Tidewater Musings

September 9, 2012

One thing I did while not watching the political conventions was to read a fine book by William Styron, a collection of three long, semiautobiographical stories called A Tidewater Morning. Though I read other major books of his long ago, I have little memory of their details—likely a result of my failings rather than his. Maybe the controversial nature of The Confessions of Nat Turner and Sophie’s Choice overshadowed the actual books, or perhaps it was Meryl Streep in the movie role of Sophie. Or maybe I had to grow sufficiently old and disillusioned to appreciate Styron’s unique blend of realism, strong convictions and subtle romanticism. It also helped that, when I picked up A Tidewater Morning, I had just returned from a Tidewater vacation at a place I affectionately call Mosquitoland USA.

In this collection Styron builds riveting stories on minimal plots. The style mixes the relaxed, leisurely, cultured tone of a Virginia gentleman with postwar explicitness:

Mr. Dabney—at this time, I imagine he was in his forties—was a runty, hyperactive entrepreneur with a sourly intense, purse-lipped, preoccupied air and a sometimes rampaging temper. He also had a ridiculously foul mouth, from which I learned my first dirty words.… His blasphemies and obscenities, far from scaring me, caused me to shiver with their splendor. I practiced his words in secret, deriving from their amalgamated filth what, in a dim pediatric way, I could perceive was erotic inflammation: “Son of a bitch whorehouse bat shit Jesus Christ pisspot asshole!” I would screech into an empty closet, and feel my little ten-year-old pecker rise.

Amalgamated filth—what a phrase! Styron achieves a light, detached irony that doesn’t preclude empathy with his characters. In the story quoted above, “Shadrach,” a superannuated black man trudges from the Deep South with the goal of dying on what is left of the Dabney estate, where he was once a slave. Here is Styron’s description of the reaction by the present Dabney patriarch, whose main line is bootlegging:

Mr. Dabney was by no means an ill-spirited or ungenerous man (despite his runaway temper), but was a soul nonetheless beset by many woes in the dingy threadbare year 1935, being hard pressed not merely for dollars but for dimes and quarters, crushed beneath an elephantine and inebriate wife, along with three generally shiftless sons and two knocked-up daughters, plus two more likely to be so, and living with the abiding threat of revenue agents swooping down to terminate his livelihood and, perhaps, get him sent to the Atlanta penitentiary for five or six years. He needed no more cares or burdens, and now in the hot katydid-shrill hours of summer night I saw him gaze down at the leathery old dying black face with an expression that mingled compassion and bewilderment and stoppered-up rage and desperation, and then whisper to himself: “He wants to die on Dabney ground! Well, kiss my ass, just kiss my ass!”

The way Styron has suddenly returned to my consciousness, I feel a bit of Mr. Dabney’s astonishment.

Precious Nonsense

January 7, 2012

PRECIOUS NONSENSE by Stephen BoothA couple of years ago, the University of California at Berkeley employed its marketing sleuths to track me down. Not that they have any idea who I am, but they get the fundraiser’s frisson of delight whenever they can tag someone by mail or phone. Recently they’ve shared their data with the English Department, which now sends me a glossy departmental newsletter for “alumni and friends.” The current issue celebrates Kent Puckett for winning the university’s Distinguished Teaching Award, and in a separate article boasts that department members have won the award as often as the “second and third most awarded departments … combined.”

I would like to think that the person who wrote and/or edited the phrase “most awarded departments” was not one of our graduates. However, the article got me thinking about the incidents I remember from the English faculty’s pedagogy. I recall Stephen Booth spending long moments chewing his fingernails and gazing out the window while formulating the perfect question for his freshman composition class. His skills earned him the teaching award in 1982, or perhaps the university decided to save his fingernails. Another fond memory is of Stanley Fish challenging his entire Milton seminar to a basketball game with him and his friend Booth. Those who know the height differential will chuckle to imagine Fish and Booth together on the hardwood. Our seminar members, though, were far too cognizant of Fish’s personality to take up the invitation; hell, he was aggressive enough around a seminar table—who’d want to try to stop him on a drive?

My best story from that time, though, concerns the final exam that Booth gave to his struggling, straggling frosh writers. His highly individualistic syllabus that year had included, among other motley items, several New Yorker essays by A. J. Liebling, Thoreau’s Walden, and Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus. (Since then, I don’t think I’ve met any nonacademic who has ever read any portion of Carlyle, much less a complete book.) Our final exam—probably administered only because an exam was required—consisted of two questions. One item presented the entire text of the Gettysburg Address (less than 300 words) and asked why it was a great speech. Many scholars have studied the Address—including Booth himself, in his book Precious Nonsense—but to 18-year-old undergraduates (actually, I was 17, with the astonished mind of an 8-year-old) the question was flummoxing. We had not studied Lincoln in class; we had not discussed oral rhetoric. Most of us had little notion of the historical context. How to begin an answer? If the famous G.A. was indeed a great address, we hardly knew that.

The exam’s second question was worse. It consisted of a passage by Thoreau describing the experience of reading Carlyle. Though I can’t be certain, I think it must have been this paragraph from “Thomas Carlyle and His Works”:

Such a style — so diversified and variegated! It is like the face of a country; it is like a New England landscape, with farmhouses and villages, and cultivated spots, and belts of forests and blueberry swamps round about, with the fragrance of shad-blossoms and violets on certain winds. And as for the reading of it, it is novel enough to the reader who has used only the diligence, and old line mail-coach. It is like traveling, sometimes on foot, sometimes in a gig tandem; sometimes in a full coach, over highways, mended and unmended, for which you will prosecute the town; on level roads, through French departments, by Simplon roads over the Alps; and now and then he hauls up for a relay, and yokes in an unbroken colt of a Pegasus for a leader, driving off by cart-paths, and across lots, by corduroy roads and gridiron bridges; and where the bridges are gone, not even a string-piece left, and the reader has to set his breast and swim. You have got an expert driver this time, who has driven ten thousand miles, and was never known to upset; can drive six in hand on the edge of a precipice, and touch the leaders anywhere with his snapper.

The task was to explain how this passage reflected the styles of both Thoreau and Carlyle.

OK, one might think, Carlyle is indeed varied, unpredictable, sometimes difficult, emphatic and lyrical by turns, with odd broken rhythms; Thoreau of course is highly metaphorical, a guy who would rather take you on a jolting ride through an alpine mountain pass than tell you straight out what he means. That’s not very deep; what else can you say?

For this exam you have three hours to scribble in your blue book (literally blue, purchased for this express purpose from the college bookstore). Your output should reflect intense thought and careful writing, all that you have learned in the course. Are you getting nervous? Have you bitten through your ballpoint yet?

Man, I was terrified, and I left the room knowing I’d failed. Till then, to my surprise, I’d managed an A in the class, and now I had to hope for an overall C at best.

At that time, the system for discovering your final grades was simple and highly impersonal. Along with your blue book, you handed in a self-addressed postcard with two lines on it for your grades:

Grade in Course: ______
Grade on Final Exam: ______

Some week or ten days later, the news would arrive in the mail. A highly expressive instructor might write one or two extra words on the card in addition to the two all-important letters.

So I waited. The cards came from other courses: success! But from Professor Booth? I imagined him mauling his nails as he contemplated the collection of precious nonsense that 25 pimpled idiots could write in three hours. From my current perspective, I wonder how any instructor can bear to read three hours of drivel from a single freshman.

The card arrived. At this point I don’t remember whether any of my roommates saw it first; if they did, that surely increased my embarrassment. Slowly I inverted the post-office-smudged rectangle to reveal the back. It read:

Grade in Course:      A      
Grade on Final Exam:  Forget it!

That’s when I knew I led a charmed life.

After all these years, thank you, Professor Booth.

From the cover of SWAMPLANDIA!

Breaking my tradition, I’ve celebrated my return from two months of overwork by reading a best-selling novel less than five years after its publication date. The book is Swamplandia! by Karen Russell, and it’s inspired me to coin a new word for personal use, swamplandish, meaning outlandish/bizarre/wacky in an interesting way.

For those who haven’t read the book, here’s Donna Seaman’s description from Booklist, courtesy of Amazon:

Swamplandia! is a shabby tourist attraction deep in the Everglades, owned by the Bigtree clan of alligator wrestlers. When Hilola, their star performer, dies, her husband and children lose their moorings, and Swamplandia! itself is endangered as audiences dwindle. The Chief leaves. Brother Kiwi, 17, sneaks off to work at the World of Darkness, a new mainland amusement park featuring the “rings of hell.” Otherworldly sister Osceola, 16, vanishes after falling in love with the ghost of a young man who died while working for the ill-fated Dredge and Fill Campaign in the 1930s. It’s up to Ava, 13, to find her sister, and her odyssey to the Underworld is mythic, spellbinding, and terrifying. Russell’s powers reside in her profound knowledge of the great imperiled swamp, from its alligators and insects, floating orchids and invasive “strangler” melaleuca trees to the tragic history of its massacred indigenous people and wildlife. Ravishing, elegiac, funny, and brilliantly inquisitive, Russell’s archetypal swamp saga tells a mystical yet rooted tale of three innocents who come of age through trials of water, fire, and air.

Normally I’d be turned off by the first sentence. I like reading about the world I know, which has never included alligator wrestlers. Normally, too, if I dipped into the book itself, I’d be annoyed by the extreme degree of exaggeration. The book’s literal story line does involve that so-called amusement park named the World of Darkness, where a popular attraction for the Lost Souls (as the customers are called) is a slide down the intestinal tract of the Leviathan. The jingle, sung happily by the Lost Souls, goes like this: “The Leviathan, the Leviathan, what a bargain! All that pain in a single afternoon!” Since it’s not quite satire—or far beyond satire—the tone often strikes me as camp, way-out-there for the amused smirk of being way-out-there.

Yet something kept me going with this novel. Part of it was the verve of the writing. Russell has vast buckets of energy, some of which she splashes into swamplandish metaphors. Here are some examples from early in the book:

Nights in the swamp were dark and star-lepered

dozens of alligators pushed their icicle overbites and the awesome diamonds of their heads through over three hundred thousand gallons of filtered water

I started to miss the same tourists I’d always claimed to despise: the translucent seniors from Michigan. The ice-blond foreign couples yoked into thick black camera straps like teams of oxen. The fathers, sweating everywhere, with their trembling dew mustaches. The young mothers humping up and down the elevated walkway to the Swamp Café, holding their babies aloft like blaring radios.

This style is both brilliant and fraught with contradictions that keep the reader off balance. The brilliance speaks for itself—trembling dew mustaches! But an actual leper doesn’t look at all like a star-spotted sky, and the allusion to a leper in a romantic descriptive passage adds a tonal jolt. An alligator’s teeth have the sharpness and slickness of an icicle but not the coldness or fragility. If the couples are “yoked” like oxen, they are attached to each other by those camera straps, but surely that’s not right. Babies are indeed like blaring radios, but nobody holds radios “aloft”; for that matter, how many mothers hold their babies “aloft”?

It may seem silly to analyze the logic of metaphors, but my point is that Russell must be deliberately keeping us off terra firma. The very style is swampy and ever-shifting underfoot, with beauty and ugliness and romance and weirdness jumbled together, sucking us toward the bottom of solid reality, if not beyond.

And the plot proceeds in a similar way. One could write an outline that would seem simple and realistic; as Janet Maslin said in her New York Times review (2/16/11), “Take away the wall-to-wall literary embellishments, and this is a recognizable story, if not a familiar one.” Yet the tone often verges on the magical. In fact, my favorite part of the novel was 13-year-old Ava’s expedition to Hell to rescue her sister, who has supposedly eloped with a ghost. Ava is accompanied by a strange adult known as the Bird Man, and for a good while, as they approached the doors of Hell in the lonely midst of the incredible wild swamp, I supposed we were heading off into magical realism.

(SPOILER ALERT.) I was rather disappointed, then, when the story crashed back to earth and the magic disappeared. The end, lepered with impossible coincidences, is rather sentimental in its reunion of the splintered family. Yet exactly none of the family’s problems have been solved, and we leave them in a dreary mainland apartment “carpeted and wallpapered in rusty browns, a palette that reminded me of dead squirrels.” It’s a peculiar and off-kilter happy ending.

Maybe that, too—optimism in the face of death, madness and depressing decor—deserves the adjective swamplandish. Thanks to Karen Russell for adding to my vocabulary such a potentially useful word.

Recently I went to an interview and reading by Elise Juska, author of three novels published so far and a fourth almost complete. Afterward, since I hadn’t yet read one of her books, I used my new Nook to download One for Sorrow, Two for Joy, the story of a woman who walks out of her uninspired marriage and then spends the rest of the novel trying to figure out what to do next. Though I got a bit impatient for something to happen, I admired the writing style—vivid but not flashy—the depth of the characters, and the play with multiple languages (American, Irish, academese, and crossword-puzzle-ese).

Talking about her novel in progress, Elise mentioned that, for the first time in her work, a male character is becoming one of the central figures. He’s also 63 or 64, I think she said, a good deal older than Elise herself, and she was working hard to imagine this guy’s life and mentality.

The comment got me thinking about the many borders that fiction writers need to cross. Unless we want to write book after book about people exactly like us, we’re forced to stretch our imaginations into regions we don’t know firsthand. Well, maybe Hemingway knew a lot firsthand, but most of us haven’t been involved in a foreign civil war and two world wars, hung around with bullfighters, shot big game in Africa, and gotten soused in Cuban bars.

For me, the gender border, about which Elise was concerned, is among the easiest to pass over. I don’t know why, but a woman’s POV seems not that difficult to imagine, and so far none of my female friends has chastised me unduly for failing to understand female characters. Of course I haven’t a clue what makes my wife tick, but that’s different.

Class and ethnic borders are much tougher for me. Say, for instance, that my plot needed a tattooed tough guy from Chechnya who dropped out of school at age eight, helped bomb Russian military outposts, then fled to America to join a crime gang. I could probably describe him externally. (Let’s see, try Googling “Chechen tattoo”? I think he has to be bald, right, with a close-cropped fringe? Raw-boned, smooth-shaven face. Six-one, waist size 40? Slightly faded red T-shirt. Uh-oh, I think we’ve created a stereotype.) Getting inside his head, though, would be tricky; even after a lot of reading about every related subject, I might end up with a miscellaneous bunch of traits rather than a whole, breathing, cussing character.

When ethnic boundaries become “racial” ones, we also face social/political restrictions, real or imagined. Not being a Native American myself, do I dare use one as a main character? Even if I think I can understand him or her, would I be transgressing? How much should I care?

Oddly, too, borders of place are hard for me to cross, even in our globe-trotting times. It’s not the look of a far-off place that’s the problem; it’s understanding what it feels like to be there every day. If I lived in northern Siberia for a year, how would the cold and darkness affect my psyche? What does the Arizona desert smell like to someone who’s been there her whole life? If I stayed for a decade in the Northwest, would the rains depress me, fertilize my brain, or merely make me guzzle more coffee and start a garage band?

It’d be interesting to hear from a number of fiction writers about the metaphorical borders that trouble them most. As for Elise’s concern about her 64-year-old male, I think she can safely assume there’s an infinite variety of individuals in that category, probably even some bald Chechens. Her bountiful imagination is the only visa she needs.

Back from the near-dead. Seventy-hour work weeks, snow, freezing temperatures, lack of sun, topped off by a virulent head-and-chest virus that apparently laid waste to Baltimore before attacking Philadelphia—all have made this a miserable winter. Granted, we’re sissies here in the mid-Atlantic, and I admit that I could never live in Minnesota, even if Garrison Keillor dropped by nightly to tell stories. Still, I enjoyed pitying myself, and if this is the only happiness one gets for months at a time, that qualifies as misery, doesn’t it?

In these lost months I’ve managed to read just one book, Chimamanda Adichie’s first novel, Purple Hibiscus. I haven’t yet tried her second novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, or her story collection, The Thing Around Your Neck.

Purple Hibiscus, as the reviewers said, is a classy debut. Though the background is the Nigerian political scene, the focus is on a single family with a domineering father, passive mother, and two children trying to cope with the impossible situation created by the parentssomething that should hit home for me, since I’ve written an American novel with the same setup. And I did respond acutely, enjoying even the long stretches when it seems the teenage narrator-protagonist, Kambili, will never get up the gumption to strike out for freedom from the oppressor. Adichie gives her characters enough complexity to challenge our simple presumptions: the abusive father has many good points, and the more attractive characters, while never verging on evil, have quirks to keep us interested. 

She’s good at description, offering simple but vivid detail about daily life:

Obiora was pounding a yellow mango against the living room wall. He would do that until the inside became a soft pulp. Then he would bite a tiny hole in one end of the fruit and suck it until the seed wobbled alone inside the skin, like a person in oversize clothing. Amaka and Aunty Ifeoma were eating mangoes too, but with knives, slicing the firm orange flesh off the seed.

And a moment later, when flying termites course past the apartment complex:

The air was filling with flapping, water-colored wings. Children ran out of the flats with folded newspapers and empty Bournvita tins. They hit the flying aku down with the newspapers and then bent to pick them up and put them in the tins. Some children simply ran around, swiping at the aku just for the sake of it. Others squatted down to watch the ones that had lost wings crawl on the ground, to follow them as they held on to one another and moved like a black string, a mobile necklace.

It helps that the scenes are exotic to Western readers. We can read a sentence like

Lunch was jollof rice, fist-sized chunks of azu fried until the bones were crisp, and ngwo-ngwo.

with a fascinated hunger that we might not feel if the ingredients were more familiar:

Lunch was baked beans, fist-sized chunks of breaded chicken deep-fried until crisp, and cole slaw.

Still, the power of description is in the vivid, accurate details, and Adichie gets those right—as far as this Western reader can tell. (The azu does sound good, whatever it is. Wikipedia says it’s a Japanese R&B singer.)

The one crispy bone I have to pick with Adichie concerns the purple hibiscus, the title flower. In the novel’s extended family, Aunty Ifeoma, the liberal, liberating force, happens to grow an unusual purple hibiscus that her neighbors all admire. The narrator’s brother, Jaja, takes some of Ifeoma’s purple flowers to plant in the garden by his own house, and soon afterward he plucks up the courage to defy his father. At the end of the first section, the narrator makes sure we see the connection: “Jaja’s defiance seemed to me now like Aunty Ifeoma’s experimental purple hibiscus: rare, fragrant with the undertones of freedom. … A freedom to be, to do.”

I’m on a bit of a crusade against standard literary devices, which seem to me all too pervasive in contemporary writing, and this kind of heavy-handed symbolism, which I suspect Adichie absorbed from evil Western influences,  ticks me off. The innocent hibiscus plant itself plays little role in the novel; it’s there just to be loaded down with symbolism. Let it go free, I say, free from the burden of representing freedom! Liberate it from the novelist’s manipulation. And don’t make those flying termites into symbols either. If you build the meaning into the action, the characters, the setting—as Adichie has done so admirably—we readers don’t need symbols as a side dish with our crispy azu.

Of Zweig and Patience

October 18, 2010


Stefan Zweig (standing) with his brother Alfred


A year or two ago my wife and I discovered Stefan Zweig (1881–1942), an Austrian writer whose memoir The World of Yesterday paints a lively picture of Europe before, during, and after World War I. Zweig knew every poet, novelist, dramatist, and artist on the scene; a devoted pan-Europeanist, he translated dozens of his friends’ works and wrote biographies of cultural figures ranging from Erasmus to Nietzsche to Balzac. In 1942, shortly after he finished the memoir, in exile in Brazil and despairing as Europe dove deep into another round of self-butchery, he and his wife took their own lives.

In the memoir’s last chapters, he speaks of the disbelief and agony that he and others like him experienced as they witnessed Hitler’s rise. On a Sunday morning he hears the radio news of the declaration of war, “a message which meant death for thousands of those who had silently listened to it, sorrow and unhappiness, desperation and threat for every one of us.”

After reading the memoir, we were moved enough to explore his other work. Despite his vast output of nonfiction and drama, Zweig found time for a number of novels, stories, and novellas—intense psychological works that examine the characters’ thoughts and emotions in exquisite, sometimes excruciating, detail. His writing is marvelous, his characters strange enough to feel very contemporary. And yet I have the typical problem of our A.D.D. age: attention span.

Look at the following passage from The Post-Office Girl (trans. Joel Rotenberg, New York Review Books, 2008). The title character, Christine, a penurious young woman from a small town, has been invited by a rich aunt to visit a magnificent resort in the Alps. When her aunt tells her to “freshen up” before lunch, Christine is amazed, bewildered, awed, and humbled by the luxurious hotel room she is given. We join the action, if it can be called that, about halfway through a two-page paragraph:

Discovery upon discovery: the washbasin, white and shiny as a seashell with nickel-plated fixtures, the armchairs, soft and deep and so enveloping that it takes an effort to get up again, the polished hardwood of the furniture, harmonizing with the spring-green wallpaper, and here on the table to welcome her a vibrant variegated carnation in a long-stem vase, like a colorful salute from a crystal trumpet. How unbelievably, wonderfully grand! She has a heady feeling as she imagines having all this to look at and to use, imagines making it her own for a day, eight days, fourteen days, and with timid infatuation she sidles up to the unfamiliar things, curiously tries out each feature one after another, absorbed in these delights, until suddenly she rears back as though she’s stepped on a snake, almost losing her footing. For unthinkingly she’s opened the massive armoire against the wall—and what she sees through the partly open inner door, in an unexpected full-length mirror, is a life-sized image like a red-tongued jack-in-the-box, and (she gives a start) it’s her, horribly real, the only thing out of place in this entire elegantly coordinated room. The abrupt sight of the bulky, garish yellow travel coat, the straw hat bent out of shape above the stricken face, is like a blow, and she feels her knees sag. “Interloper, begone! Don’t pollute this place. Go back where you belong,” the mirror seems to bark. Really, she thinks in consternation, how can I have the nerve to stay in a room like this, in this world! What an embarrassment for my aunt! I shouldn’t wear anything fancy, she said! As though I could do anything else! No, I’m not going down, I’d rather stay here. I’d rather go back. Bur how can I hide, how can I disappear quickly before anyone sees me and takes offense? She’s backed as far as possible away from the mirror, onto the balcony. She stares down, her hand on the railing. One heave and it would be over.

This scene goes on for another long paragraph in which Christine frets over what to wear, worries what the maid will think, and finally “scurries down the stairs with downcast eyes.”

I admire this writing tremendously—“timid infatuation,” a carnation like a trumpet’s salute—but at some point in the piling of detail upon detail, I become impatient. “I get the point!” my inner voice yells at the author; “let’s move on, OK?”

Then I remember what Stanley Fish once said to a seminar of undergraduates. The more the culture emphasized reading fast, he declared, the slower he read. He engaged us in examining Milton line by line, word by word, almost syllable by syllable.

I try to keep that perspective in mind. No, I lecture myself, don’t read Stefan Zweig while you’re simultaneously watching baseball, checking e-mail, and snacking on the delicious nut-cranberry mix from Trader Joe’s. Both hands on the book, please. Both eyes on the text. Slowly, patiently. Writers as good as Zweig deserve this much from us, and more.

“The two young men—they were of the English public official class—sat in the perfectly appointed railway carriage.”

We hear so much about the need for a “hook,” something to grab the reader immediately, that I take more and more pleasure in authors who ignore that dictum, or who wrote before it became the Apostles Creed of Literature.

The sentence quoted above opens Some Do Not…, the first novel in Ford Madox Ford’s magnificent trilogy Parade’s End. Does anything, other than the balance and rhythm of the style, hook us? What are the men doing? Merely sitting. Who are they? Members of a humdrum group of bureaucrats. Where are they? In a railway car whose principal attribute is that it has no faults. This is an anti-hook.

As those who’ve read the trilogy will remember, Ford’s purpose here is to establish the stasis of pre–World War I English society—a stability that will soon be rudely interrupted. Hence the men are seen first as unmoving stereotypes. But even after establishing their stillness, Ford is in no hurry to bring us action. Not until deep in Chapter IV do we reach the scene when Valentine Wannop alters Christopher Tietjens’ life forever by barging up to him on a golf course to demand that he save her friend and fellow suffragette from being manhandled. In the meantime, Ford treats us to, among other things, a description of Tietjens’ companion Macmaster, including his origins, current position, aspirations, and the thesis of the new book whose proofs he has been correcting on the train; a brief history of Tietjens’ disastrous marriage, which leads to an explanation of why the two friends have embarked on a golf outing; a mention of Tietjens’ pastime of finding errors in the Encyclopaedia Britannica; a philosophical discussion of monogamy; a long chapter with the wife, her mother, and a priest, who utters such observations as “’It’s a good maxim that if you swat flies enough some of them stick to the wall”; and, immediately after the opening quoted above, a leisurely survey of that boring railway carriage:

“The leather straps to the windows were of virgin newness; the mirrors beneath the new luggage racks immaculate as if they had reflected very little; the bulging upholstery in its luxuriant, regulated curves was scarlet and yellow in an intricate, minute dragon pattern, the design of a geometrician in Cologne. The compartment smelt faintly, hygienically of admirable varnish; the train ran as smoothly—Tietjens remembered thinking—as British gilt-edged securities. It travelled fast; yet had it swayed or jolted over the rail joints, except at the curve before Tonbridge or over the points at Ashford where these eccentricities are expected and allowed for, Macmaster, Tietjens felt certain, would have written to the company. Perhaps he would even have written to The Times.”

The writing is confoundedly leisurely, as Tietjens himself might have said. It’s also brilliant, pointed, and amusing.

No hooks. The reader isn’t treated as a fish. I admire that, and envy Ford for living in a time when it was possible.

I first read Ford when I was quite young, and now I’m wondering if my convictions about him would change during a new read. By accident in browsing, I discovered one person who has recently come to Parade’s End for the first time and finds it fascinating: see the entry in Hannah Stoneham’s Book Blog, http://hannahstoneham.blogspot.com/2010/04/read-along-of-ford-madox-fords-parades.html.

Vacation Technoreads

September 2, 2010

All current fiction must be historical, I decided some time ago. It’s a price we pay for technology.

What I mean is this: The details of our lives, the sights and sounds that give fiction its life, change so fast that anything written today will seem dated in a year or two. If that doesn’t sound obvious, take an example. A couple of years ago, a writer might have described a driver stopping to ask directions. Now readers will wonder why the GPS isn’t working, or worse, they’ll assume the driver is technologically inept.

Reasoning this way, I figure a novelist might as well date the tale immediately. If you’re writing today, place the story clearly in 2010, acknowledging that readers in 2013 will find it quaint.

So, picking up a quick vacation read, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson—one of the few times I’ve managed to get to a bestseller within five years of its pub date—I was nonplussed to come across passages like the one below, when the heroine, punk hacker Lisbeth Salander, decides on a new computer:

Unsurprisingly she set her sights on the best available alternative: the new Apple PowerBook G4/1.0 GHz in an aluminium case with a PowerPC 7451 processor with an AltiVec Velocity Engine, 960 MB RAM and a 60 GB hard drive. It had BlueTooth and built-in CD and DVD burners.

Originally published in 2005, translation copyright 2008, and already so outdated that geeks might laugh. This confirms my argument, I suppose, though the excessive detail still makes the author’s point about Salander’s obsession, and perhaps will continue to do so 20 years from now. Maybe that’s another possible tack, then—wade so deep into the nitty-gritty of the characters’ environment that the reader can’t help but accept it as a world of its own, whether dated or not.

My “literary” opinion of Larsson’s mega-phenomenon? Its dense, driving plot, spiced with multifarious secrets, conspiracies, violence and sex, helped pass time on the airplane. Yet I didn’t care how the mystery turned out, and the characters developed so little that I feel no compulsion to read the other volumes in the trilogy. Until I’m stuck on another plane. (I do admit to a vague curiosity about what the dragon means.)

By the way, Larsson’s underlying assumption—that a girl with tattoos and facial pierces looks out of place in the workaday world—itself seems, by today’s standards, almost quaint. Maybe the Swedes are stuck on an old-fashioned twentieth-century airbus; if so, at least they aren’t being charged for luggage.

Pondering Philip Hensher

August 9, 2010

Sheffield by Lewis Skinner (detail), Wikimedia Commons

Been reading The Northern Clemency by Philip Hensher, recommended a couple of years ago by a friend who follows the Man Booker nominees. Feeling so strangely about it that I checked Goodreads to see what others are saying online. Not only are opinions mixed. but a number of readers, like me, seem to be struggling with their own reactions.

The long saga of two very ordinary, and on the surface boring, English families, The Northern Clemency opens in the 1970s and advances with great ponderousness into later decades. The writing is vivid, though too decorative for my taste, and the characters turn out to be mildly interesting—at long last, after the reader has become even more fed up than they are with their tedious lives. Obviously, since I’ve kept reading for nearly 600 pages now (of more than 700), it’s not the tedium that makes me ambivalent. Nor is it that the characters are mostly unlikeable as human beings.

One of my problems, I think, is the sheer moment-to-moment unpleasantness of the daily life and the environment, as Hensher describes them and as the characters experience them. Here’s a passage from early in the book when the Sellers family, transplanted from London, first encounters Sheffield:

“‘This will have been cleared by bombs,’ Bernie [the father] said, ‘these gardens, in the war. See where the old buildings stop and the new ones start? They’ll have been bombed during the war because of the steel, see?’ Francis [the son] looked around and it was right: a ripped-out space had been created, a kind of shapeless acreage, and into it, dropped in as exactly as false teeth, were new and extravagant buildings, the egg-box, a building with brass globes protruding from its top floor, others whose smoked mirrors for windows made no allowances towards the church-like blackened solemnity of the old town hall, a figure poised heroically above the entrance like Eros.”

The false teeth and the egg-box, jumbled in with a strange allusion to Eros (as a hero? on a public building??), give the scene a faintly revolting tinge. Now, I’d be the last to defend postwar architecture wherever it happened to be plopped. Granted, too, these are Londoners who don’t yet (and may never) appreciate the North. Yet it feels like the author’s own disgust must be creeping in. The first several hundred pages of the novel have so many passages of this variety that the narrative seems to be overhung with a fetid gas.

Thankfully, in later chapters, as certain of the annoying, pedestrian characters fumble into an everyday brand of heroism (with little help from Eros), the author’s lip seems less firmly curled. Here he describes a hidden wooded area from the point of view of Daniel Glover, a young man who seemed irredeemable at the start of the novel:

“He loved the summer here; loved the hover of the dragonflies over the soupy surface of the river’s pools in summer; loved those clouds of gnats like a hot fog about your head, clustering under the stickiest trees; loved the underwater hover, like a mirroring of the dragonfly hover above, of the sticklebacks, and the occasional glimpse of a bigger fish, or the thought of a bigger fish as the surface of the water gulped like a hiccup, and it must have been a carp, perhaps, taking an insect.”

There’s little conventional beauty here, and still much to repel, but we understand why Daniel loves the area, and we see that it has attributes that might be loved. Much like the ungainly, sticky, soupy characters themselves, perhaps.

Did Hensher consciously manipulate his prose to lead us on a long journey from ickiness through resignation into appreciation? Or did his style simply mellow as his characters and their actions grew less loathsome?

Enough speculation; got to finish the book.

(Later update: Reached the end. Still ambivalent. A bit of sensationalism late in the book felt arbitrary, unnecessary to the plot, making me realize that after hundreds of pages I had little sense of what the characters would do next. This uncertainty is probably true to life, but annoying in a novel. Shouldn’t a literary work have more logic than the messy world out there?)

The Quiet Style

July 29, 2010

Following up my last post praising Susan Darraj for her “quiet style,” I thought I should develop that idea, so I went searching on my bookshelves for a good example. Now, my shelves haven’t been organized since the room was painted more than a decade ago (and my wife and I still quarrel about whose fault that is), so my choice here is almost random. But when I spotted a novel by William Trevor lying sideways in a heap, I figured that’d be a good source, and I found a likely passage in less than three minutes, early in the book when Trevor describes two servants in a once-grand house:

Favouring black in clothes worn tightly, accentuating plumpness, Zenobia has soft hazel eyes in a soft face, her cheeks streaked like two good apples, her hair flecked with the grey her forty-nine years demand. In contrast, her husband is a hawk-faced man, dark-jowled and lankly made, his servant’s wear—black also—completing the priestly look he cultivates. [His] interest is the turf.
—from Chapter 1 of Death in Summer

It’s a simple paragraph that offers a vivid picture of the two characters, and look how Trevor constructs it: with a dead metaphor, a semi-resurrected one, and a single but homely live one.

The dead one: As you sped over “hawk-faced,” did you even picture a hawk?

The semi-resurrected one: Trevor plays on the dead metaphor “apple-cheeked,” bringing it partly back to life as “cheeks streaked like two good apples.” He gets us to see the healthy redness there and also the variegation, the smudginess of a human complexion. (With the subordinate implication that good apples themselves are streaky, an appetizing thought. We might also explore “good apple” in the sense of good person, but let’s not get too deconstructionist here.)

The live one: Though “priestly look” isn’t quite dead as a phrase, it’s so ordinary and quiet that it scarcely functions as a comparison until it plays off against the man’s predilection for the horses. It’s the implied contrast, not the metaphor itself, that most strikes us.

To me, this is just plain good writing, and few writers practice it. Far too often I pick up a highly praised book only to find that the author bedecks nearly every sentence with gaudy metaphors that dangle like jewels around the plump arm or creamy throat of a Hollywood starlet, shimmering and dancing, demanding such attention that, distracted by the glitter, stumbling like a sleepwalker through this film producer’s lavish party, I forget to notice what, in the midst of such glamor, has in fact been said or implied, leaving my dreaming mind suspended in the bright-speckled, alcohol-fumed air (not to mention the syntax) until I’m as befuddled as the young but wizened man who sits in the corner with a glare malty as the Scotch he nurses in his bone-pale hands.

Some people like that kind of clutter. Some writers, to give them credit, can pull it off, for a while at least. But as a reader I tire after a few pages. What’s the point? Does every clause need decoration? Is this world of ours, or the world of the story, so colorless that it has to be tarted up?

Thank you, Mr. Trevor, and the small class of others who preserve the quiet style.