What is a minimalist novel? This essay approaches the question through readings of Henry James, a writer notorious for the complexity of his prose style. James's writing is never simple and rarely brief, of course, but it is often remarkably unproductive. Indeed, the very complexity of style in late James erodes the accumulation of detail that would build toward historical, cultural, and psychological insight in a typical realist novel. The surface density of James's prose toggles between the profound and the “merely” stylistic: circuitous sentences approach their objects with extreme hesitation, and clauses accumulate without clarifying, massing instead into a thick linguistic fog. Thus James's writing delivers an image of the minimalist novel not as a thing of terse flatness or truncated form but as an extravagantly intricate withdrawal from the novel's meaning-making functions. In The Ambassadors, this withdrawal responds to the inherent maximalism of the novel's primary antagonist, advertising. The Ambassadors reveals advertising as a form of representation uninterested in the material object. Against advertising's abstraction, the novel uses opaque, empty style to keep its surface unbearably visible, thereby rendering interpretation unsatisfyingly tentative.
Henry James's Minimalist Novel
emily zubernis is a PhD candidate in English at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. She is completing a dissertation that considers how twentieth-century novelists and short-fiction writers have used minimal form to think about problems of scale.
Emily Zubernis; Henry James's Minimalist Novel. Novel 1 November 2016; 49 (3): 467–485. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00295132-3651215
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