In my quest for Spanish literature, I read a mildly interesting thing the other day by Javier Cercas that would have made a good short story. Unfortunately, he stretched it out to three hundred and four pages.
It was called La velocitad de la luz (The Speed of Light), which was kind of funny because it moved like cold molasses, and could be a poster child for how novels can go wrong. First off, you should never write about writers. The interesting thing about writers is their work, not themselves. As with all rules, there are exceptions to this one, but the protagonist of this particular novel is as boring as they come. Or seems to be; another problem with this book is that none of the characters are brought to life. The only one who even threatens to breathe is a Vietnam vet that the protagonist meets while teaching at a college in the American Midwest, and he never rises above the level of cliché.
Which leads to another major problem. Mr. Cercas is a professor of literature, and his book reeks of the ivory tower. There are countless discussions about whether success spoils writers. There are countless agreements and disagreements about whether various writers are any good. There are key references to, in particular, two stories by Hemingway, that, unless he has read the stories in question, cannot possibly make sense to the reader. And all this talk about writers and the art of writing is as insipid and academic as it can possibly be. The agreements and disagreements never even become arguments. ‘Do you like Hemingway?’ ‘No.’ End of discussion. (Actually, the protagonist, who answered ‘no,’ has not really read Hemingway. Later, he does, but the only thing we learn about his reading of Hemingway is that, when he reads him, he thinks of Rodney.)
They ask in Granada whether someone has blood in his veins, or yogurt. Whatever is flowing in the veins of Mr. Cercas, it is certainly not blood.
Still, his novel does have enough of an idea in it that it could have been an effective short story. Here’s an example of how the inclusion of extraneous material stretched it out to novel length:
Rodney, the Vietnam vet, has come to visit the protagonist in Spain, but the protagonist is not at home. He leaves contact information with the protagonist’s wife. The protagonist (who is never named, which either adds or does not add to the self-referentiality of the book) takes four pages to decide to contact him. He calls the hotel in Pamplona, but Rodney has left early for Madrid. He calls Madrid, but Rodney is not in his room. He flies to Madrid. The plane lands, and he takes the M-30 highway into town. The hotel is in a certain part of town, near a certain train station. The reception desk is in a large reception area, and is flanked by telephone booths and a rack of postcards. He signs in. He gets his room key. He asks about Rodney. The clerk, who wears glasses, looks in the guestbook. Rodney is checked into room 334, but is out. The protagonist leaves a message. He goes to his room, which is small and not very nice, gets undressed, takes a shower, gets dressed again, lies on the bed which has a bedspread that matches the curtains. He wonders about the impending meeting, goes downstairs, leaves another message, goes to the hotel café, orders a beer, reads part of a novel, orders several more beers, a sandwich, a whiskey, a cup of coffee . . .
Between landing at Madrid airport and Rodney showing up at the hotel, three pages of this drivel!
Had this book been in English, I never would have finished it. Which in a way would have been a shame, because it is useful to expose yourself to bad art every once in a way. I’ve been the least bit worried about the length of my current novel, which is almost halfway done and seems a little short. What, I have been wondering, ought I to work in, in order to pad it out? La velocitad de la luz has reminded me that the important thing is not finding things to add, but finding the things that need to be cut.