You know books like War and Peace, Les Miserables and Ulysses?
The “Great Novels”?
Are there ever going to be more of them, or is the “Great Novel” a dead art?
I had thought the latter.
Then I read The Dying Grass by William T. Vollmann (Viking, 2015).
This book does something I had thought impossible: It innovates the art of the novel.
Novels have been around forever. They’re like forks. People figured out how to make them work, and there wasn’t much need to change them after that. Innovators like Italo Calvino and James Joyce occasionally showed up and did something mind-blowingly fresh with the art of writing, but most of the innovation died down once we plumbed the depths of stream of consciousness.
The Dying Grass breaks completely with the traditional structure of the novel. (Well, not completely. It still uses words on paper.) It tells the story of the Nez Perce war with the encroaching United States, from multiple points of view. Dialogue from various characters blends together without the use of speech markers, and thoughts and speeches mix in the most streamy stream of consciousness outside of Finnegan’s Wake.
How is it possible to make sense of what’s going on this way? Vollmann uses the actual spacing of the words on the page to show when one thought interrupts another, or to separate two conversations taking place, one in the foreground and one in the background. The foreground conversation is indented once; the background conversation twice. As characters draw closer to the main focus of the scene, their dialogue comes physically closer on the page to the same indentation as the main narrative. Space serves as dialogue tags, scenery descriptions, and flashback vehicles, all at once.
This has the effect of completely immersing the reader in the story. You aren’t told the army is coming closer; you see it, feel it coming closer as orders of “March!” and “Left!” approach your line of sight on the page. In battle, you hear the shouts and screams of those around you, blending into a chaotic cacophony where you can’t always follow who’s saying what. Things that are important from the character’s point of view take up more page space; things of lesser importance get only a few words, far away.
In my opinion, this book comes the closest that literature ever has to putting the reader inside the characters. More than first-person narration, more than stream of consciousness writing, more even than second-person narration, this style washes over you like you were actually there. The physical length of the book (1,213 pages) serves the same purpose, wearying the reader the same way the characters on both sides of the conflict grow weary from the lengthy forced marches.
This book is not for the casual reader. Expect to have no idea what’s going on for the first 50 to 100 pages. Even once you figure out the style, it’s a hefty task to finish. The story drags, as the historical conflict drags, and since the book weighs the same as a small toddler, you can’t easily haul it around with you. (Don’t read the e-book, though. Part of the experience is the feel of the paper weighing you down.) I wouldn’t recommend this unless you would consider tackling War and Peace. While sleep deprived. And drunk.
If you do choose to read The Dying Grass, though, be prepared for a reading experience like nothing you’ve ever felt before. At around 70 pages, when the full impact of the story and style finally hit me for the first time, I started sobbing. The metaphors often soar into the hauntingly beautiful, and the plights of the various characters are achingly real and uncomfortably familiar: fear or hope, conscience or duty, honor or wisdom. This book will stay with you. It will change you, and it will change the way you see both history and the art of writing.
It’s new in every way that a book can be new.
For the first time in ages, I felt like I really read something novel.