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.

Nov 292009

I was first exposed to God’s Little Acre in a graduate seminar, and I’ve been fascinated by this novel ever since. Caldwell operates on a number of levels within his prose using a variety of techniques that I admire. Currently I’m working on a novel and find myself picking up Caldwell, dipping in here and there, thinking about how it is put together. One technique that strikes me is Caldwell’s repeated invocation of an image that’s woven into expository material, altered slightly each time, and then fully articulated at the climax of that particular narrative thread. It’s as though the author starts by piling up individual tiles for smaller mosaics while working towards an idea that will thematically dominate the end of the work.

The reader is given access to the thoughts of Will Thompson, as he fantasizes about the mill he worked for and other mills in the area. An example of one of his daydreams comes shortly after the character is introduced:

He remembered the when the mill down below was running night and day. The men who worked in the mill looked tired and worn, but the girls were in love with the looms and the spindles and the flying lint. The wild-eyed girls on the inside of the ivy-walled mill looked like potted plants in bloom (69).

Variations on this thought can be found running through the prose like a slender thread for the entirety of the book in ways that are significant but not overstated. This is a subtle technique that’s difficult to pull off successfully. In effect, Caldwell is able to present the reader with a poignant symbol for the novel’s political agenda while developing Will’s character and imbuing him with a kind of supernatural aura. One could pick apart the significance of these fantasies for symbols and/or tropes: gender, labor, class, etc; all of these things are present and relevant; however, I am much less interested in why Caldwell places it here much more eager to figure out how he pulled it off.

It could have gone horribly wrong. Each lapse into poetic language might stick out drawing attention to itself. The reason it doesn’t is that Will is established as thinking in these terms almost immediately, so it seems natural for him to do so. He is the only character to think in such a manner, and for that reason alone he stands out. The other characters operate on a much more subsidiary level: Ty Ty has no vision for his land beyond his delusions of hitting the mother lode; the family, and extended family living with him, follow the patriarch with little thought for anything besides immediate sexual urges as well as vague longings for something beyond the farm that they are unable to articulate. This is one of the reasons Will’s visions are both haunting and significant without being distracting, as they are often woven into expository material. He will often think of the mill, the working girls, or the ivy-walls in sections where the fantasy is not fully realized. Other times, he will have tiny bursts of thought that stem from seemingly unrelated topics. This technique is a kind of endless refrain that inhabits the reader’s subconscious with the symbols the author wants to get across while not doing so in a fashion that is so overt that the reader is sickened by what they may read as polemic.

I’m interested in using this in my own fiction and see Caldwell’s work as a case study of its success. I think part of the trick is to use language that’s as specific and lyrical as it is ambiguous; language that inhabits the prose in an organic and germane manner yet alludes to greater themes without beating the reader over the head. It is all so simple and straightforward in theory. Isn’t that always the case? I’ll probably blog about GLA more in the future as this is a rich text for a fledgling novelist, and I find myself turning to it quite frequently.

Sep 052009

When talking about my favorite science fiction, Philip K. Dick’s, Do Androids Dream of Electric sheep? always enters the conversation. But before now, I never gave much thought as to what makes this novel work or looked carefully at how it is constructed. All things being equal, it’s an awkward piece of fiction: the plot contains at least one major hole, and the prose is replete with the kind of adverb abuse that sends me right up a wall. But, when a reader basks in the glow of P.K.D’s brilliant conceit(s), one realizes all things are not equal, and these complaints become trivial missteps.

That said, there are moments in this story that have always bothered me. The central problem I have with this novel occurs when Dekard goes to retire Luba Luft, and is arrested by a beat cop as a murderer. Approximately one third of the way into the story, the protagonist discovers an alternate police department that is not only crawling with androids but is run by an android who employs a human bounty hunter. The idea itself is clever and may cause the reader to doubt Dekard’s sanity. This could have been a nice turn in the plot but soon reveals itself to be a flaw. Once Dekard and Resch escape to retire Luft, a few sentences could have wrapped up the prior events in short order: the stations existence explained, Dekard’s boss saying something about an investigation, anything really; anything would be better than moving forward as if it had never happened. Instead, the alternate department is never brought up again even in passing. When the entire novel is predicated upon Dekard hunting a few escaped androids, and a police station full of them is not worthy of a few moments, I tend to get irritated. With a lesser author it would be unforgivable as would the sentences that get pushed along: relentlessly, jarringly, clumsily, awkwardly, and…well you get the picture.

Setting aside the glut of adverbs, on a sentence level Philip K. Dick is a competent writer. He writes with straight ahead prose and little flourish; this almost gives Androids Dream a hardboiled feel. The violence is delivered in a matter of fact manner that echo the mean streets evoked by Daly and Hammet. Considering the amount of alien concepts that the reader will be forced to process over the course of the novel, a narrative style that spares the reader both sentimentality and melodrama is one of the keys to success.

In the end, it is of course the ideas that drive this story. In the introduction to the Del Rey Edition of Androids Dream, Roger Zelanzy ponders a comparison of P.K.D to Pirandello, but then chucks the idea because Pirandello’s “triumph [was] of technique over convention, possessed of but one basic message no matter what was fed into the chopper” (vii). In contrast, P.K.D’S triumph exists as a series of brilliant metaphors that, while individually sound, are brought together to articulate a unified, original concept and theme. Greater minds than mine have written at length about the genius of Androids Dream, and his other work, so I will not trouble you with my feeble musings. However, I would say that anyone interested in writing SF would do well to study the way in which P.K.D delivers the information in his stories.

To have ideas, even great ones, drive fiction, it is imperative that one find a way to have them do two things: occur organically to the world the writer has created, and then feed the new information to the reader in such a way that the description does not disrupt the narrative. It is called “info dumping,” and not many writers can use expository tactics to weave information into a story with skill of P.K.D. A good example of the author’s genius in this department comes in the form of “kipple.” The Earth has been abandoned by most of its inhabitants, but they left behind empty buildings overflowing with the stuff they have left behind. In the beginning of Androids Dream, we are told that silence of the buildings drives Dekard’s wife Iran into deep depressions; not long after, the “special” Isadore is introduced along with the ruinous cacophony of silence:

He lived alone in this deteriorating, blind building of a thousand uninhabited apartments, which like all of its counterparts, fell, day by day, into greater entropic ruin. Eventually everything within the building would merge, would be faceless and identical, mere pudding-like kipple piled to the ceiling of each apartment. And after that, the uncared-for building itself would settle into shapelessness, buried under the ubiquity of dust (20).

What works here is that kipple is both invented, introduced, and explained with an economy of language, allowing the story to continue to move along at a nice clip. The concept of kipple is as brilliant as it is subtle. For the rest of the novel, P.K.D. is able to weave in the imaginary byproduct of dead/offworld consumers, causing the reader to be viscerally aware of their absence. So, It works to amplify one of the themes of the story while providing a unique tone for the hopeless and abandoned setting. By properly explaining kipple, the author can move ahead with a story that is packed with action, meaning, and stark tragedy.

In the end, the sum of Philip K. Dick’s ideas are greater than all the hiccups and wild gesticulations that occur in their delivery. Going forward, there are not many SF writers that remain on my must-read list. But for raw, speculative genius, and generally good storytelling that make reading the genre enjoyable, P.K.D certainly abides as a master.

Jun 242009

I tend to gravitate towards all topics gritty and weird. I’m quite comfortable if that causes you to judge me; for the record, I’m not sure your tastes can be trusted either. Anyway, my idea was to read James Frey’s, A Million Little Pieces, and Denis Johnson’s, Jesus’ Son, back-to-back, and then compare the two. I had some vague notion it would be interesting to compare nonfiction to fiction and all that. Well, the concept turned out to be a drag for a number of reasons not worthy of mention. Suffice to say, others have flayed, crucified, and incinerated Mr. Frey with much more skill and insight than my humble efforts would ever yield.

However cliché Little Pieces might be, I found it entertaining. I started to write some thoughts down and pecked out a few hundred words. Only then, I found John Dolan’s articulate evisceration and thought “why bother.” My reaction to Frey was not nearly as rabid as Dolan’s, but his extended rant on what’s wrong with the book is much funnier than mine could ever be.

In the twenty-first century, books about addiction and substance abuse hardly howl from the margins of society. After Burroughs, Selby, Bukowski, Thompson, and…And…realizing just how long this list could go, I’ll end with Dr. Thompson. But yes, after all that, it is hard to not squint one eye when surveying yet another book, or even a short story, about drug use.

That said, you’d be hard pressed to find an anthology of contemporary short fiction that did not contain Denis Johnson’s “Emergency.” By the way, I have no statistical proof to back up this claim; if some clever jerk decides to go out and actually do the math, my position is clear. Regardless, the story is ubiquitous, yet somehow I managed to not read the entire collection it came from, Jesus’ Son, until this year. Johnson’s collection is all about getting high, being high and all the nutso things one does while high that seems to make good sense at the time. The book has gritty weirdness in spades. One of the central forces of style in play is that insane actions are reported in a deadpan tone as though they were perfectly normal. Of course they are not normal, but the protagonist is nearly always blasted on some kind of chemical, or recovering from one. So, because all the stories are told in first person, the ongoing psychic reality is going to be one that is insane. For example, at the end of the first story, the protagonist hallucinates a box of cotton balls screaming in pain just before a nurse administers an injection that will knock him out. With this move, Johnson lets the reader know that the protagonist is quite aware of just how sick he is. Once that self awareness has been established, the reader should understand the protagonist as someone who will deliver a story as truthfully as a substance abuser is able.

Johnson’s perspective and style of narrating the insanity of addiction is unique. Quirky. He manages to find interesting images and situations that cause me to laugh while cringing. One of many challenges that writing presents me is finding fresh ways of approaching events, images, and dialogue. My early drafts, and many of my later ones, are full of interesting moments that are riddled with clichés. For me, the clichés are often clumsy placeholders. The trick is to then go back and look for a fresh(er) way to relate that moment. So, a specific reason I see Johnson as successful is that he finds new angles to look ugliness of addiction without being didactic, preachy, or cliché. Nor does he romanticize use or users. On the other hand, there really are some remarkably interesting and beautiful images evoked in this collection that are related through a prose style that has a raw, elegant quality to it. While reading this collection, I felt as though Johnson was relating his truth through fiction in a way that made the idea of a memoir irrelevant.

Of course, as someone who writes fiction, I am biased. I freely admit that I think the whole idea of nonfictional narratives is one that is fatally flawed. Like, if a writer is working with their memory as some kind of Oulipo restriction that involves intent, then I can dig it. But if they take themselves seriously as someone who is writing a ‘truer’ version of things, well, I can’t see that as anything besides wishful thinking.

I’ve yet to read Johnson’s novel, Tree of Smoke. But, after finishing Jesus’ Son, I’d be willing to drop a couple of bucks on it.