Jim Gauer's Novel Explosives (Zerogram Press, 2016) seems at first to be an almost paradigmatic example of what has been called a "meganovel" or a "maximalist" novel, exemplifying in its approach what Tom LeClair also called the "art of excess." It is a 700-page behemoth (its length made even more daunting by its generally very long paragraphs) that tells what initially presents itself as a quite complex story requiring multiple points of view, a fractured narrative--although the story takes place over the course of a week, we begin at the end of the week, go back to the beginning, and are subsequently presented alternating episodes from beginning, middle, and end--and a style that is uninhibited, to say the least, in both its syntactical overabundance and its often arcane vocabulary. Quite clearly as well, it intends to take on the heftiest and most far-reaching of themes: the nature of human identity, insatiable greed, the corruption of social and cultural norms of decency.
Yet finally the novel seems not so much a complex response to what has become a complex reality, but a sustained embellishment of a relatively simple--if at times disturbing--story of the intersection of financial chicanery and the drug trade and a relentless enhancement of the details and circumstances of that story with endlessly proliferating information, often deliberately esoteric. The outrageousness of this strategy, whereby, for example a few minutes of a character's time is extended for pages while we are told about the physics underlying the situation or the technological developments contributing to the plot turn underway, can be rather entertaining in itself, but, while Pynchon and DeLillo preceded Gauer in creating information-saturated narratives, their novels seemed to be attempting to reveal how perceptible reality was increasingly conditioned by the sometimes imperceptible forces (political, technological, historical) flowing together in the formation of modernity. Novel Explosives seems content simply to add mathematical and scientific explanations to its ongoing narrative actions, slowing those actions down at the same time they act as a kind of reinforcement of the novel's realism rather than an interrogation of it.
And, indeed, ultimately this is an intensely realistic novel, deeply immersing us in the milieu of each of its settings: a town in Mexico where the novel begins with a man who has forgotten who he is (but not what he knows) and how he came to be in the town; the world of megacapitalism inhabited by an unnamed "venture capitalist" (later he is referred to as "Douchebag" by those who are pursing him), who turns out to be the amnesiac to whom we are first introduced; and the world (underworld, perhaps more accurately) in which move a pair of criminal enforcers employed by an American drug overlord, whose activities bring together predatory capitalism and the drug trade, the latter obviously being portrayed as an extreme but logical extension of the former. One of the enforcers, Raymond, arguably becomes the novel's protagonist when he begins to rebel against the orders given to him by his employer, exhibiting a moral conscience the other characters lack. We are able to appreciate Raymond's change of heart, however, mostly because we have been so relentlessly exposed to the pervasive moral rot polluting the environment in which he finds himself, which by extension reflects the corruption of the larger socioeconomic system that makes it possible.
Novel Explosives comes closer to being a species of satire than the kind of postmodern pastiche we might associated with Pynchon or DeLillo. Certainly the novel makes its share of metafictional gestures—starting with its title, which refers literally to a kind of advanced explosive but which also clearly enough alludes to the novel we are reading, with its attempt to “explode” the narrative and stylistic expectations some readers might bring to it--and while this contributes to its predominantly comic tone, in effect adding its own representational objectives to the array of potential satirical targets, it doesn't finally negate those objectives. Surely few people could read Novel Explosives without concluding that the author intends it to draw attention to the corruption and criminality it highlights so that we can be aware, at least, of the scope of the problem we face if we hope to combat it. Indeed, it might be said that the novel goes beyond satire to become more straightforwardly a critique of capitalism in its 21st century variety, a critique given more immediate force through its realization in the form of a postmodern novel.
But then this appropriation of the postmodern novel of excess for its rhetorical convenience--adding it as a kind of elaborate supplement to an otherwise polemical narrative--makes it something less (or other) than an postmodern novel, since Pynchon and DeLillo are not satirists, except to the extent that satire might be a indirect and secondary effect of their more radically incongruous and unsettling portrayals of an enigmatic and often impenetrable reality. Thus it would be both unfair and ultimately inaccurate to say that Novel Explosives is derivative of the work of these earlier writers. While to a degree a novel like this would not be possible without the prior example of Pynchon and De Lillo (as well as Gaddis and McElroy), we could say that those writers have enabled Gauer in his endeavor to write a complex, large-scale novel whose complexity is mostly a surface complexity that supports the novel's ultimate representational ambition: to amplify the characters and their circumstances as much as possible, but in order to enhance the verisimilitude of the depictions. Postmodern fiction questions the capacity of language to fully achieve verisimilitude; Novel Explosives does not manifest such skepticism, even if it must extend the resources of language almost to the bursting point to achieve its goal.
Still, it is in its invocation of language that this novel is most impressive. If its style could be called excessive, it is excessive in the most audacious and frequently entertaining way. If the sentences and paragraphs are elongated and labyrinthine, it is not because of the author's lack of control but because he maintains such measured control that they can be trusted to do their work. The Venture Capitalist celebrates his success in that vocation:
We should, at this point, probably take our seats; the salads have arrived, and the wine is being poured, and with our market cap now hovering above $10 billion, and plenty of oxygen trapped in the ever-expanding market bubble, death by live burial would seem to be out of order. We're starting with an ethereal Corton-Charlemagne, a $500 white from the Burgundy region, which is about as far from Bahr al Gazal as you can possibly get, a wine that in my understated Elicit Networks tasting notes is "all but inevitable" and "brilliantly executed" and "seemingly so accidental but so richly deserved," though to be perfectly honest, let's not kid ourselves, no one in Silicon Valley, much less North Dallas, really gives a shit about ethereal Burgundies, since they're more about earthy poetry, and epiphanic moments, than power and elegance, measured in fruit-pounds of torque, and Parker, rather famously, no longer bothers to even taste them.
The tone of this passage, a kind of mock sincerity, typifies the style of the novel as a whole, but especially the sections narrated by the Venture Capitalist. Although ultimately the style flags in the last third of the novel, this is as at least as much because the narrative itself has been stretched beyond its capacity to sustain interest in its resolution, not because the prose itself wears out its welcome.
Novel Explosives is certainly by far more interesting than most of what gets published by prominent publishers, even prominent independent publishers, as "literary fiction." However, the novel too nearly seems to treat the "postmodern novel" as itself a genre to be adopted for me to fully embrace it. Most readers would find it a less intimidating work than its size might suggest, but in a way that is also the source of my disappointment with it.