THE GREENLANDERS by Jane Smiley (Anchor Books, 2005)

franzen_smileyIs life too short for big books?

When it comes to novels like Infinite Jest or Middlemarch, I’d say not.

David Foster Wallace was so overflowing with ideas that he needed the space to expand his thoughts while George Eliot used a larger palette to create a world with a world.

Yet, there seems to be a trend (or requirement) for writing 500 or more pages as a demonstration of a writer’s prowess.

Jonathan Safran Foer’s  sprawling ‘Here I Am’ is one recent example of a novel that would have greatly benefited from trimming by at least 200 pages.

Jane Smiley’s epic Norse saga is another.

It is set in the 14th century and is just shy of 600 pages long. It’s impressive in that Smiley is able to vividly evoke a land that time almost forgot but it’s also very long, meandering and lacking in any real narrative drive.

The back page blurb describes the setting as “Europe’s most far-flung outpost, a land of glittering fjords, blasting winds, sun-warmed meadows and high, dark mountains”. It’s a striking but a harsh, unforgiving landscape (“Most folk do not laugh at the prospect of a Greenland winter”).

The Greenlanders are forced to scavenge for food to survive. There are frequent feuds between competing clans and the vague threat of primitive skrælings who are expert hunters but short on social skills.

The reader soon learns that it doesn’t pay to get too attached to characters because most don’t last too long. Death is a fact of life in this forbidding terrain. Despite the list of the folk and kin, the absence of a consistent protagonist and the wealth of similar sounding names means that it’s a constant challenge keeping track of what’s happening, where and to who.

In short, reading this book is like battling through a persistent snowstorm trying to make out landmarks or other points of reference to stay orientated.

After a while I felt buried and snowbound with the sensation that I was stuck in an epic loop. Half way through I left the Gunnarssons, Gunnarsdottirs and the rest of the priests and farming folk to their fate reflecting that life’s too short for big books like this one.