On grand narratives

As against the gullibility with which one can flip through magazines, XL novels are a little bit more demanding on our contemporary rhythm. Even if sparing all the 5 minute units spent watching crappy music videos in the midst of TV zapping, who finds time today to read a very large book from cover to cover?

While I have for my motto Jorge Luis Borges asking why should we write 700 page books when we can sum up the essential ideas in seven pages – thus finding myself editing something like the Short Stories on the Post Contemporary – I do try to engage occasionally with that opulent, shocking pleasure of loosing myself within a fictional work for several weeks or months. Like Giacomo Leopardi would say, “il naufragar m’è dolce in questo mare.” Un vero lusso.

My last XL reads were Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, which apparently faced some length problems with its 611-page English edition, and Jeffrey EugenidesMiddlesex, which bears both some powerful 529 pages and a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. And I must acknowledge to life-size books that they do leave an imprint in you, like friends you’ve spent a couple of summers with.

More recently I went through Marco d’Eramo’s “The Pig and the Skyscraper”, which, while it is not a novel, fortunately it reads like one. And that gives it a special quality that deserves some reflection, especially when we are talking about urban writing coming from a sociologist that has also a degree in physics and a career in journalism…


Like Murakami, its 480 pages read rather well because they contain not one bibbg, Like Murakami, its 480 pages read rather well because they contain not one big, mind-numbing story of Chicago, but many small thrilling ones. Like Eugenides, it lingers on because it has a magnificent breadth at depicting the urban scenery of the American Dream (and some of its nightmares too).

Each chapter of “The Pig and the Skyscraper” brings you one different fundamental aspect of Chicago’s history, from the rise and decay of slaughterhouses and the many businesses that made the city grow, down to continuing racial segregation and the economy of inner city gangs. And whereas each story reads like an autonomous piece, together they weave a larger critical vision portraying some lesser-known aspects of American history.

And this is what interests me as a model. Exquisite, reflexive storytelling, which in this book appears in almost journalistic manner, rather than statistics and analysis, is what can drive one to intimately engage with the issues that usually lay buried under the inescapable drive towards abstract planning.

Cities are made of criss-crossing social stories that economists, politicians and planners too easily tend to forget or reduce to abstract numbers. And this is why we need more histories made up of minute stories; this why we need more reflection imbedded into everyday tales, rather than long records filled with hollowed-out specialist grand narratives.


One response to “On grand narratives

  1. Pingback: Meanwhile… « shrapnel contemporary

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