Edward Mendelson published his essay “Gravity’s Encyclopedia” upon the 1973 publication of Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. Writing originally in The Yale Review (he later expanded the essay for the 1976 collection Mindful Pleasures), Mendelson sets out with the remarkably high-flown goal of defining a new literary genre. He calls the genre “encyclopedic narrative,” and in it he puts Pynchon’s book as well as a select few of the most significant works of the Western canon. Mendelson writes in full-throated terms that befit the grand scale of his argument:
Although the genre that now includes Gravity’s Rainbow is demonstrably the most important single genre in Western literature of the Renaissance and after, it has never previously been identified. Gravity’s Rainbow is an encyclopedic narrative, and its companions in this most exclusive of literary categories are Dante’s Commedia, Rabelais’s five books of Gargantua and Pantagruel, Cervantes’s Don Quixote, Goethe’s Faust, Melville’s Moby-Dick, and Joyce’s Ulysses.
“Most exclusive” indeed — counting Pynchon just seven writers in the past five hundred or so years. He elaborates on a set of criteria that the encyclopedic narrative must include in order to be considered as such. He does allow that “not all encyclopedists produce a single encyclopedic narrative,” nodding to Chaucer and Shakespeare in English and, after them, Sterne and Swift; furthermore, later scholars have taken up Mendelson’s idea and added recent large-scale works like Underworld and Infinite Jest to broaden the field (though Wallace and DeLillo’s inclusion doesn’t do much on the diversity front). Even still, though, to talk today about encyclopedic narrative is to talk about a very small number of very big books.
To be fair, Mendelson’s presenting his argument in such grandiose terms seems an understandable response to the sheer scale of Pynchon’s endeavor. A work of this magnitude is a rare thing, the scholar is saying, an exceptional thing. But his immediate concern at the outset is that Gravity’s Rainbow not be approached as a mere novel, for “to read it as a novel — as a narrative of individuals and their social and psychological relations — is to misconstrue it.” A work might have the trappings of a novel, then, but the encyclopedic impulse, carried out to its full extent, takes the work far beyond the realm of novel (or any other literary genre) and into the realm of encyclopedic narrative.
Is it possible, though, for a novel to be informed by the encyclopedic impulse without bursting its generic seams? In other words, can a novel remain on the one hand “a narrative of individuals and their social and psychological relations” while on the other hand satisfying at least some of the distinct criteria that Mendelson lays out for encyclopedic narrative? If so, what you might have then is a work of seemingly more modest scale — a mere novel — that nevertheless partakes of and draws its forcefulness from the completist, all-encompassing ambition of the encyclopedic narrative. Such a work would benefit from the tension between compact form and broad-reaching content; its unassuming scale would belie more sweeping engagement within; and though seemingly personal in scope, it would necessarily have a greater resonance.
I’ve encountered a few recent novels that strike me as inhabiting an odd interstice that, with deference to Mendelson, I’d like to call micro-encyclopedic fiction. Chris Bachelder’s Abbott Awaits (2011), Mandy Keifetz’s Flea Circus (2012), and Nicholson Baker’s Paul Chowder novels The Anthologist (2009) and Traveling Sprinkler (2013) are books that attempt, each in its own way, to insert an exhaustive body of knowledge into a shrunken format. This body of knowledge might itself pertain to a limited realm, rather than taking in the full cultural and historical sweep of Mendelson’s encyclopedic narrative, but it is at the center of the narrative in each of these books. What sets these novels apart from other intimate stories of isolation and obsession, like Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy or, more recently, John Darnielle’s Wolf in White Van, is that they still engage with culture and history, albeit in an attenuated way. More than stories concerned with “individuals and their social and psychological relations,” Bachelder, Baker, and Keifetz’s novels are stories of single individuals, embedded in society, who are dealing on a personal level and in rigorous analytic fashion with a body of knowledge that lies outside of themselves.
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Let’s quickly run through Mendelson’s checklist of the elements that make up an encyclopedic narrative. First up, national culture: “Encyclopedic narratives attempt to render the full range of knowledge and beliefs of a national culture, while identifying the ideological perspectives from which that culture shapes and interprets its knowledge.” Thus in Moby-Dick, the Pequod acts as a microcosm of 19th century America, and Ulysses, as a portrait of Dublin at the turn of the century, takes a shot at Stephen Daedelus’s stated aim to “forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.” In the case of Gravity’s Rainbow, set at the tail end of World War II and encompassing a polyglot breadth of language and a range of continental settings, Mendelson sees Pynchon as prophesying the emergence of a new international culture.
Next on the list is the issue of the writer’s relation to the “national culture” being chronicled. Mendelson sees the encyclopedist standing at a kind of glorious outlaw remove from the culture he’s chronicling — “From his position at the edge of a culture, an encyclopedist redefines that culture’s sense of what it means to be human” — and cites as evidence Pynchon’s reclusiveness and Joyce’s exile. The heroic outsider role features within the narrative as well: neither Tyrone Slothrop in Gravity’s Rainbow nor Leopold Bloom in Ulysses are completely integrated into their respective milieux.
Citing as examples the in-depth examination of rocketry in Gravity’s Rainbow and of cetology and the spermacetti trade in Moby-Dick, Mendelson argues that “All encyclopedic narratives include a full account of at least one technology or science.” Through synecdoche, this one technology or science stands in for “the whole scientific sector of knowledge.” Science, as another means by which a culture “shapes and interprets its knowledge,” acts as a counterweight to the aesthetic element in the narrative; the national culture captured in an encyclopedic novel is present not only in art but also through science and industry.
Finally, at the formal level, Mendelson writes, “Each encyclopedic narrative is an encyclopedia of literary styles.” Thus in Moby-Dick there are the dramatic interludes; in Ulysses there are the prevalence of advertising language and, in the “Oxen of the Sun” chapter, the journey through the different epochs of English literature, from Anglo-Saxon alliteration to modernist stream-of-consciousness; and in Gravity’s Rainbow the incorporation of film, popular song, and other new forms of mass culture, on top of the more high brow references. As a genre, encyclopedic narrative is characterized by its ability to assimilate other genres. Related to this formal quality is the encyclopedic narrative’s tendency towards literal hugeness, or as Mendelson writes: “All encyclopedias metastasize the monstrousness of their own scale by including giants or gigantism.” Each encyclopedia has its own White Whale.
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If the novels by Baker, Bachelder, and Keifetz don’t satisfy Mendelson’s criteria in a one-on-one corollary, they at least engage with them in a way that’s worth exploring for its implications. All of the novels were published in the past six years; their action takes place in the present day U.S. Because of their setting, they no doubt benefit from a certain assumed cultural context, however loosely defined, but rather than attempting “to render the full range of knowledge and beliefs of a national culture,” the remarkable quality they all share is that each novel in its way deliberately refuses to do so, choosing instead to render knowledge, beliefs, science, art, etc., only as they apply within the narrow personal range of the protagonist, an individual isolated within a greater culture.
Mendelson’s outsider status can be applied to each of the protagonists here. Izzy Oytsershifl, the narrator of Flea Circus, is so consumed by grief after her lover’s suicide that she has effectively withdrawn from society: she stops working (and is later fired), boards up the windows in her apartment, and starts planning her own end. Abbott, of Abbott Awaits, is an academic on summer vacation awaiting the birth of his second child. The action of the novel runs from June through August, each chapter a day in Abbott’s domestic life: meals with his wife and toddler, chores around the house. Aside from a dial-up internet connection that he accesses late at night to read about random grotesque tragedies, Abbott is effectively cut off from the world. Finally, Paul Chowder in The Anthologist and Traveling Sprinkler, though less socially isolated than Abbott, nevertheless represents, as a poet confined to his own solitary orbit who spends most of his time unable or unwilling to practice his craft, a certain kind of independence and alienation all at once.
As withdrawn into themselves as these characters are, however, each responds to his or her isolation in a way that can be described as encyclopedic — or better yet, micro-encyclopedic, meaning that the encyclopedic impulse to take in, define, and arrange a broad swath of information is here directed at a narrow field. There is still the same exhaustive cataloguing tendency, but the scale is more personal. “Hello, this is Paul Chowder,” runs the opening line of The Anthologist, “and I’m going to try and tell you everything I know.”
Chowder spends most of the book failing to write the introduction to a poetry anthology he has edited. In lieu of the introduction, Chowder the narrator dispenses his knowledge on the history of poetry — his particular bête noir is the modernist assault on rhyme — together with anecdotes about renowned poets and arguments about meter. Structurally speaking, poetry occupies a similar role in The Anthologist to that of rocketry in Gravity’s Rainbow or whaling in Moby-Dick.
In fact, each of these micro-encyclopedic books features something like a central discipline which serves a different but related function than that of Mendelson’s synecdochic sciences. These disciplines are by their very nature miniature, a reversal of the encyclopedic emphasis on gigantism. Where in encyclopedic narrative the one science is meant to stand in for all of scientific knowledge, in micro-encyclopedic fiction, the discipline points inward, towards the realm of the personal. Ishmael in Moby-Dick essays to present the Sperm whale in its many aspects as a stand-in for knowledge itself: “For unless you own the whale, you are but a provincial and sentimentalist in Truth.” Chowder’s thoughts on poetry operate on the same principle, but the truth they outline is not universal but rather skewed to the protagonist’s perspective.
In Traveling Sprinkler, music takes the place of poetry as Chowder makes comic, fledgling attempts to learn the guitar and master home recording software. For Chowder, who gave up the bassoon in his youth and now in middle age regrets the decision, these tentative efforts are a kind of renewal. Chowder’s musings are turned outward at times, inward at others. At one point he writes a song about Guantánamo Bay; later, while at the gym, he starts writing a song called “Why Are You Fat?” Music, like poetry in The Anthologist, is the means for Chowder’s continued engagement, at an attenuated level, with himself and the world.
The myriad components of a certain kind of contemporary suburban U.S. domestic life — marriage, parenting, homeownership — together form the discipline at the center of Abbott Awaits; the book itself consists of repeated instances of rigorous psychological analysis of, for example, the broader considerations that attach to the decision to buy a certain kind of broom:
Abbott knows he should purchase the correct broom but in doing so he feels that he will commit himself entirely to this house, this lawn, this neighborhood, this family, this economic status, this climate, this region and its unfamiliar cycles—the winter plows, the spring sweeps, the seasonal relocation of gravel. If he owns the broom, then he will be sweeping this weedy yard each year until his death.
The broom decision, an aspect of domestic life, opens Abbott up to a chain of considerations, each with its own specific component, ultimately concluding in Abbott’s anxiety about his own mortality. The same rigor that in encyclopedic narrative would lead to a broader national or cultural portrait here serves to enhance a single individual’s sense of dread.
Flea Circus gets its title from Izzy’s late lover’s passion: trained as an entomologist, Tim Acree had devoted himself to reviving the lost art of the flea circus — in the context of micro-encyclopedic fiction, another instance of anti-gigantism. When he dies, he leaves his fleas to Izzy, who, having nothing else, seizes on this miniscule legacy; after struggling with the decision, she even begins breeding more of them: “I have no intention of raising more fleas. Keeping the ones I’ve already got is killing me. Then again, maybe it’s not such a bad idea. If some fleas are killing me, more might polish me off.” By committing to the fleas, Izzy embraces her isolation and her own yearning for ruin. Like Bachelder and Baker’s protagonists’ obsessions, they are both a tiny world in their own right and a means of escape from the world at large.
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In only one key respect do Bachelder, Baker, and Keifetz’s books clearly diverge from Mendelson’s model: they are novels. Unlike the encyclopedic narrative’s omnivorous sucking up of other literary forms, they pretend to no other generic status: they are content to be novels, and rather slim novels at that — only the two Baker books come in at more than 200 pages. This formal modesty seems as deliberate as the interior, narrow focus contained within.
Mendelson argues that Gravity’s Rainbow must be read as more than a novel, more than “a narrative of individuals and their social and psychological relations.” The protagonists of micro-encyclopedic books, on the other hand, may inhabit novel scenarios, but ultimately they fail to find meaning in the “relations” these scenarios offer. They are too lonely and isolated, and this drives them to turn inward. They focus on some personal encyclopedic obsession that can be either a source of relief or just another source of frustration. Either way, the obsession’s centrality in their lives offers further proof of their alienation.
Flea Circus’s subtitle, “A Brief Bestiary of Grief,” together with the alphabetical arrangement of its chapters (Chapter 1, “Altamont,” begins with a list of A words: “Abeyance * Airshaft * Alcohol * Alias * Alive * Altamont * Animal Enthusiast * Antimonial Lead * Ash Bat * Audio Frequency * Awful”; subsequent chapters repeat this form) suggests that the book will offer a methodic, coherent compendium of loss. The novel of course is constantly working against this artificially imposed semblance of order. The protagonist Izzy collects esoteric knowledge — “I know a little bit about everything,” she says. “That’s the thing about me” — but there’s the sense that it won’t help her with her grief. As another character tells her: “Every fact is available to you, except the one you need.” As a means of engaging with the world, Izzy’s scattershot approach is thorough in its way but transparent in its limitations.
The “June 30” chapter in Abbott Awaits begins by posing this question: “If he weren’t an untenured humanist at the flagship campus of a state university system, what would Abbott most like to be?” The answer: “He’d like to be a field scientist with a useless research project.” Abbott is reading online about the discoveries of a husband and wife research team on the subject of lightning bugs. “The research is wonderful because it is so unnecessary. All it does is create knowledge. Abbott loves science without application or consequence.” Abbott’s own analytic impulses, of course, have little application or consequence save within his own narrow domestic sphere, but within that sphere the consequences tend to be negative. It doesn’t matter that Abbott’s stature is so miniscule; even the little substance he has is a source of anguish. He aspires to shrink down to the point where his actions lack all substance whatsoever. Thus the appeal of the lightning bug research, which yields purely aesthetic results.
Nicholson Baker’s Paul Chowder books rival Bachelder’s in their aggressively quotidian quality. The later book, Traveling Sprinkler, gives this quality an explicitly political element: Chowder’s appreciation for the everyday is being constantly impinged upon by the ambient horror of, among other things, the legacy of the CIA and President Obama’s continued use of drones. He would rather admire simple machines like his traveling sprinkler: “National Walking Sprinkler of Nebraska made Wilson’s machines [the sprinklers], and they still do . . . It’s what America did before it threw itself wholeheartedly into the making of weapons that kill everyone.”
Chowder’s complaints are self-consciously inert. At times he is quick to apologize for them: “Please just ignore this tiresome politicizing.” And yet the modesty of his statements, their sheer plainness, can also lend them moral authority: “I’m eating Planter’s trail mix and I’m not killing anyone. Like most people, I live my life and don’t have any interest in spending secret government money trying to overthrow inconvenient regimes.”
Thomas Pynchon ended Gravity’s Rainbow by bringing the action from WWII up to present day. The novel’s final moment has a V2 rocket about to crash down on a movie theatre as the specter of Richard Nixon looms somewhere off in the distance, surveying the scene. Mendelson, in his essay, takes up Pynchon’s political baton. The idea of a work of fiction trying to capture a national culture is of course unavoidably political, and Mendelson’s admiration for the scale of Pynchon’s efforts is evident, right down to the epic cadences of his prose. The message is clear enough: national culture — now international culture — had swollen and metastasized into a dark corporate matrix of interconnected death; Pynchon’s tangled narrative was the perfect diagnosis.
The recent emergence and subsequent inclusion under the “encyclopedic narrative” label of books like Infinite Jest (1996) and Underworld (1997) of course argues for the persistent appeal of this type of narrative. Certainly things are no less bleak, globo-politically speaking. Baker, Bachelder, and Keifetz’s books, though much more modest in scope, nevertheless seem evidence that whatever alienating force drives the encyclopedic impulse has infiltrated even the most personal of narratives as well. It’s not the national (or interconnected or globalized) culture these writers are interested in diagnosing, a culture they seem both deeply imbedded in on the one hand, thoroughly isolated from on the other. Their goal seems rather to shrink the scale of the analytic, cataloguing impulse as it pertains to this culture. Retreat isn’t an option; all that’s left to them is to attempt to engage with the culture, or aspects of it, on their own terms, and in that way, perhaps they make their lonely niche more bearable.
Marshall Yarbrough is assistant music editor at the Brooklyn Rail. He has written for Electric Literature and Tiny Mix Tapes, and his translations from German have appeared in n+1 and InTranslation.org.
Image source here.