18 December 2006
Like a bruised peach
On literary style in 2006
There is a mental disease endemic in the middlebrow novel and enthusiastically spread by the vector of reviewers. According to this disease, the florid simile or metaphor is the only index of “literary” quality. If a child’s face is like a plasticene moon, or a thought like a bruised peach, then we must be dealing with a Writer, a Stylist. Certain critics join in, and compete to produce the most fantastical incantatory comparison with fruit or solar system. The master of this art, John Updike, this year published a novel, Terrorist, whose titular Muslim-American protagonist shared, by happy chance, all the fastidious hypersensuousness and incontinent metaphoreering of his author. Free indirect style is all very well, but it must not get in the way of the Writer’s performance.
Other ways exist, of course, to be a stylist. Apparently simpler prose is often welcomed for its disdain of frippery, and hailed as a no-nonsense “plain style”. But there are ways and ways to write simply. Some writers do simple merely because they cannot do anything else: their thoughts do not have sub-clauses. Another species of simplicity, on the other hand, is hard-won, the result of thoughts triaged and chiselled.
The latter sort is exemplified by the mysterious brilliance of JM Coetzee, or the almost supernatural economy of Penelope Fitzgerald. This year’s simplicity was that of Philip Roth, whose relentless and stunning Everyman confused some critics who expected a continuation of the linguistic exuberance in, say, Sabbath’s Theater. John Banville, for one, moaned about the novel’s “flatness of style”. At one point the novel’s nameless hero chooses a local, rather than a general, anaesthetic for an operation. Roth writes:
It was a mistake, a barely endurable mistake, because the operation lasted two hours and his head was claustrophobically draped with a cloth and the cutting and scraping took place so close to his ear, he could hear every move their instruments made as though he were inside an echo chamber. But there was nothing to be done. No fight to put up. You take it and endure it. Just give yourself over to it for as long as it lasts.
Style itself here conducts an argument, refusing to corral events into a meaningful pattern; they merely follow one another: “and his head was claustrophobically draped…”; “and the cutting and scraping took place…”. Shall we poetically compare the cutting and scraping to something else? No; it’s the cutting and scraping. You know what it is. To engage in Writerly simile would be to trivialise the moment. Roth has faith in the power of the verbs he has chosen. Throughout his novel, the tolling, Biblical “and” says: life is just one damned thing after another. And at the end, the last thing.
It would be nice to say that the icy power of Roth’s style itself constitutes a triumph over the death that haunts the novel. Nice, but facile: the kind of comforting greetings-card sentiment to which critics love to boil literature down. No such succour is available in Everyman, which has a gravedigger scene near the end, though its hero conspicuously lacks Hamlet’s readiness. (As though anticipating this novel, but thinking of Lear, Edward Said had asked, in his wonderful essays On Late Style, published posthumously this year: “What if age and ill health don’t produce the serenity of ‘ripeness is all’?”)
Also treading the path of austerity was Paul Auster, whose brief, self-referential Travels in the Scriptorium was technically a virtuoso performance. In contrast to Updike’s sloppy free indirect style, Auster played brilliantly controlled games with the identity of the narrator, dropping hints for the careful reader, and drew on the language of military reports to create a style at once hauntingly abstract and uncomfortably contemporary. Also, he eschewed the use of quotation marks for dialogue, which (as Thomas Bernhardt and Jose Saramago also know) is an oddly efficient way to create a sort of mental claustrophobia.
Meanwhile, a younger generation of writers was (as usual) arguing that the old forms were exhausted, and that only revolution could suffice. The new book by Mark Z Danielewski was actually called Only Revolutions. Having written a dazzling first novel of postmodern horror, House of Leaves, that combined multiply nested narrators and rollercoaster page layouts, Danielewski now produced a double-helix of epic poems with attendant marginalia, a book that needed to be turned upside-down and inside-out. Such experimentalism can seem conventional, as it was with the debut novel of another writer, Salvador Plascencia, whose The People of Paper featured multiple columns of text and blobs of grey ink.
The difference between the two novelists was one of style. Whereas all Plascencia’s narrators spoke in a tone of frictionless “creative writing”, Danielewski justified his demands on the reader’s stomach with the sheer remorseless delirium of his poetry: a Joycean smashing-together of words, an insistent catchiness of rhythm, a sci-fi beatnik sensibility. It demanded to be rolled around the tongue: “drum circle sesh breaking our / slip, hitting fresh biscuits, fanning bold / riffs, with spliff tucking ease”. It was as though Everyman – the play, not the novel – had been rewritten by a pornographer cousin of Dr Seuss. Here is one narrator giving the other a blowjob in their car: “Impulsively I headwork his lap, / teething his shaft, a rashshuck for / the gobblurt I lobfast to the dirt.” If neologism can seem merely glib – as when Martin Amis, in a long article written for the fifth anniversary of 9/11, decided the existing vocabulary was insufficient and proposed gravely to us the word “horrorism” – Danielewski got away with it through sustained vigour of execution.
What connected Danielewski and Roth, apparently at extreme opposite ends of the verbal spectrum, was the one virtue that all good writing shares. It is the sense that a writer has carefully chosen the right word, and the right place to put it. This criterion cuts across boundaries of mere taste. All styles are good, said Voltaire, except the tiresome sort.