There have been attempts to define the nebulous genre of “big books” before, but none so successful or analytically astute. With admirable clarity, Stefano Ercolino identifies ten characteristics that typify the “maximalist novel,” discussing seven examples from American and European novels to illustrate his thesis. Of course, any such attempt borders on the tautological, since the putative characteristics determine what examples are chosen, and the examples justify and explain the characteristics. This recursive reasoning notwithstanding, Ercolino succeeds in identifying the devices—structures, formal characteristics, and interactions—that make reading a maximalist novel a distinctive experience with a compelling force of its own. Readers who have had this kind of experience will naturally be more inclined to appreciate Ercolino's analysis than those who have not. (Full disclosure: maximalist novels offer my favorite kind of reading experience.)

The characteristics include, predictably, encyclopedic mode and dissonant chorality...

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