f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: Day 3 of <i>Gilead</i> - Dense

f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n

Monday, May 09, 2005

Day 3 of Gilead - Dense

I read fast. Gilead is not a long book—less than 250 pages, in fact. Most books, that’s a three-hour read for me. I did not read this book in three hours.

In part, I couldn’t read it that fast because the pages were simply packed. Remember a year ago when we started talking about dialogue and its role in novels? And that led us to a discussion of Average Words per Sentence and crazy amounts of math? Simply put, a book with substantial portions of dialogue is easier and quicker to read. But it’s only partly because of word count.

The other reason is that long portions of narrative place comprehension demands on readers. We all learn little tricks to facilitate our understanding of books. One of those tricks is that, typically, what’s in dialogue is of primary importance. Thus you can typically skip portions of narrative, read the dialogue, and stay on-top of what’s going on.

When you remove dialogue almost completely—and skim Gilead to see how little dialogue there is—you remove one of those tricks. Now a reader has to pay attention through long sections of narrative. You need to track thoughts often through multiple paragraphs, sometimes even through multiple sections. A few thoughts need to be tracked through the entire book. This absolutely slows a reader down. And it earns a book like Gilead the somewhat pejorative descriptor of a “meditative” read.

I think this kind of narrative control requires a slightly different skill set than plot-driven narrative of other stories. Instead of the point-to-point thread a plot demands to move forward, this interior narrative comes off much more like, unsurprisingly, a sermon.

Have you ever heard a bad sermon? Not one where the content is bad or boring, but one that simply rambles. In its individual pieces, it sounds fine, but when they’re linked together there’s no cohesive thread that impels you forward. Great orators create an invisible logic (there’s most likely a rhetorical term for this; I don’t know it) that makes it easy and compelling to follow their narrative. The resolution of a great argument or sermon is in some ways as satisfying as the resolution of a plot.

Not to say Gilead doesn’t have a plot, but much of what you linger over longest is her character’s varied ruminations.

So it can be rightly (and fairly) asked: How much of Gilead is sermon and how much is novel? We’ll get to that tomorrow.
Go to Day 4 of our discussion of Gilead.