NOVEMBER 10, 2020
SOMEHOW, DESPITE OUR LIVING in the age of Twitter and texting and shout-outs and memes, the cultural imperative that bigger is better is still going strong, particularly in the literary world. The doorstop tome remains the metric by which careers are measured and reputations are made. As a result, there are many novels still being published, and even lauded, that are artificially long. They’re bloated and prolix and don’t provide the satisfaction that a lengthy, ambitious novel ideally would.
Most of the time when I read a long novel, even a reasonably good one, I find myself thinking, “This would be better if it were one or two hundred pages shorter.” It’s distressingly rare to read a massive work — Marguerite Young’s 1,200-page Miss MacIntosh, My Darling comes to mind, or Samuel R. Delany’s 872-page Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders — and feel that it couldn’t do without a page. A novel shouldn’t be long merely for the sake of being long; it should be long because it can’t be any shorter and still accomplish everything it sets out to. That balance between maximalism and restraint is very difficult to achieve, mainly because most authors who embrace the former deem it permission to treat the latter as a hindrance to the creative exercise.
But David Hollander’s Anthropica achieves it. A writing professor at Sarah Lawrence College and author of the 2000 novel L.I.E., Hollander has written a book that despite its 480 pages is precise, dense, and evocative. With a dozen different threads and voices knitted loosely together in a way that feels satisfying without ever being overly insistent, it reads like the kind of novel that in lesser hands would have ended up 300 pages longer.
At the heart of the book — or at least one heart of a book possessing many — is schlubby mathematician Stuart Dregs’s discovery that the Earth seems to be exhausting its resources on a monthly basis and yet they still seem to be there, always somehow available because we want them to be. His ideas dovetail with those of Grace Kitchen, a nihilistic novelist on the verge of losing tenure who has begun publishing her work on the internet because nobody else will publish it. Both Stuart and Grace come to the attention of Laszlow Katasztrófa, who has developed an organization called Exit Strategy with the straightforward mission of bringing about the extermination of the human race. He is aided in this task by a series of paralyzed humans and animated human heads in jars (affectionately called The Googles) who gather information, and by a former philosophy professor with ALS who, as he loses control over his body, realizes that he can make things happen with his mind.
When Laszlow discovers a mathematics graduate student named Finn Daily who has postulated a fractal pattern behind all matter, he believes he has found his “savior” to bring about the end. But Finn, at least initially, is more interested in playing in the ultimate frisbee championships. He’s also interested in the mother of one of his teammates, a woman he has “inadvertently” slept with who happens to be the estranged spouse of Stuart Dregs (see how the threads begin to cross?). Add to this three highly intelligent robots (one of which eagerly demonstrates its skill as a writer and interest in pornography) that are imprisoned in a scientific facility in South Korea, a fluid-gendered university professor named Joyful Noise who may in fact be hundreds of years old, a scientist on the lam, and the sudden appearance of thousands of vultures, and you begin to get a sense of how extensive and energetic Hollander’s novelistic mosaic is.
Anthropica is what David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest might have been had it been about ultimate frisbee rather than tennis (and had it been 60 percent shorter). It’s manic and highly entertaining. Hollander’s line-by-line writing is syntactically complex, his choices of vocabulary and voice often pyrotechnic. He loves to leap into proximity to a character, give a sense of their unique concerns and patterns of thought, and then leap away to someone else. Hollander also knows never to go on too long; each time a chapter or scene threatens to feel indulgent or too much like a comedic bit, he shifts to give us another string, another snippet of the pattern. The ride is somewhat breathless but exhilarating. He has managed to write a complex and at times very funny book that never reads like an extended proof of his cleverness.
Philosophically, Hollander is interested in thinking through the relationship between the world as it is and our desire for the world to be a certain way by exploring the idea that our desires might actually have an effect on the world around us. There’s a basic absurdity to the premise (which Hollander is very much aware of), yet his exploration dovetails with serious scientific speculation about what it would mean to be living in a simulation. The book’s intellectual searching ties into larger ideas of intersubjectivity and whether we interact with the world directly or only with a partial model we hold in our minds. In myriad ways, Hollander interrogates the nature of the relationship between mind, body, others, and the world, and he is less interested in reaching a definitive conclusion than in touching on as many possibilities as he can.
The fun of Hollander’s novel is the way he delicately interlaces his threads into a large, intricate design. But if the book has a weakness, it comes in how he concludes it. Anthropica does not have the definitive sort of ending that a maximalist novel demands — it comes off as less a conclusion than a dispersion. After a few gestures at tying off some of his threads, Hollander offers a pastiche of the “Penelope” chapter in Joyce’s Ulysses, replacing the yeses with noes and further toying with the language in Joyce’s original. It seems more a sidestep than an ending, a way of trying to give the book gravity by drawing on a revered experimental writer’s classic work. There are a number of literary references in Hollander’s novel, and this is one of the few that feels unnatural and distracting. A more generous reading is that the chapter refocuses the reader’s attention on a character who hasn’t been overly present and provides a gentle way of stepping out of an unfinishable book.
At one point, Grace Kitchen is on an interview program with an Oprah-like host who asks, “When you were working on this novel did you know how it would end?” Grace responds, “I’m still not sure how it ends.” Reaching the last pages of Hollander’s novel, I began to feel that her comment is there largely to offer the reader a lens through which to accept the end of Anthropica.
If Hollander had chosen to write a slightly longer novel, would he have used the pages to leave the reader with more certainty? Perhaps. And I would have been happy to read more. Regardless, he is to be congratulated on this ambitious, sprawling, effective story, which reassured me that some long novels make the most of themselves. I never found myself asking, like the kid in the backseat of the car, “Are we there yet?” I just enjoyed the ride.
Award-winning writer and translator Brian Evenson is the author of a dozen books of fiction, including Song for the Unraveling of the World, A Collapse of Horses, The Warren, Last Days, and The Open Curtain. He teaches in the Critical Studies Program at CalArts.