Capacious: In defense of digression

Literature is capacious; it enfolds multitudes. (It unfolds multitudes.) And if, indeed, one aspires to depict the world (c.f. mimesis), how could lengthy digressions be avoidable?—because the world itself is all digression, and nothing but.

Digression, in short, is joy.

Look at Tristram Shandy. A book-length digression made out of piled-up asides, jokes, rants, meditations, character sketches—why, it takes the narrator a hundred pages just to get himself born. Sterne planned to keep on extending the game further and further, and he did, sequel after sequel, but then he died. Death, the ultimate digression.

Or Moby-Dick, which I read a few years back, after a lifetime of unaccountable aversion towards it (why, oh why?)—what a baggy, shapeless, capacious, astounding book. Treatise on cetacean taxonomy? Check. Meditation on why the color white is terrifying? Eubetcha. Etymology of whalers’ slang? But of course. Why not? A sermon about Jonah? Yes please. Playlets and monologs and lyrical set pieces—it’s a world, a whole world, bound, somehow, between two covers. In my edition, black ones, with gilt ornaments. Some critics argue that there’s a subtle structure underneath, ordering and controlling the material. I’m unconvinced; bookbinder’s glue suffices. And why did no one ever tell me that this book is funny?

Let us now praise Avram Davidson. There is a great and subtle art to letting a story wander, as if haphazardly, as if pointlessly, while actually secretly leading the reader by the nose. Oh! you say at the end, that was not a trackless forest, it was a topiary garden! No greater master of this sub rosa subterfuge ever lived than Our Avram. —Item, “Manatee Gal, Won’t You Come Out Tonight.” Which felt—to that skinny kid who gripped like a treasure, like a lifeline, the first issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction that had (at last, at last!) appeared in his rural-route mailbox—like being struck by lightning. Also later, much later, reprinted in ¡Limekiller! I defy anyone to answer in fewer words than the text itself the question what is this story about.

So I won’t attempt it here.

(The which is not to say that there is no place for concision or shapeliness in literature.)

But every one of these masterpieces, if newly writ today, would soon find itself fallen into the limbo of the unpublishable. Exercise for the reader: Why?

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