I'VE BEEN THINKING ABOUT THE NOVELIST in the lunatic asylum, the one who decides to write a novel that describes the whole world and everything in it. Pursuing his own mad logic, he gets along pretty well until the moment he realizes that if he's really going to describe the whole world and everything in it, he'll have to include himself writing a novel that describes the whole world and everything in it, and within that novel he'll have to include himself writing a novel, and so on, thereby entering a regress of novels within novels, worlds within worlds. Sounds like way too much trouble, doesn't it?
What the madman doesn't realize is that attempting to create a work that encompasses the whole world, is to create a work that's equal to the world, like those maps described by Borges in "On Exactitude in Science" or by Lewis Carroll in Sylvie and Bruno Concluded, maps with a one to one scale, maps that are equal in size to the territories they chart. "Have you used it much?" Carroll's narrator enquires.
The real problem for the novelist in the asylum is not that of sanity, and clearly not lack of ambition, but of scale. In the end, any work of art that attempts to describe the world must inevitably be a kind of miniature.
"Scalability" is a word I only knew some of the meanings of before I started writing this piece. One meaning is straightforward enough, "able to be scaled," simply meaning that something might easily be increased or reduced in size. But the word has a more specific meaning, as a property of systems, usually software or telecommunications, that are able to expand in an efficient and coherent manner; a "scalable" system is one that can handle growing amounts of data or usage.
It's also a business term. Starbucks is both the model and the whipping boy of entrepreneurial scalability. We might once have thought that a corner coffee shop was a single, quirky, local enterprise, impossible to reproduce on a grand scale. (Ha!) But having expanded so successfully, Starbucks is now having to scale back, get smaller, which in commerce is generally considered a very bad thing, and even worse if you're an employee who gets "downsized." In the real world, however, things are growing and contracting all the time. And when it comes to trying to make a piece of fiction, scaling down is an essential strategy. The world has "scalability" in spades.
It is a testament to my slackly naive grasp of the business world that I cannot hear the term "business model" without imagining an old fashioned children's toy, one of those miniature butcher shops, post offices, garages - a scale model, if you like, as in model car, model railroad, model village. In the business model I imagine a little office set, complete with tiny cubicles, desks, and computers, with appropriately sized "action" figures digging through filing cabinets or standing by the water cooler.
Actually, now that I think of it, I find the idea incredibly attractive, and I wonder if somebody out there is right now creating such a model of a business model. I hope so. Scale models and small worlds fascinated me when I was a kid, and the truth is I've never really outgrown that fascination. I don'...read more