There is some debate as to which work can claim to be the world’s longest novel.

Issues debated include the question of what constitutes a single novel as opposed to a cycle or series of connected, but discrete, novels. And if a work is accepted as being a single text, then debate can turn on whether the work has attained an appropriate level of cultural acceptance or legitimacy: certain formats, for example, or self-published works, may be viewed as invalid, with only novels published in print, by a recognised publishing house, qualifying as properly “published” works.

There are grey areas, a degree of slippage among categories. Judges may, perhaps, choose to disqualify from consideration non-conventional works — sometimes characterised as “outsider” art — such as Henry Darger’s The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion. And a certain cultural framing — an ignorance as to works created in cultures with which the arbiters are unfamiliar — may also lead to the unwitting exclusion of certain texts.

Unless all is known, nothing is known

Dustless is presently 3,485,149 words long, and nine of its 27 volumes have been published electronically, in an Amazon Kindle edition. As the novel is still undergoing revision, it’s impossible to give a definitive figure for the total number of words in the text.

Composition began in October 2001, partly in response to the events in the United States of America on 11 September – particularly, the attack on the World Trade Center.

Completion of the first draft was probably in the summer of 2009, but I’m afraid I haven’t kept any records, or at least don’t have any records immediately to hand, and so can’t be sure of the actual completion date.

When starting out, in 2001, I had no intention of writing such a long novel, although I was definitely intending to write a work of depth, and with a certain epic space. And for several years after completion of the first draft, I didn’t establish the total length (in terms of words) of Dustless. I knew from the proofs that it was over 8,000 pages long, but I didn’t really give the length of the novel, in comparison with other very long texts, very much thought. In fact, it was only last month (October 2015) that I carried out a word count of the text as it currently stands.

To be aware that Dustless is nearly 3.5 million words long is, in some ways, not very helpful. The scale of the text, rather than the text itself, may become a point of fixation, an object of fetishisation, a distraction. Encountering Dustless for the first time, in considering whether or not to make the leap from observer to reader, the simple figure of 3,485,149 words will turn some people on to the novel, but more people, and probably most people, I imagine, will be turned off. But to be turned on or off by the count of words, not by the words themselves, seems to me, after the first glance is over, and silence falls into the arena that results from the superficial collapsing into itself, a rather enigmatic condition.

Contemporary culture, tired of labour, and dreaming of a frictionless state where information arrives without effort, and is instantly converted into knowledge — where knowledge is purchased, not built — tends to replace wholes with parts, text with precis, experience with anecdote or image. We read the Bluffer’s Guide to Irony, and are sorted. In such a world (and perhaps there is no other world, and has never been another world), there’s a danger that “Dustless” becomes “the length of Dustless“. All we see is the scale: it’s like only seeing the height of a mountain, and not the mountain itself — but you can’t climb a mile or a metre: for that, for ascent, for your body to be extended, your lungs worked, your senses engaged, for boot soles on rough track, for the cold above the treeline, for the thinning of air and views of the wrinkled lines of distant river valleys, you need the mountain.

Dustless itself takes place in a world where objective measurement possesses only dubious purchase on life. The activity of meaning — meaning as a verb, and not as a noun — is the arbiter of worth and value. A thing is what a thing means to you. They can tell you your taste in music is crap, but you still listen to those tracks you love, the music still moves you; they can tell you that this or that work is the apex of European culture, but you can be bored and crave soap and a drink and sleep.

The meaning of things isn’t stable. The value you assign to a book or a film or a song can’t be maintained on a permanent basis. Works of art, like most things, and perhaps all things, flit in and out of awareness, and evade a static and neutral state of attention*.

It’s impossible to measure the meaning or the value of a work of art: such quantities don’t exist — there is nothing to measure, no unit of measurement to apply. You can’t measure Wuthering Heights in inches, or Mozart in kilometres per hour. The value or meaning of a work of art — including qualities like scale, depth, duration — is the experience of the work of art by an audience, and this experience is immeasurable, because there’s no objective system or scale we can apply. The experience of a work of art is living: it is life. And we don’t step outside of life…

one finger in one wave of the sea,
you touch the whole sea: dip
one finger in one moment of time . . .

In practical terms, of course, it’s perfectly understandable why people would be turned off by the scale of Dustless. “I’ve got better things to do with my time“. Perhaps. (But how would you know?). Better to say, “I’ve got other things to do with my time“. True.

Dustless was written against the times. By that, I mean it was written against the short-term, stop-gap, get it now, slash and burn, that’s so yesterday, “okay, we’ve got it”, have it all, neatly packaged, flash-hyped, totally marketed, fast turnover, for-profit culture that’s gradually ingesting us. In this sense, the scale of the novel is important: those 3,485,149 words aren’t lightly dismissed, aren’t “been there, done it”, aren’t “yeah yeah yeah”, aren’t an immediate high-monetisation opportunity with a clearly defined target market, they aren’t this year’s happening thing, they aren’t 10 things you must read before you die.

Dustless was written against a tendency in which everything is in danger of becoming measured simply by money, where the only real value is financial, and an individual’s worth is measured purely by their direct capacity to contribute to an economy — where, in supposedly advanced societies, people who could live are left to die for lack of care, where efficiency and hard work are rewarded by less and less collective security, where the illusion of choice masks the erosion of autonomy, by a culture that grows more and more indifferent, led by governments that increasingly only wring or wash their hands, encouraging a society that becomes more privatised, where “the people” have been replaced by individuals and the individuals reduced to consumers, and life for many more people grows daily more precarious. Where there’s a hollowing of civic society — in the way that Detroit has seen the hollowing of a city. Where time is money. Where one must use one’s time efficiently: work hard, and then play hard — always hard, always fast, always concise. And for those who can’t work, and don’t have the money…

Dustless is, in some ways, a statement of anti-pragmatism, where scale is a mode of resistance.

In these senses, then, the length of Dustless is meaningful, to its creator at least. The scale possesses value, and emanates value.

And I hope you’ll forgive me if, with a cavalier snap of my fingers, and a certain joie de vivre, and a hint of laconic chutzpah, a comradely bravado, I mention to sceptics and cynics that Dustless is itself a fragment, meant to belong to a greater, probably never-to-be written work — a genuinely epic novel series — entitled Metallic.

Dustless is for the actual dream, and against the so-called reality.

The process of composition lasted for years. Composition was the living organism: the novel itself was the shell the organism accumulated through its life. Like a nautilus or a conch, when the living organism ends, and decays away, the shell alone is left to remain on the seabed. Here is the shell: but of such a vast scale that a Titanic might lie inside it, near its lip, the broken vessel a mere speck of angular dust, its keel resting on a plain of mother of pearl. And perhaps, over the years, by a magical process, this shell will continue to expand, until it might mimic a human mind, and be a place you can put the ocean.


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