Really fascinating read, this one. Give yourself a minute and make sure you're properly dosed up on caffeine, because it's heavy reading, but worthwhile. A few highlights below. (Bolded stuff was bolded by me, not The New Yorker.)
To catch thought as it flies has long been an ambition of the high-end literary novel.
Nabokov complained that Joyce “exaggerates the verbal side of thought. Man thinks not always in words but also in images, whereas the stream of consciousness presupposes a flow of words that can be notated.” Nabokov illustrates, and perhaps hams up, these defects in a parody of Joyce in “Ada,” when Van Veen, having left his lover, the eponymous heroine, is travelling to the train station at Maidenhair:Thus named because of the huge spreading Chinese tree at the end of the platform. Once, vaguely, confused with the Venus’-hair fern. She walked to the end of the platform in Tolstoy’s novel. First exponent of the interior monologue, later exploited by the French and the Irish. N’est vert, n’est vert, n’est vert. L’arbre aux quarante écus d’or, at least in the fall. Never, never shall I hear again her “botanical” voice fall at biloba, “sorry, my Latin is showing.” Ginkgo, gingko, ink, inkog. Known also as Salisbury’s adiantofolia, Ada’s infolio, poorSalisburia: sunk; poor Stream of Consciousness, marée noire by now.
This unpleasantly thick verbal stew raises a difficult question: How much thought can a novel contain before bloating, or bursting, occurs? In its painstaking description of thought’s leaps and tics and swerves (“Also smoke in the dark they say get no pleasure”), “Ulysses” often comes rather close to life’s actual tedium; since the heyday of modernism few major novelists have sought to emulate that book’s exhaustive treatment of the ordinary mind at work.
Art is meaningful because it is life-like without incurring the disadvantages of actually being life—that is to say, without being boring and formless.
The novel may excel, above all forms, at the representation of human interiority, but one reason we turn to fiction in the first place is to escape the interminable shapelessness of our own minds.
Minds are weird, without a doubt. But not everything that goes on in them is worth our attention.