The year is 2020. I’m three months into quarantine, and have exhausted all possible hobbies. I’ve finally turned to reading to pass the time. My eyes pore over the pages of “Inherent Vice,” Thomas Pynchon’s postmodern acid trip set in post-Charles Manson Los Angeles. In Pynchon’s world, up is down and down is up — there is no babysitting or hand-holding, and often not much linearity. Your job as an audience member is to sit back and savor the ride in its psychedelic, delightfully wordy glory.
I love word wranglers — authors who can pull and contort the tiniest of inflections, stretching it and smacking it like a rubber band against its own syntax. These are the writers that make full play of, and even delight in, the joy of language with only a basic regard for convention. These are authors who prioritize description over narrative propulsion — where plot and motion are secondary, just a minor aspect of the entire picture. Orhan Pamuk, in “The Naive and the Sentimental Novelist,” calls novels such as these “atmosphere novels,” and likens them to landscape paintings. Pynchon is a masterful word wrangler — his sentences are free-flowing yet perfectly precise, pictures painted with deft yet relaxed strokes.
I didn’t always appreciate these indulgent books, though. I’d always first approached novels through narrative, reading solely to find out what happens next in the plot. I found myself looking for character arcs, a three-act structure and classical storytelling in the forms that seemed so convenient or comfortable that they can make it difficult to digest anything apart from the norm.
I took quarantine as a time to explore novels I’d always wanted to read but never had the time nor energy to dedicate to. I began with Roberto Bolaño’s “The Savage Detectives,” a whopping 610-page novel, nonlinear, maximalist novel about struggling poets and artists in Mexico. The maximalist novel is encyclopedic, usually tackling multiple strands of narration and plot over a few hundred pages. It took me about a month of obedient, dedicated reading where I focused every ounce of energy, just to get through that novel. Don’t get me wrong, the prose was beautiful — every aspect of the city and township is described to the last speck of dirt on the walls, every idiosyncratic character fleshed out to the last quirk.
After that month of informal training, I felt a significant change in the way I approached reading as a pastime. Reading “difficult” novels trained me to exist in the moment, devoting every ounce of my attention to understanding the words in front of me. I no longer find my eyes flitting to dialogue, skimming past action lines to get to the end of the book. The process feels slower now. I don’t really feel the urge for a conclusion either — to resolve the tension or to relieve my anxiety of the protagonist’s fate. I’ve also come to find that isn’t just a function of the novels I’ve started reading. It’s also a reflection of how I’ve come to look at artists and their creative limitations.
My newfound appreciation for word wranglers has come to extend to artists in every genre and medium. Learning to love the maximalist novel seems to have translated to a slow reluctance to accept more ‘difficult’ art: Martin Scorsese tacking on an extra hour for “The Irishman,” songs longer than 10 minutes or nonlinear narratives in all kinds of storytelling. I’ve learned that art is primarily the conception of the artist. Moreso, I’ve found that I don’t need to appreciate linearity or conventionality for it to be validated.
Above all, indulgent artists have taught me to become a more voracious consumer. I am now more open, more willing to experiment and perhaps even a better writer myself. Sure, I might not always be able to sit through a particularly long film, or to exclusively read “atmosphere novels,” but as a result of the quarantine, I am able to provide an approving nod for art that I myself may not consume — a recognition of the artist’s effort, their reluctance to be restricted by convention and their courage to innovate. Indulgent artists are a reminder to take things slow — to not always strive for resolution, to be present and to savor the moments spent experiencing art.
Contact Megha Ganapathy at [email protected].