This article seeks to define a new genre of the contemporary novel: the maximalist novel. It is an aesthetically hybrid genre that developed in the United States in the early 1970s and then spread to Europe at the beginning of the twenty-first century. The aim of this article is to stake out a new conceptual territory that will contribute to a re-shaping of both the traditional view of the literary postmodern and the understanding of the development of the novel in the second half of the twentieth century. The maximalist novel has a strong symbolic and morphological identity, with ten elements that define and structure it as a highly complex literary form: length, encyclopedic mode, dissonant chorality, diegetic exuberance, completeness, narrratorial omniscience, paranoid imagination, inter-semiocity, ethical commitment, and hybrid realism. These ten categories are common to the seven novels discussed in this essay: Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon, Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, Underworld by Don DeLillo, White Teeth by Zadie Smith, The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen, 2666 by Roberto Bolaño, and 2005 dopo Cristo by the Babette Factory.
Although these ten features are not all present in the same form or intensity in each of these texts, they are decisive in defining them as maximalist novels, insofar as they are systematically co-present. These elements can individually be found in modernist and postmodern novels that are not maximalist; however, it is their co-presence and their reciprocal articulation that make them fundamental in demarcating the maximalist novel as a genre. The essay shows both the peculiar significance these elements have and the function some of the categories play within the internal dialectic of the genre. It discusses chaos-function and cosmos-function and argues that categories such as “length,” “encyclopedic mode,” “dissonant chorality,” and “diegetic exuberance,” beyond their strong specificity and irreducibility to one another, play a common role against categories such as “completeness,” “narratorial omniscience,” and “paranoia,” thus creating a centrifugal/centripetal dialectic within the representation. The remaining three categories—“inter-semiocity,” “ethical commitment,” and “hybrid realism”—do not play a specific role within the internal dialectic of the genre, but are crucial—to the same extent as the other seven—to understanding the ethical and aesthetical project of the maximalist novel, which strives to relate the complexity of the world we live in and to give a synthetic and totalizing representation of it.