No Perfect Novels

“The novel is a prose narrative of some length that has something wrong with it.” — Randall Jarrell

“Novels that don’t look like novels? When it comes to the canon – to steal a line from Lorrie Moore – novels like that are the only novels here.” — Zadie Smith

“Curiously, there are many perfect short stories, but no perfect novels.” — J.G. Ballard

Perfection, Roberto Bolaño suggests in 2666, is a rather paltry objective: Amalfitano thinks poorly of a pharmacist for liking short stories and novellas —

“He chose ‘The Metamorphosis’ over The Trial, he chose ‘Bartleby’ over Moby-Dick, he chose ‘A Simple Heart’ over Bouvard and Pécuchet, and ‘A Christmas Carol’ over A Tale of Two Cities or The Pickwick Papers. What a sad paradox, thought Amalfitano. Now even bookish pharmacists are afraid to take on the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown. They choose the perfect exercises of the great masters. Or what amounts to the same thing: they want to watch the great masters spar, but they have no interest in real combat, when the great masters struggle against that something, that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench.”

I feel guilty quoting this because I myself tend to prefer Bolaño’s short stories to his novels… although having said this, I immediately want to stress that he couldn’t have written those short stories without writing those novels… Doubtless the impossibility of perfection is part of the appeal of novel-writing, and in this, writing resembles life. In the words of theologian Stanley Hauwerwas —

“For finally I think this is the best most of us can do: make interesting mistakes.”

But I disagree with Amalfitano at least to this extent — I would insist that “The Metamorphosis,” “Bartleby,” “A Simple Heart” and “A Christmas Carol” all do blaze paths into the unknown…

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