It can be embarrassing to confess to not having the basic skills required to read a long novel, especially when one claims to have read many “challenging” novels. My biggest problem is never lengthy sentences or esoteric words, but simply maintaining a clear picture of each individual character, what they are, what they have done and what they think. Even when re-reading a novel that I would consider myself quite familiar with, such as Ulysses, I have difficulty keeping the Ben Dollards separate from the Nosey Flynns. I also find Virginia Woolf challenging on this point. Woolf’s novels often begin in media res and immediately introduce the reader to a number of members of a large family with an extended circle of acquaintances. It would be absurd to expect a writer as elliptical as Woolf to hold the reader’s hand and introduce each member of the Ramsay family in a novel such as To The Lighthouse, so I often resort to jotting down each character’s names on the back page and keep a brief account of their deeds, giving me an easy reference point should the disquieting moment arise when I realise that something very important is happening or something very beautiful is being described and I find myself unsure as to why it matters.
This summary of the character’s exploits serves me well when reading Woolf, but when reading Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon, documenting every major (and minor) narrative event threatened to overwhelm every inch of every margin or blank page in the book. I found it embarrassing in my English lit. tutorials that despite taking part in in-depth discussions that would meander around a number of key issues in a particular novel I would sometimes barely know which character was which. I generally remembered whatever point I wanted to make and barrelled through without getting caught up in the details. I always resisted the urge to express the fact that many of the personalities tended to blend together because to try to link this distortion to the aesthetic make-up of any particular text could be construed as a confession that I had not paid enough attention while I was reading or that I was stupid.
While arguing this would still strike my as slightly lazy, I don’t think I would be as averse to arguing it now. Modernist authors write in such a way that challenges the reader. A lengthy description of a character’s innermost thoughts, fears and appearance of the kind that one might find in a certain kind of nineteenth-century novel are discarded. Instead, we have an allegedly more realistic means of representation, that aims to capture the truth of human consciousness and perception, by making it difficult, and by turning the reader into a kind of detective, rather than an omnipotent being with all the facts laid out before them.
This is the case for Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez’s novel One Hundred Years of Solitude, which begins with a family tree outlining seven generations of the Buendía family. When I first saw it I presumed (and perhaps hoped) that the novel would be broken into seven distinct parts for each generation, that would presumably help distinguish between the many similarly named characters. The metronymic and patronymic first and middle names were ultimately the cause of endless confusion. The narrative details the various misfortunes that befall the family throughout its long history. The reader sees the capacity of each family member to repeat the failures and excesses of its earliest forbearers. At one point in the novel, the family matriarch Úrsula has an epiphany in which she realises the extent to which her children are incapable of loving another person by virtue of their egotism. This is an important theme for Márquez and his narrative eventually resulted in the creation of a novel which his biographer Gerard Martin described as “the first novel in which Latin Americans recognised themselves, that defined them, celebrated their passion, their intensity, their spirituality and superstition, their grand propensity for failure.” This is the reason why some of the older members of the family are able to perceive a re-iterative, fatalistic quality to the lifestyles of their children and why their names can lead to each character failing to distinguish themselves as a wholly autonomous character, especially for a reader as inattentive as myself.
(I recently re-read To The Lighthouse and found it very easy to distinguish every character from every other one, so I presumably just didn’t pay enough attention the first time.)