The idea that a novel is a puzzle to be unraveled by the reader is one we don't see enough in fiction. There should be serious work by the reader to unfold and open and see inside the novel, whether this means complex symbolism, rich layered narratives, complicated characters (contradictory like real people), or subtle allegories. I believe that a novel is a work of art that should demand much from their reader.
I know this idea isn't terribly popular. In fact, it's quite the opposite. Jonathan Franzen once famously wrote (I'm paraphrasing) that novels shouldn't punish their readers. There's so much other immediate media out there, that the novel should take that into account. I disagree. I believe the novel owes nothing to the reader other to be a complex piece of art.
One novel that I keep returning to, when I think of almost-perfect novels is Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin, which I reviewed here. That simple little review does not do justice to the immensity and girth of the novel's complex narrative. This novel does the most amazing tricks while still being about something. On top of all this, Atwood makes it seem effortless, the true sign of a master.
While the novel should be a puzzle, there should be something worthwhile at its center. If the reader is required to unravel the intricacies of the narrative, the author should reciprocate and have the novel's theme be complex and mature. Why go to the effort of working at a novel if its only concern is to show a good time. There should be a real theme at the novel's core. Any theme will do. The more sophisticated the theme, the better. Even a simplistic notion such as a "power corrupts" is better than plainly having characters run about, talking gibberish.
Returning to Atwood, the themes of The Blind Assassin are multiple. The novel is concerned with the composition of history, actual and self, with the dissimilarity between the sexes, the rise of feminism, and the role of sisterhood, figurative and literal. This only scratches the surface. This novel is dealing with huge themes, and the reader is required to work for them - exactly why this novel is almost-perfect.
Dialogue is absolutely paramount to the effectiveness of a novel. Without realistic or appropriate dialogue, a particular novel is a failure. There's nothing more annoying than coming across a piece of dialogue that could never be spoke aloud.
One of the most well-known rules of writing is for one to say out loud the dialogue one is writing. This way one can hear the believability and flow of the dialogue.
Great authors of dialogue include William Gaddis, Richard Price, Richard Yates, and yes, even Bret Easton Ellis.
There is an exception to this rule, if the dialogue is designed to be unnatural, like in Don Delillo's fiction, for example. That's why I said "appropriate" above.
A novel's length should be proportional to its point. If a novel only requires 200 pages to make its point, then going any longer is a violation. Sometimes, novels need to be over a thousand pages. Sometimes, there is enough plot and enough characters to get across the central theme, and to do so with anything less would compromise the thesis. Long novels are sometimes more highly regarded than shorter novels because they take their time and breath. However, some shorter novels are masterpieces of brevity and economy, something very important to the reader. Their time is just as valuable as the author's - this being in conjunction with the Second Rule.
A good example of a short, but perfect novel is The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Could anyone imagine the novel being any longer? It would distract, tire the reader. But The Great Gatsby is absolutely perfect. Not a word need to deleted, nor a sentence added. One can read it in one sitting, and never get bogged down.
On the other hand, an example of a long novel that needs its length is Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson. The plot is so utterly complicated, and features two narratives separated by fifty years, that Stephenson needs the 800 pages to plot his pieces across his chessboard. The overall effect is brilliant, and worth the trip. (An even longer example is Stephenson's The Baroque Cycle, with an ending even more satisfying as it unites all preceding 2500 pages)
The novel's job is to provoke thought. First and foremost. No exceptions. Entertainment, frustration, excitement, anger: all of these emotions should be byproducts of the novel's ability to make one think. If when the reader has finished a novel, and spares it not another thought, then the novel has utterly failed. The novel should stick with the reader.
These are five rules that I judge a novel by. I refuse to compromise on these. Notice that no where did I say that a novel should be required to entertain the reader. Sometimes, a work of art has to be unpleasant. Some of the harshest truths are the most painful to understand. But, the novel that exposes me to pain is required to be meaningful.
Unless, of course, the meaning is to be meaningless, which is a true meaning in of itself. That's one of those circular relativistic arguments that I don't much care to be drawn in.
I think some readers are afraid of demanding such things from a novel. They're willing to let a novel just slip past them, airy and translucent, but I am not. Ever since I graduated university, I've been on a mission to challenge my brain. Yes, sometimes I will read pulp, but the majority of novels I read are ones that I hope will make me work.
Right now, I'm reading J. G. Farrell's Troubles, winner of the Lost Booker, and The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood. I'm taking a break from Paul Scott's Raj Quartet, but I'm excited to continue with him. As always, check back with this blog for reviews and discussion of what I consider to be my most important medium of art: the novel.