Novels with lengthy asides

Let’s be honest – regardless of how brilliant they are, some classic novels are pretty tough to get through.

I had this thought when recently re-reading Herman Melville’s legendary Moby Dick. Don’t get me wrong. It is a phenomenal book, but boy is it hard going at times. There may be unforgettable characters and vivid writing throughout, and yes as a seafaring adventure/study of obsession it is second to none, but there are huge sections of the book where the plot simply goes on hold.

During these passages, the novel becomes a vast, near exhaustive repository of information on whaling. Much of this is fascinating, but I kept longing to get back to Captain Ahab and his loony quest to kill the whale that bit off his leg.

Asides in modern novels are generally far briefer. I can’t think of a contemporary story where the plot goes on hold for several chapters at a time in a similar fashion. Yann Martel’s Life of Pi – another terrific sea adventure – does feature a particularly robust argument in defence of zoos, but this was much shorter than anything in Melville’s hefty tome.

All of this left me wondering, could a novel like this succeed if it were presented to a publisher today as a new work of fiction? I would suspect not. But by all means prove me wrong with a contemporary example.

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