Feb 242013
 

“Style is the substance of the subject called unceasingly to the surface.” ~ Victor Hugo

Before picking up The Road, I’d never read any of Cormac McCarthy’s work and had no idea of what to expect. A few chapters in, I paused to orient myself to the world he evokes: set in a post-apocalyptic future, a father and his young son travel through civilization’s ruins while remaining true to a moral code. This is good stuff, but it’s McCarthy’s writing style, the sparse, fragmented prose of this novel, which made me into an ardent fan. Of course, style doesn’t matter if the story fails. So first, I’m going to touch on a few narrative nuts and bolts to see why it succeeds, and then I’ll fling some superlatives around regarding style.

The story’s success is remarkable given the plot’s limitations: it’s the day-to-day survival of a father and son adrift in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Keeping to major roads, they travel south toward an unknown destination; and because roads act a lot like like rivers, they attract desperate groups of people, many of whom enslave and eat other people.

Okay, more happens than that, but my point is the daily task of surviving in a bleak environment could’ve been oppressively tedious. But McCarthy makes it work by paying careful attention to the rate of revelation: scraps of information about the apocalypse are bundled with the father’s back story and doled out regularly in between crises. This backstory delivery system saves the novel from becoming a repetitive slog as the plot’s structure depends on simplistic conflict resolution: the characters need food, the characters find food, and the characters avoid/run away from cannibals, rinse & repeat. (Did I mention that nearly everybody else on the road seems to be a cannibal!? Seriously. Like, lots of scary cannibals.)

This plot structure is, of course, germane to a survival narrative, but McCarthy deserves credit for sticking to realistic speculation regarding day-to-day issues and not allowing the story to become something more exotic or cliché: like, a detour where the duo overthrow a cannibal kingdom or found a colony intended to be humanity’s last, best hope. Instead, the author stays focused to a much more ambitious story about a man determined to raise his son to be a principled human being in a desperate wasteland. The stakes are high as two individuals struggle to maintain their moral and ethical cores in an environment where principles are regarded as either liabilities or quaint relics of the past. That these characters struggle to do the right thing in the face of a hopeless future makes individual choice a central theme.

That The Road foregrounds individuality marks it as a distinctly American novel. Additionally, there are number of moments that have a Western-genre feel to them. Does it get any more American than the Western? You could easily place these two characters in a day-to-day struggle to survive Montana Badlands of the 19th century, replete with bushwacking outlaws and painted-Indian war parties, and gotten a similar story. Don’t get me wrong, the tone of Western-genre fiction doesn’t detract from the work; it’s just another aspect of the novel’s style.

Ah yes, style: we’ve finally arrived at the subject  causing all the chatter. Cormac McCarthy makes some brilliant choices in regards to syntax. That is to say, I found them brilliant. There are plenty of grammarians who hate this novel because he breaks so many rules. Specifically interesting to me – McCarthy declines to adhere to an important grammatical marker: the sentence boundary. Instead, the author deploys both the logic and organization of cumulative sentences while refusing to play by the rules dictating where they pause or end. This unconventional approach is used to good effect when working to evoke a broken world. Here’s an example:

“The kitchen door stood open and he crossed the porch and stood in the doorway. Cheap plywood paneling curling with damp. Collapsing into the room. A red formica table” (119).

Okay, so McCarthy ignores commas and uses periods instead? Yep. But also notice there are plenty of transitional words missing as well. Thinking things through, it becomes obvious one could revise this example to become a single cumulative sentence which delivers the same information with an entirely different effect. Like so:

“The kitchen standing open, he crossed the porch and stood in the doorway, observing the cheap-plywood paneling that curled with damp and collapsed into the room, a room with a red-formica table.”

Of course, there’s a ton of different ways one could rewrite the sentence. You might need to read a longer section to get a real feeling for the style, but the example above makes my point. And while I find McCarthy’s style effective, I can see why choices like this might put someone off; because when periods are used in place of commas, sentences no longer reliably exist as propositions. Instead, the period becomes a moment of pause – a crack to step over – while the reader is left to determine where the next clause fits in.

The novel would be a failure If this approach didn’t work. But it does.

By breaking down the cumulative form into discrete units, the author achieves a similar effect of evoking a detailed image. However, the choice of abandoning conventional syntax has a significant, secondary effect because the combination of sparse language and busted-up syntax clearly enhances this description of a world that’s bleak and broken. – That he made this choice is a big part of what makes this novel great.

In fiction, the difference between a good use of style and great use of style is as follows: a good use of style makes for enjoyable reading and marks a writer’s work as being unique. A great use of style fulfills all aforementioned requirements but also reflects, informs, and enhances a central theme of the work.

It’s that simple. The choice to ‘break’ the prose when evoking a broken world is ambitious: successfully pulling it off is fucking genius. So after reading The Road, I developed high expectations for McCarthy’s work, and, so far, he’s yet to disappoint. That said, I get why many readers dislike this novel. Many who attack it have ample ammunition that’s well-reasoned. But the bottom line for me is the author took a gamble, and it paid off big time. This book has a lot of popular appeal, and it’s easy to see why. Despite radical linguistic choices, The Road manages to hold a reader’s attention with an adventure while putting some heavy topics in play. That is to say, McCarthy treads the fine line between writing gratuitous fiction and writing great fiction. That he pulls it off makes this novel worth a read.

Mar 122012
 

The folks over at my alma mater’s literary blog were kind enough to allow me to share some thoughts about Lolita, one of my favorite novels, and the MacGuffin, one of my favorite plot devices.

Here is an excerpt:

What the hell is Lolita about anyway? Putting this question to ten different readers would yield a variety of responses depending on the sophistication of the reader. But let’s pretend they are all ‘good readers’ as defined by Vladamir Nabakov himself; let’s arm them with, among other things, an imagination, a memory, a dictionary, and some artistic sense. Given this object and these aspects, our good readers will most assuredly tell us that Lolita is about a number of things that have less to do with pedophilia and more to do with themes far too complex to be reduced to an isolated independent clause with any accuracy.

Yet an obsession with pedophilia is clearly the motive force that propels Nabakov’s protagonist throughout this novel. Surveying the field of famous literary goals, Humbert Humbert’s quest to obtain a nymphet, a sexually aware prepubescent girl, is more than just a little creepy; it’s memorably loathsome. Nevertheless, what is both loathsome and cruel is part and parcel of a beautiful, brilliant, and sometimes tender novel: this paradox turns the knife. Humbert is witty; Humbert is self deprecating – he’s also relentless, condescending, sadistic, and awful. Humbert is all of these things and more, but most importantly for the story’s success – he is driven. That he is driven to pursue nymphets is incidental to the relentlessness of his pursuit. The light of Humbert’s life and fire of his loins could just as easily have been Helen of Sparta, Tadzio the Polish boy, or Rex the Collie . – In short, Lolita is the MacGuffin.

You can read the entire post here.

Jul 222009
 

Recently, I reread Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin because I’m interested in dismantling some of her work to see what makes it tick. While Atwood clearly addresses political issues, she’s never done so at the expense of the story. For the record, I’ve read three of her novels: The Blind Assassin, The Handmaids Tale, and Oryx and Crake. So, anything and everything I talk about is based upon knowing only these books.

Regarding structure, I’ve noticed that Atwood is quite consistent with two strategies: she withholds critical information about the plot, stringing the reader along for the payoff; and most chapters operate like a pseudo short story where there’s a set up, detailed exposition, finishing with an emotional punch. I hasten to say that Atwood’s writing is not formulaic, but it’s clear she often follows a similar pattern when moving the story from point A to B.

Atwood often favors telling a story by utilizing the first person PoV of a character that’s obtuse and complicit, and or, passive up to the very end. For example, in Blind Assassin: Iris allows herself to be married off without any kind of protest, doesn’t work to subvert the marriage, states she’s unaware her sister’s being molested, is unaware her sister ‘s having an affair, etc. The story’s a retrospective of all the things Iris is blind to, pun intended. This is an interesting move because all of Atwood’s stories represent the world as a bleak and oppressive patriarchy where females lack agency. Of course, Iris does take actions, but they are vengeful, spiteful, and all of her victories are Pyrrhic. In fact, the very act of writing the book may be futile, as Iris reveals all kinds of family secrets, and it’s not clear if she makes it out of the garden alive to stash the manuscript before Myrna gets to a burn it.

For the most part, I think that if I told “Joe/Jane Reader” about the kind of character Atwood uses as the protagonist up front, they’d most likely tell decline to hear the story. And who could blame them? But her method works. It works because the world Atwood’s characters operate in is as strange, and detailed as it is fascinatingly dark: she delivers descriptions of beautiful train wrecks in slow motion while withholding the worst of the wreckage and injuries until the last few chapters. By the time you realize the protagonist isn’t the hero, you’ll have been seduced into reading a relentless and intricate tragedy of a story.

For me, this works every time.

Jul 182009
 

Once, in a graduate seminar, I made a comment about authors who had a political agenda but told the story first while avoiding being preachy or didactic. When pressed for the name of such an author I responded with Margaret Atwood. The professor laughed at me, rolled his eyes, and moved to another point of discussion. I have always defended Atwood as someone with a stated agenda that writes complex work until I read The Year of the Flood. The novel beat me about the head with environmental issues from the first page to the last. No, while this is a very good story that I devoured in the course of a day, it shamelessly pushes a rather one note agenda that I found tedious.

Well then, why the hell is this such a compelling story? This book is well built and built for speed, and the story itself is action packed. However, as a writer the two things that I really noticed were Atwood’s ability to maintain tension when the reader effectively knows the outcome of the novel and her switching both the point of view as well as the tense between the novel’s two main characters.

Maintaining the tension with The Flood was a neat trick because the story’s time line runs parallel to Oryx and Crake. Presuming the reader has read the author’s prior book, the standard tactic of withholding information can only work so long. At the beginning of the novel, the reader knows two of God’s Gardeners are alive, each one in a different sort of trouble: Ren is stuck inside of a quarantine area of a sex club while Toby is holed up in a day spa. Each character has their own survival concerns, neither knows the other is alive or the whereabouts of the rest of the cult. So, by flashing backwards and forwards through time, the reader grows to care about the dangerous limbo states while simultaneously wondering what happened to all the secondary characters. Atwood is brilliant in the way she feeds the reader just enough information to maintain suspense while holding out on answers until near the conclusion. The shifts in time were also handled quite well; by the time one reaches the last section of the novel, they are well informed of why these two characters are in their present states and what is at stake for them to survive and find the rest of the community.

The choices Atwood made in terms of point of view worked quite well. The novel is told from two different female characters perspectives: Toby, perseverant and tough, is presented in third person limited, present tense while Brenda, passive and immature, relates her story through first person, past tense. Presenting Toby in the present tense works well because she is a no-nonsense, live-in-the-present, character. Therefore the narrative coming from Toby in this way seems organic and her perspective on things is reliable. In contrast, Ren’s story works from that particular PoV because she is rather self involved and comes across as weak when placed next to Toby. In fact, Ren is a pretty tough cookie, and to be fair almost any character will look weak next to Toby.

The point of view shifts were not jarring. They occur closer and closer together as the novel reaches its climax. The shifts themselves form a kind of structure where the novel’s sections often start with a fragment of ‘present’ post apocalyptic tension, Brenda is running out of food and Toby is being terrorized by the Pigoons, and then look backward in time to give you the story of God’s Gardener’s and the corporate wasteland they survive in.

While I enjoyed The Flood, I would call it a post apocalyptic page turner. Like, I get it. I understand the worldview: human beings suck, we are destroying the planet, and we live in a patriarchy where every woman is mere seconds from being raped/and or oppressed in some way shape or form. Atwood sees a future so bleak that the reader is cheering on a mega plague. There is not much else to say about this narrative besides it’s a war cry for the environment and rails against the evils of corporate capitalism. The world evoked is a kind of high technology dark ages where the last best of hope of humans is that they eradicate themselves before they destroy the planet. Margaret Atwood has amazing talent with the written word. Aside from the awful hymns (I thought they were written poorly with intent until I saw one could purchase a CD of them) the book is well written throughout. Also, there are shifts in language that occur that are really quite remarkable. Atwood has an enviable understanding of when to linger on a description, when to move on, and what kind of sentence will accomplish each task best.

Good book. Preachy as hell but good.

Feb 222009
 

There are many things to like about Colson Whitehead’s novel The Intuitionist. But, it is a strange book to approach as a reader and suspend prejudgment long enough to like it. I mean imagine you get the five minute elevator pitch (yes- that pun is unfortunate) for this book: “Well, it’s about the city’s first, black, female, elevator inspector. She becomes caught up in a web of intrigue surrounding theoretical note books that concern the design of a paradigm-changing elevator.” I know that’s not something that gets me fired up. However, this is a successful novel. As a writer, I came away thinking about the reasons something so weird worked so well. Whitehead employs two tactics that complemented his overall narrative strategy: a reticence to provide info dumps until they inform the story and a lack of specificity of regarding time and place. While one of the novel’s primary concerns is race, the slippery terms and complicated tensions that surround the topic fill this book, Whitehead manages to make this theme something significant and noticeable without detracting from the plot, and he does so without ever really telling the reader where the story takes place. Yes, I hear you screaming it is clearly New York City, but we will deal with that a couple of paragraphs below.

The novel takes a great risk in its very premise that elevator inspectors and elevator manufacturers are central to the very existence of a city. Once the reader has committed themselves to this premise there is not much more to say about it until the reader has something invested in the success of the protagonist’s quest. So, I think Whitehead was smart to withhold essential information regarding the political and philosophical underpinnings of the world he creates until it is significant to the story. This might sound like common sense to some folks, but I have seen this poorly handled in many novels. Many times, the reader is beaten over the head with all kinds of detailed artifice that is explained and enumerated in a bid to create a realistic world. This can occur in any kind of fiction where there are all manner of things occurring that the reader might need explanations: science fiction, fantasy, historical fiction, etc. It is Whitehead’s decision to hold back on the details until it develops his characters that makes the information work harder. For example, I enjoyed reading a scene where the protagonist is asked a number of esoteric questions regarding the history, function, and design of elevators. It was enjoyable because I was cheering for the protagonist at this point in the novel; her mastery of the information and her ability to pass the test are important because I care that she passes it. The fact that I am becoming more invested in the politics of competing theoretical ideas of elevator inspection is secondary (for me as a reader) to what is at stake for the protagonist. In the end the “test scene” works on four levels: it develops the character of the protagonist, it causes the reader to become invested in Whitehead’s alternate universe, it shows the nature of the racism the protagonist is dealing with, and simultaneously reveals one of her major flaws. In short, by being careful with what he tells the reader and why, Whitehead gets more effect for his effort.

Whitehead’s decision to not anchor this alternate metropolis in a well defined time or place is interesting. The reader is told very little about where they are: a city, which is obviously New York if you look for the landmarks. However, the city is not explicitly named while others are. Also, there is a decidedly high amount of racial tension as well as reference to black characters being referred to as “colored,” which makes one feel as though they are reading about a narrative that occurs approximately somewhere in the 1960s. Other historical landmarks, such as pictures of civil rights leaders, are dropped in subtle ways. Thematically, I read this as a commentary on the atemporality of the topic of race. But, it also works to give the story a certain tone. The narrative itself is not told in a strictly linear fashion, Whitehead will often provide scenes that have only tangential meaning to the main narrative arc, so the reader’s uncertainty regarding exactly where they are located is something that is maintained to effect throughout the novel. However, the story is replete with so many concrete details, as well as allusions to the thrillers and detective stories, that the reader is able to situate themselves with this strange city and come along for the ride. That is the key. If you are willing to place yourself in the good hands of Mr. Whitehead, he will take you on an insightful journey to somewhere that is as familiar as it is strange. And you are in good hands. Just relax, take a few things as they are presented, and this novel will be worth your time.