I went through a phase where I thought the World Almanac was a neat thing. As luck would have it this temporary divorce from reality occurred right around the millennial roll-over when all those two digit electronic calendars went crazy and society ended or maybe that didn’t happen, whatever. The point is, the millennial edition of the Book of Facts was packed with lists documenting the most important handful of items in diverse categories that the last thousand laps around old yeller had produced.
One of the categories was dedicated to great works of literature, specifically ones that were considered to have lasting importance and Big Ideas. It was put together by some guy named John Updike, it that is his real name. All the usual super heavyweights make the scene. Dante, Cervantes, Joyce...Gibbon? Yeah, even some non-fiction made the cut, somehow. There was one that I wasn’t familiar with, The Possessed by Dostoevsky. So I read it.
It’s a total fucking mess. I loved it.
Yes, one of a handful of books worthy of representing a four digit block of years is a disaster by just about any technical standard you want to apply. Where to even begin? Let’s just start with a relatively minor issue: a significant portion of the dialogue is in untranslated French. Sacre Bleu. Combine this with Dostoevsky’s tendency to have characters deliver conversation filibusters rather than the more realistic “back and forth” you might notice when people talk in the real world and it's hard going.
Again, that’s one of the minor, background problems.
There’s a deleted chapter. This is notable because it creates a giant hole in the narrative and because its deletion was completely and totally justified. I’m not advocating for censorship, but when you create a few dozen pages as confusing, tonally inappropriate and downright unnecessary as “Stavrogin’s Confession” I’m perfectly content to accept “he was going to see a priest, but I guess it never happened” as an alternative.
Then the center issue: the first two-thirds of this not exactly svelte novel are largely meaningless. I’m dead serious. Plot points are built up that never pay off, characters are established only to be cast aside and complex relationships that aren’t important are discussed in lavish detail. The final third is so far removed from all of this it might as well be its own novel.
The thing is, that last third is absolutely excellent and completely unforgettable. All is forgiven and then some.
You can make mistakes.
One of the best novels of an arbitrary twelve thousand month period has a four hundred page false start. It certainly puts the idea of the “sagging middle” into perspective. It was still savable. Maybe that uncooperative failed manuscript is, too.
It’s at least something to think about. Along with the fact all these millennial lists were actually in the 1998 edition, now that I went and checked. That doesn’t even make sense. Maybe the “real list” came out the next year with Crime and Punishment subbed in and no non-fiction, but by then I’d stopped reading glorified phone books in favor of cocktail guides so you’ll have to ask someone else.
Aaron Zehner is the author of "The Foolchild Invention" available in paperback and e-book format. Read free excerpts here and here.