Roland Barthes, in his lecture course The Preparation of the Novel, was especially interested in the practical, lived dimensions of what it might be like to write something of considerable length. In Kate Briggs’ latest book, The Long Form—taking its title, and an epigraph, from this very same lecture course, which she translated into English in 2011—she expands on her deep engagement with this text. Continuing lines of inquiry begun in her 2017 memoir-essay, This Little Art, her first novel might be read as offering a practical reply to the question Barthes poses: “How to pass… from a short, fragmented form (notes) to a long, continuous form (typically called ‘the novel’)”?
If The Long Form is itself a response to this question, it doesn’t contain any explicit answer written within its pages. Helen, our protagonist, is in fact living a life that might conspire just about as efficiently as any to make such work impossible: she lives alone, in a small flat, with her newborn baby, Rose. Despite her efforts to live “in accordance with collective time, social and official time, clock time,” Helen is completely beholden to the rhythms of Rose’s body, who remains throughout the novel (in which time passes strangely, indeed) at a stage of development at which three hours of continuous sleep is an unlikely blessing. In addition to the catastrophic impact it has on Helen’s sleep schedule, her intense new relationship with Rose is a launchpad for myriad reflections on a dizzying array of subjects, shifting seamlessly from the patter of rain on a misted window to her love for her best friend, Rebba, to literary history, architecture, social philosophy, and back again.
A challenge of length and continuity does emerge for Helen, but not in the form of a writing project—rather, one of reading. Henry Fielding’s The History of Tom Jones, A Foundling, an 800+-page behemoth of 18th-century English letters, arrives in the mail. It is “an interesting object to spend time with,” as the narrator remarks. Considered one of the first properly “modern” novels to occur in the English language, Tom Jones is notable for many reasons, not least of which are the digressive essay-chapters that begin each of its 18 books. Many of these deliberately meditate on the form of the novel which, as several generations of critics have grown fond of saying, Fielding was inventing as he went along. This primordial token of novel-ness runs through Briggs’ own, as her narrator far outstrips Helen’s progress against its bulk (she’s hardly reported to have made it past the first book), and it becomes an agile contrast to Rose: art to her life, age to her breathtaking newness, completion to her radical unformedness and possibility. The Long Form’s reflections on Tom Jones’ constitutive qualities—its length, its preoccupation with care, its use of a baby, its habit of digression—come to stand metonymically as reflections on itself. It is a joy to watch Briggs, a creative and insightful philosopher, interrogate the form, through the same interwoven modes of direct inquiry and practice, nearly 300 years later in its history.
My encounter with Briggs and this work was particularly timely this summer, as I, while working on this review, had been fortunate enough to set aside some time for my own first attempt at a novel-length project. Reading Tom Jones and The Long Form side-by-side while undertaking this work was a fascinating experience. While the two novels are obviously very intimately linked, they’re also vastly different, circling around each other as they stretch the limits of the form’s possibility. If Fielding carefully hews to a classical narrative structure, arranging his essayistic incursions in the same positions within each of his symmetrically arranged books, Briggs’ novel is by contrast well aware of its postmodern condition. It is broken into 16 titled sections, each of which contains a variable number of titled subsections (chapters?), ranging in length from a page to ten or more. These chapters themselves are quite divisible, composed of heterogeneous sections separated by white space, which can be single lines, multiple paragraphs, undifferentiated blocks, concrete poems, narrative, digression, reflection, essay. (Briggs quotes the scholar Philip Stevick: “to make a continuous prose fiction [is] to make it out of partly discrete, partly enclosed units.”) Running throughout are a series of diagrams, variably shaded and divided geometric shapes, later revealed to be taken from Ray O’Meara’s drawings of Bruno Munari’s baby mobiles, as well as a map of Helen’s apartment. This citation occurs in the carefully annotated “Sources” section at the end of the book, a feature that pulls The Long Form in the direction of essay, and which very generously offers the reader not only an extended reading list, but transparent insight into the process of the work’s composition. It is also an indirect rejoinder to other practitioners on the border of the essay/novel boundary, who refuse to include such acknowledgements out of aesthetic considerations.
But The Long Form is certainly a novel, and it makes its own case for the necessity of its fiction better than I ever could. Quoting several prominent theorists of the genre, including Fielding himself, Briggs reminds us of “a certain ‘experimental energy’” (Cheryl L. Nixon) lasting an arbitrary duration, but often at least 50,000 words (E.M. Forster), which at the very least is a flexible “container” (Fielding) for whatever it needs to hold. While Fielding was, in fact, very careful to arrange his fiction according to a meticulously wrought, if sometimes circuitous, chronology, Briggs cites as an influence first and foremost his willingness to play with the rules of unity in composition, and the fragments making up her own work are bound together by wonderfully diverse rules of association. But that unity itself is without question: and as I, too, tried to live in the rhythms that might result in a novel’s composition, returning to the same desk and the same pages, morning after morning, week after week, month after month, I was taken back again and again by the richness and empathy of Briggs’ writing, both in exposition and narration. For Briggs, the greatest demand that can be made of this container is that it hold the experiences of literature, cohabitance, friendship and motherhood; experiences so profound, so shaking that they demanded all of her prodigious resources be mobilized to make themselves felt. I’m glad they did, because readers now have the opportunity to “take up the offer” of this book, as she so amiably puts it, and join Helen and Rose as they find “new corners of potential, cultivating novel ways of inhabiting them together.”
The Long Form
By Kate Briggs
Dorothy, a publishing project
Published October 3, 2023
Jack Rockwell is a literary translator, writer and editor. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Words Without Borders, Hopscotch Translation, Latin American Literature Today, and more. He is currently an MFA candidate at the Iowa Translation Workshop, where he is Editor-in-Chief of Exchanges: A Journal of Literary Translation. More at jack-rockwell.com.