Jan. 26, 2010

“Little Dorrit”: Dickens’ Teeming World

I’ve just finished Dickens’ Little Dorrit and my first thought on closing the book is how big and sprawling it seems next to our own spare, miniaturist novels.

Not all of today’s novels are written this way, of course, but scan the Times bestseller list and you will see that generally the Raymond Carver/New Yorker style — lean, controlled, underpopulated, understated — has won the day. Young writers today are drilled in restraint. Be subtle! (“Show, don’t tell.”) Be concise! (“A rifle hanging on the wall in act one must be fired by act three” — must!) Cut, cut, and cut some more! (The novel, as Hemingway would have it, owes its “dignity of movement” to being like an iceberg, nine-tenths hidden under the surface.)

The result of all this decorum is that there is an artificial, circumscribed quality to a lot of our storytelling. Realism just doesn’t feel like reality.  John Updike once noted, “People in novels rather rarely eat; their health is not often of concern to them; earning money isn’t nearly as important to them as it is to those of us in the real world.” Real life is crowded, overstimulated, harried, sprawling, noisy, messy; realist fiction generally is none of these things. It is Art — oy.

Dickens breaks every rule of modernism, of course. His iceberg floats proudly above water. Yet at 152 years old, Little Dorrit feels more alive than most of those Times bestsellers. Why?

One reason is that Dickens employs a much larger cast than modern writers typically do. Whole brigades of characters swarm the stage. Dickens manages the crowd by a familiar set of tricks. He has a gift for making a character come alive with a single gesture briefly described. One unnamed character is seen at the dinner table “wiping some drops of wine from his mustache with a piece of bread,” and in that moment the character lives and breathes. Also, Little Dorrit is politically engaged. (But no less relevant: it is hard to imagine Mr. Merdle without being reminded of Bernie Madoff.) And of course, to prevent the whole invented world of Little Dorrit from spinning apart, Dickens contrives connections and coincidences that, to a modern reader, feel bogus and melodramatic.

The reward is the very scale of the story. Little Dorrit’s capacious, complex, multi-thread plotting — its bigness — conveys some of the complexity and interconnectedness of Dickens’s world in a way that today’s slimmer novels simply can’t.

It is interesting that this sort of sprawling multi-thread, multi-character drama still thrives on TV. Some of my favorite shows, The Sopranos, The Wire, and Mad Men, are crowded ensemble pieces. The Wire, in particular, has often been called “Dickensian” and for good reason: it uses a big canvas because it is trying to capture a big subject, an entire city, just as Dickens did. Multi-thread storytelling was a brief fad in movies, too (Pulp Fiction, Traffic and, less successfully, Crash) but the trend seems to have petered out, lamentably.

I am not suggesting we go back to Dickens’ style of plotting. Today’s readers don’t have the attention spans for big Victorian novels, or the interest. But if the complaint about novels is that they feel less vivid, three-dimensional and immersive than “new media,” then maybe we should consider that some of the smallness is in our storytelling style. In a world that feels increasingly speeded-up, hyperlinked and complex, a style that is hermetic and spare feels badly out of tune.

This is not a new idea. The internet is not the first threat the novel has faced. Confronted with a similarly disruptive technology, film, John Dos Passos tried to mimic the jangled feeling of his time using a montage of styles and characters in his U.S.A. trilogy. I have even used a multi-thread plot myself in The Strangler, and for a reason similar to Dickens’s: to create a more panoramic view of a vast, complex place.

I have a fantasy that I will write a big, shaggy Dickensian novel myself one day. It would weave multiple threads from various parts of Boston to capture the sprawl and intricacy of a vast, living city. For now, though, my Big Book will have to wait. I have a mortgage to pay and kids to put through college, and who reads Big Books anymore, anyway?