Nicholas Taylor-Collins in front of a bookshelf

Nicholas Taylor-Collins

Literary researcher | Creative reader

Exhaustion and exhaustive: Colum McCann’s ‘Apeirogon’

Colum McCann’s Apeirogon (Bloomsbury, 2020) is a novel. I know this because it tells me both on the cover of the hardback edition, and in the acknowledgements. In the latter, McCann explains that this is a

hybrid novel with invention at its core, a work of storytelling which, like all storytelling, weaves together elements of speculation, memory, fact and imagination.

Colum McCann, ‘Acknowledgements’ in Apeirogon (London: Bloomsbury, 2020), p. 431

As McCann himself notes, any novel contains a mix of fact and fiction, weaving together different sources to produce the literary text, which begs the question how this novel qualifies as hybrid.

Other details of the novel’s form are significant. The book is divided into 1001 chapters, some lasting several pages, others not even a single line. The novel is 457 pages long, meaning that (on average) the chapters are each a little over half a page long.

However, their different lengths contribute to the sense of a jarring narrative, if indeed there is a single narrative arc at all. Apeirogon tells the stories of friends Bassam from Palestine—father of Abir—and Rami from Israel—father of Smadar. Abir and Smadar, two young girls, were murdered in Israel–Palestine: Abir by an Israeli soldier, Smadar by a Palestinian suicide bomber. Bassam and Rami were friends before the murders, but their daughters’ murders intensified their friendship and brought it international recognition. This is inspired by a true situation—hence, perhaps, the idea of a ‘hybrid novel’, and the facts of these events are detailed early in the text’s narrative. There are few surprises in this novel’s plot.

But this is hybrid in another sense, I believe—in a sense that also leads to my designation of literature of exhaustion. The sense is in the 1001 chapters that reference, explicitly, the story of Scheherazade and The 1001 Nights; and the designation I adapt from a 1967 essay by American novelist John Barth (1930–).

In the essay, ‘The Literature of Exhaustion’, Barth writes in praise of Argentine short-story writer, Jorge Luis Borges. What Barth describes as the literature of exhaustion is a Borgesian literature that takes seriously the apocalyptic sense of humanity—that the world is due to come to an end, that scientific progress has reached its apotheosis, that there is no longer room for originality—and responds to that end-of-world feeling. In Borges’s case, this appears (for example) in ‘his favorite image of all, the labyrinth’ because ‘A labyrinth […] is a place in which, ideally, all the possibilities of choice (of direction, in this case) are embodied, and […] must be exhausted before one reaches the heart’.[1] A literature of exhaustion doesn’t merely signal an end, so much as explore the notion of end before finding a new ‘heart’.

The literature of exhaustion also responds to the idea that ‘it may well be that the novel’s time as a major art form is up, as the “times” of classical tragedy, Italian and German grand opera, or the sonnet-sequence came to be’.[2] Borges’s response is, in part, his interest in writing that is ‘contamination of reality by dream'[3]—what McCann might call a ‘hybrid novel’, perhaps.

A recurring reference point for Barth’s idea of the literature of exhaustion is the story of The 1001 Nights, in which Scheherazade, wife of the monarch (and serial beheader of wives) Shahryar, tells her husband a new story every night in order to delay her inevitable death in the morning. Scheherazade’s stories exhaust her husband’s impatience until he realises his love for her and lets her live and remain his true and faithful wife.

Referring to Borges’s fascination with the 602nd night—when Scheherezade reportedly started telling the story of The 1001 Nights before her husband interrupted and stopped her revealing her strategy of exhaustion—Barth writes that ‘Scheherazade’s accidental gambit […] is an image of the exhaustion, or attempted exhaustion, of possibilities—in this case literary possibilities’.[4] Perhaps this is one of way of reading McCann’s evocation of The 1001 Nights in Apeirogon: the impossibility of resolving Palestinian–Israeli peace, even under the ongoing threat of absolute devastation, both political and personal.

The apeirogon itself—’a shape with a countably infinite number of sides'[5]—is also central to this literary exhaustion. Towards the end of the novel, we read that ‘As a whole, an apeirogon approaches the shape of a circle, but a magnified view of a small piece appears to be a straight line’. It is a single shape, but constituted by smaller, discrete and identifiable shapes, much like The 1001 Nights—a text that is described in Apeirogon as a ‘ruse for life in the face of death’.[6] Borges also features in Apeirogon, describing when he was a visitor to Jerusalem, talking about The 1001 Nights:

The stories existed on their own at first, said Borges, and were then joined together, strengthening one another, an endless cathedral, a widening mosque, a random everywhere.


The book was, he said, so vast and inexhaustible that it was not even necessary to have read it since it was already in intricate part of humankind’s unconscious memory.

McCann, p. 50; my emphasis.

When I was reading Apeirogon I was completely convinced of the text’s merits, and its evocation of the shape of the apeirogon as a structuring metaphor for the impossibility of peace in the Middle East, all the while it must be endlessly pursued. However, as soon as I reached the central chapter, in which Rami’s and Bassam’s stories are transcribed verbatim from their own testimonies, and realised that the chapters totalled 1001 by the text’s end, I found that the structure’s now-obvious shape exhausted any narrative or readerly interest I had.

The certain knowledge of the text’s structural countdown to 1001[7] alerted me to the Arabian structure to the text, and not merely the use of The 1001 Nights as an intertextual reference point. My belief in this so-called hybrid novel as an effective means of replenishing the literary form vanished, and the second half of the text was exhausted of possibility and excitement. Note: this was because of the structure, and not because of any narrative event. Indeed, although the text introduced some new narrative elements in the second half, the still dominant stories of Bassam and Rami felt less affecting than they had done. It appeared to me that McCann’s Apeirogon had managed to exhaust the inexhaustible form of The 1001 Nights

It remains to be seen—presumably by individual readers—whether they also found the story exhausted by the supposedly inexhaustible structure. It strikes me, however, that McCann’s hybrid novel form fails to replenish the literature of exhaustion[8]—fails to create a sufficient ‘ruse of life in the face of death’, even though I willed this and fully support the endeavour.

[1] John Barth, ‘The Literature of Exhaustion’, in The Friday Book: Essays and Other Non-Fiction (London: The John Hopkins University Press, 1984), pp. 62–76 (p. 75) <available at:>.

[2] Barth, p. 71.

[3] Borges in Barth, p. 71.

[4] Barth, p. 73.

[5] McCann, p. 82.

[6] McCann, pp. 417, 443.

[7] The chapters in the first half ascend in number up to 500, and then descend back to 1 by the end. Chapter 1001 is listed as the central chapter.

[8] Barth wrote a follow-up to ‘The Literature of Exhaustion’ essay, called ‘The Literature of Replenishment’ (1979). Available here.





Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *