Embracing Maximalism, from James Joyce to Kanye West

“I remember when it was quieter. When it was just a man and a guitar.”

Devoted fans were outraged when Bob Dylan debuted a loud, explosive performance of “Maggie’s Farm.”

What happened to the young man who only needed a guitar and a stool? Why does he have this “Corny rock band?

It’s interesting that the good old days, as some like to call them, are almost always characterized by simplicity. People pine for simpler times, even if that memory is a distortion of the facts.

Bob Dylan’s acoustic, mono recordings are definitely simpler than his basement-tapes-era offerings, but what about those who miss the simplicity of Ray Charles’s Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music?

The album was cozy, yes, but never simple. The horns section of that record alone accounts for double the size of an ordinary modern rock band.

Similar sentiments are felt from those who love older movies. “Why don’t they make the epics like they used to? They were more focused. They were simpler and better.”


The older, simpler epics people are usually missing are those crafted by Cecil B. Demille, who used thousands of extras and hundreds of thousands of feet of film to produce The Ten Commandments, a film that can be classified as a true work of maximalism, but is for some reason categorized as a simpler piece of narrative filmmaking.

At some point in the twentieth century, complication became synonymous with weakness.

Simplicity became success.

It’s hard to gauge exactly where or when it was that minimalism became the preferred style of academics and intellectuals, but the twentieth century certainly turned its back on maximalism somewhere along the way.

I like to think modernism had something to do with it. Joyce’s Ulysses and Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! were works of undeniable maximalism that filled every corner of their worlds with seemingly endless meanings and philosophies and ideas. Those novels were work. They were monolithic, dense pieces of writing that meant everything and nothing all at once.

So when the sixties came along, bringing Richard Yates and his minimalistic narrative structure with them, it became clear that critics and academics had had enough when it came to investigating the limitless alleyways of maximalist fiction.

With Revolutionary Road and the works of people like John Cheever and, from the past, Fitzgerald and Hemingway, the academy had much more fun parsing through readily available works of tight, confident prose.

This became the literary way. Try to think of a piece of literature (for those of you who aren’t college professors or literary critics). How is it written? Are there fart jokes? Ghosts who make weird puns? Ambiguous language and sacrilegious imagery?

Certainly not. You think of clean prose. You think of Hemingway’s direct sentences. You think of Fitzgerald’s pretty, fluid language and obvious symbolism.

There’s nothing wrong with that. But that’s also not a complete view of literature, or art, as it really exists.

The former example listed above, with the fart jokes and the ghosts, is Hamlet. One of the most maximalistic plays I’ve ever read. But there are “purists,” like Laurence Olivier, who strip down everything in Hamlet to its barest elements, eliminating the danger of the work.

Kenneth Branagh may have come the closest to Shakespeare’s go-for-broke, everything-all-the-time Hamlet that I see when I turn the page. It’s a truly maximalist effort.


Like Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, Shakespeare’s linguistic maximalism is on full display, even if the cinematography and performances move too fast for me.

While Baz Luhrmann may be a person who indulges perhaps too often in the joys of maximal storytelling, we need filmmakers like him who are willing to throw everything they have at the screen all at once. Luhrmann’s maximalism is aggressive in most of his work, most recently appearing in his hyper-active adaptation of, perhaps appropriately enough, The Great Gatsby. It’s interesting to see a maximalist take on the character of Gatsby, but Fitzgerald’s writing so seldom resembles the pacing and focus of the film that the adaptation feels like a breathless attempt to reinvigorate and modernize a classic novel, which indirectly insults the source material’s integrity.

I have no problem with adaptations, you know, adapting the work’s they’re producing, but it seems like Luhrmann chose Gatsby for the sole purpose of making it better, not different.

One good thing to come from Luhrmann’s Gatsby film is its trailer, which uses Kanye West’s music in the best possible way. West represents the creative center of mainstream pop music for me.

He’s been a top producer for well over a decade, and for good reason, but his most recent solo efforts are evidence of a true musical genius at his peak.

What’s interesting about Kanye West is that he’s recently dabbled in both maximalism and minimalism, with My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and Yeezus respectively. The latter was produced by Rick Ruben, who famously “reduces” records to their barest essentials (most notably with Johnny Cash’s final slew of records).

MBDTF has Kanye at his absolute best, throwing everything out at the listener all the time. The standout track of the album, “Monster,” has Kanye, with five other featured artists, riffing on everything that comes to their minds as long as it shows their darkest sides. The production explodes and gurgles and glitches, like the densest tracks of a Death Grips record, and every time I hear the song I wonder how anything so complicated and hypnotizing could have broken into the mainstream. There are so many characters and patterns and complications of production that it’s almost impossible to hear everything in the first few listens.

It’s like Charlie Kaufman’s masterpiece, Synecdoche, New York, a film that goes out of its way to give us every fear realized in a single life, through decades of time, at a rate of speed almost impossible to follow. Each scene has enough information for its own film. Each line has several meanings and implications. The set design reaches outward, recreating an endless loop of Manhattan islands. The world is ending, a family is disintegrating, a man is aging and suffering from diseases that are never adequately explained.

Synecdoche, New York is a work that can’t be explained because it contains more information than it’s able to adequately convey. It’s hard to give awards to things you can’t wrap your brain around, which is why David Lynch’s The Elephant Man is his most Oscar-nominated film.

Inland Empire is certainly harder to pin down

Inland Empire is certainly harder to pin down

Which is why Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is his only winner of The Pulitzer Prize, even though Blood Meridian is a far more layered and interesting work. Works of maximalism take time to understand and process because they hold so much information.

This doesn’t mean that minimalism necessarily hold less substance, but it does mean their motives and themes are more readily accesible.

I’ve always been more fond of producing works of minimalism because that’s how my brain functions, but I’ve always been more attracted to maximalistic expressions of fear.

What do you think about maximalism vs. minimalism? Which do you prefer? Let me know in the comments!

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  • llLeoll

    Excellent article. I love both the maximal and minimal. My list of favorite books includes the maxi “Ulysses” and mini “The Great Gatsby” & the maxi “Infinite Jest” to the mini “Remains of the Day.”

    It depends on the writer’s aims, temperament and talents. Emily Dickinson’s poems convey shades of meaning that Walt Whitman never could manage. But Whitman’s work provides and exuberance that Dickinson’s could never have.