it stands, is worthy of both consumption and analysis, even two decades later.
Roberto Bolaño's 1998 novel The Savage Detectives is a fascinating literary journey. So much so that I cannot readily recall another novel, or indeed another story, that wrangles tragedy and comedy, the high and the low, the literary and the smut, in quite such a fashion. Most impressively is the novel's accessibility; Bolaño's prose maintains a readability that is often elusive to major, more "literary" works. The text is rife with references to poets, writings, collections, and novels, both real and fictional. It is also rife with absurdities, such as a pimp who spends every morning measuring his genitals against a hunting knife. It is a story fascinated with disruption, examining the loss of dreams, relationships, innocence, and purpose.
The novel is split into three sections:
"Part 1: Mexicans Lost in Mexico"
"Part 2: The Savage Detectives"
"Part 3: The Deserts of Sonora"
The first and third sections take place between 1975 and 1976, following Juan García Madero, an aspiring poet who becomes involved with a new poetry movement called visceral realism. The second section, the longest by far, comprises of a series of interviews spread across a twenty year period, from 1976 to 1996. Each person interviewed is somehow connected to two characters from the first section, Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano, the founders of visceral realism who are in search of a more legendary poet, Cesárea Tinajero.
This trio of strange poets will be addressed later. García Madero serves as narrator for Part 1, and it is through his perspective that Bolaño paints a detailed image of Mexico's literary scene. The visceral realist group that García Madero becomes involved with is ever-present and equally uninspired; the "literary lifestyle" led by this eclectic group is marred by self-satisfaction and incestuous relationships, entangled in a web of interpersonal involvements and the peacocking associated with it. A common practice among the visceral realists is shoplifting various books from bookstores; all claim to read the books they steal but all are liars on this front, save for Belano, who in turn explains the essence of each book, which the visceral realists then parrot ad nauseum. This is exclusively done by the male visceral realists, presumably to impress the notably fewer and notably more successful women among them. The female visceral realists are instead, fittingly for a teenage narrator, defined largely by their sexual relationships (at least in Part 1). García Madero begins the story sexually inexperienced, lusting after the waitresses at the bar he frequents, Encrucijada Veracruzana. His first sexual experience is with the waitress Brigida, though García Madero realizes immediately afterwards that sex without love is emotionally lacking. He finds fulfillment later in Maria Font, though his thoughts are wrought with her sexual past; Maria has engaged sexually with several other visceral realists, something which García Madero finds increasingly bothersome. It is through Maria that he meets Angelica, Maria's sister, to whom García Madero gives more thoughts on her virginity than her poetic talents (Angelica is the sole recipient of the Laura Damian prize, a supposedly-prestigious award for outstanding poetry). When García Madero meets Simone Darrieux, all he can focus on is her open interest in sadomasochism. Later, he is introduced to Maria's friend Lupe, a prostitute whose stories of a well-endowed pimp fraught García Madero with insecurity. When his feelings for Maria go unreciprocated, he finds solace in the opposite dynamic via Rosario, a waitress who is madly in love with García Madero, though he feels little for her.
Of particular interest is the uninterest of the visceral realists; in the right company, a majority of the visceral realists will opine how the movement represents more of a social circle than a set of poetic tenets they desire to adhere to. Indeed, visceral realism is intentionally difficult to define; García Madero himself claims he is "not really sure of what visceral realism is" on the novel's first page.
It is only thanks to Bolaño's brilliant prose (translated to English by Natasha Wimmer) that such a story is workable; much of Part 1 consists of García Madero's wanderings, with little narrative throughline until the later actions of Maria's father, Quim Font. Quim, a deranged former-architect, becomes involved with Lupe and steals her away from her pimp, setting into motion the events of Parts 2 and 3. In lesser hands, the meandering thoughts of García Madero would prove inadequate to drive the 150 pages that make up Part 1. However, Bolaño delivers, with a deft hand, writing that is engaging, amusing, and saddening.
It is also during Part 1 that Bolaño reveals the first hints of the disruption to come; in García Madero's quest for fulfillment, he becomes estranged from his aunt and uncle. He spends little time with them despite them being his primary caretakers at the beginning of the story. They have sparse appearances throughout, exacerbated by García Madero's increasing tendency to spend nights at the Font household and, later, his moving in with the waitress Rosario. When he visits to tell them that he is doing okay, the two are fearful of his new company and new drug habits. Through García Madero's dogged pursuit of the visceral realists's fantastic and idyllic literary lifestyle, he loses his relationship with his family. After Part 1, neither his aunt nor uncle are mentioned again.
Part 2, the titular "Savage Detectives," is a marked departure from the idle musings of García Madero. Indeed García Madero is not even mentioned until the final pages of Part 2. Instead, the story shifts to a series of different narratives, listed chronologically from 1976 on towards 1996. The characters from Part 1 have all somehow been displaced since Quim had Lupe, Arturo Belano, Ulises Lima, and García Madero escape Mexico City with Lupe's pimp, Alberto, in pursuit. The protagonists of Part 2, denotatively, are Lima and Belano, whose wanderings drive the multifaceted narrative. However, neither of the two serve as direct narrators; instead their stories are told through the various people they met while wandering. These narratives are varied; some are short stories in their own rights, detailing a period of time in character's lives that seem to incidentally include Lima and Belano rather than having their inclusion be the focus; some are relatively short insights into the minds of characters from Part 1, such as one narrated by Felipe Müller which largely consists of him summarizing Theodore Sturgeon's 1962 short story "When You Care, When You Love," a story that Belano had once told him about some time in the past. As a whole, these narratives paint Lima and Belano as drifters to the greatest extreme; the pair separate and travel across the world, rarely remaining in the same company for more than a few months' stretch. Ulises becomes a fisherman in France, dead-set on making a trip to Israel. Upon doing so he stays with a trio of admirers, however he is later thrown in an Israeli prison. After his release, he joins his friend Heimito in Austria, though he is soon thrown in another prison before being deported back to France. Not long afterwards, Ulises goes missing in Managua amidst the Nicaraguan Revolution. He reappears in Mexico two years afterwards.
Belano, on the other hand, takes up a position as a night watchman before moving to Barcelona. He repeatedly attempts to ply his trade as a poet, though to increasingly little avail as the name "visceral realist" has become a poisonous term in the publishing industry. Over time, Belano becomes ill and decides to move to Tanzania, eventually traveling to a war-torn Liberia.
The most consistent aspect of Part 2 is a narrative told by Amadeo Salvatierra, which is the only narrative not listed in chronological order. Instead, Salvatierra's story is broken into pieces and scattered throughout Part 2. Taking place over the course of a single night in January 1976, the aged Salvatierra drinks tequila and coffee with a group of others (implied to be Belano and Lima themselves) who ask him about his old friend, the mythical poet Cesárea Tinajero. He is happy to regale them with tales and it is through his narrative that the reader is exposed to this elusive poet. Indeed, it is here wherein the reader is given a glance at one of Tinajero' poems, Sión, the meaning of which has stumped Salvatierra for his entire life. For the purpose of analysis, I have transcribed the poem, in its entirety, below:
Even seeing one of her poems directly, the reader cannot readily identify the meaning, and neither can Salvatierra. Indeed, the reader will question whether such a pictogram can be considered "poetry" at all. Nonetheless, it has fascinated Salvatierra.
The third and final Part returns to the perspective of Juan García Madero. This Part is primed with mystery; in the last pages of Part 2, the foremost expert on visceral realism circa 1996 claims that there was never anyone named "Juan García Madero" associated with the visceral realists. Part 3 reveals that García Madero and co. have successfully evaded Alberto, now opting to pursue Lima and Belano's goal of finding the elusive Tinajero. By miracle they manage exactly that, eventually tracking Tinajero to a remote village in Central America. This meeting is short-lived and ultimately fruitless; Alberto catches up with the group soon after, leading to Tinajero's death. Anything that Belano and Lima may have learned from her is kept secret from the reader; Belano and Lima separate from García Madero and Lupe immediately afterwards, resulting in the events of Part 2. The fates of both García Madero and Lupe are left unknown. Of particular note are the last writings of García Madero; a series of three pictograms described as windows. The novel ends with a question regarding the final pictogram: "What's outside the window?"
We'll return to this question later on.
The aforementioned founders of visceral realism, Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano, are nebulous and mercurial characters; they are just as often referred to as brilliant poet-revolutionaries as they are perpetually-broke drug dealers. Throughout Part 1, they appear intermittently, as they are rarely the focus of García Madero's thoughts. Yet their appearances are consistently strange; García Madero finds the pair smoking marijuana in the backroom of Encrucijada Veracruzana only moments after his coitus interruptus with Brigida; the two laugh at him for not properly putting his pants back on. In Part 2, Lima returns from Nicaragua with claims of traveling a mystical river between Mexico and Central America, living on a pair of islands he refers to as "the island of the past" and "the island of the future." Before Belano moves to Tanzania, he takes umbrage at a literary critic that he is anticipating a negative review from and challenges him to a saber-duel-to-first-blood on a nudist beach.
Mimesis is a seminal aspect of The Savage Detectives as a whole. Several of the characters are derived from existing poets (e.g. Arturo Belano is a fictional version of Bolaño himself while Ulises Lima is a fictional version of Bolaño's friend Mario Santiago Papasquiaro). Others are explicit stand-ins for real people (e.g. Alice B. Toklas, Michel Bulteau, and Manuel Maples Arce). The visceral realism movement is derived from the Infrarealist movement that Bolaño helped found in 1975. Like visceral realism, Infrarealism was a failed and sparsely-published artistic movement that was predominantly defined by its antagonistic relationship with "state-supported" poets such as Octavio Paz (a poet similarly hated by the visceral realists).
I'll return now to the Tinajero poem from Salvatierra's story as well as the theme of disruption I mentioned before. The poem, as I see it, is a visual representation of disruption; consider the poem as a pair of objects, a line and a box, going through three distinct stages. In the first stage, the line is straight, however it becomes jagged over the course of two disruptions. The box, opposite the line, doesn't experience disruption firsthand but is instead affected by the disruption of the line; the box remains in relatively the same position, however it sinks on the y-axis as the line is further disrupted and the box falls into a chasm.
Returning to the final pictograms described by García Madero; across three diary entries he draws three separate boxes, each addended with the question "What's outside the window." He answers the question himself for the first two boxes; the first box, including a triangle on its side, is answered as "A star." The second box, drawn plainly, is answered as "A sheet." The final, unanswered, box, is drawn via dotted lines. "What's outside the window?"
Due to the large number of characters in the novel, I ended up writing out a reference list to help me keep track of who was who. For posterity, I've included the list here so that it may be of some help: