Superman never made any money for saving the world from Solomon Grundy

Monday, July 6, 2009

Apology for taste

So, this past weekend, I came to be at a cabin in the woods in pursuit of a peaceful weekend away from Independence Day festivities and explosions. High in Chinook Pass, I tarried with some pals beside the American River, relaxing in the rusticity.

Of course, bringing a book is part and parcel of such a retreat, and I had in my hands a copy of Jonathan Lethem's The Fortress of Solitude, which had coincidentally been left in my work mailbox just days before by a colleague who thought I would enjoy the story of two seventies-era youths who bond over comic books. Since the seventies were my own coming-of-age decade and since comics are my penchant, it seemed like a sure bet, so much so that I did not even bring a Plan B / backup book.

Alas, it was not to be. I don't know about Lethem's qualities as a storyteller; I never made it that far. I do know that his prosody leans toward the elaborate - in fact, it is positively filigreed. The language was so lyrical and literary that I felt as if I were reading sonnets written on Belgian lace; there were so many grace notes I had a hard time finding the substance.

Take this description of two young girls roller-skating, from the opening of the book:
The girls murmured rhymes, were murmured rhymes, their gauzy, sky-pink hair streaming like it had never once been cut.
Sky-pink hair? I've seen the sky get pinkish at sunset or sunrise; does that make their hair an off-blue? And gauzy? I'm not sure I know what gauzy hair is. I sure didn't know what the girls looked like. And if, in fact, the girls were murmured rhymes, why not edit that sentence down and just say that first? Finally, I have often told my students that italics and boldface for emphasis are marks of weak prose; maybe I was wrong, but I don't think the edited version of that sentence would need them.

I soldiered on through more similarly flowery prose and in a few pages was struck by this passage wrapping up a description of the historically dubious naming of a newly-gentrified neighborhood by its sponsor:
So, Boerum Hill, though there wasn't any hill. Isabel Vendle wrote it and so it was made and so they would come to live in the new place which was inked into reality by her hand, her crabbed hand which scuttled from past to future, Simon Boerum and Gowanus unruly parents giving birth to Boerum Hill, a respectable child.
Again we get the in-text edit-by-comma, "hand" gaining a "crabbed" modifier only with repetition, not at the outset. We also get a serial "and," the metaphorical "inked into reality," and a concluding participial clause trying to shoulder the action, all in one rambling sentence.

I'm not saying any of these language choices are bad, incorrect, or even inappropriate; I just felt when reading it that it was all style and little substance, that Lethem cared more about writing prettily than telling a story, and that I didn't know how much I could get through.

As it turned out, not much. About page twelve or so I gave up on it and wandered into the cabin to see if there was a nice paperback on the small bookshelf in the corner by the fireplace. I pulled out a somewhat worn copy of Agatha Christie's Dead Man's Mirror, one of the Hercule Poirot mysteries. It began
The flat was a modern one. The furnishings of the room were modern, too. The armchairs were squarely built, the upright chairs were angular. A modern writing-table was set squarely in front of the widow and at it sat a small elderly man. His head was practically the only round thing in the room. It was egg-shaped.
Ah. This room I could see, and this man I could visualize. The weekend's reading agenda was reshaped but salvaged.

Now, I have wondered about this response I had. An easy explanation is my falling on the spare side of the ol' Fitzgerald-Hemingway divide: possessing a bent for the plain and unadorned as opposed to the mannered and ornate. A specific preference between those two authors may be so in my case, but how does that explain my absolute enthusiasm for Dickens, whose paragraphs seem like dense thickets of forest next to the bare tundra of Papa's sentences?

Perhaps I merely fall in the Animist quadrant of Scott McCloud's Four Tribes theory of creators, concerned mostly with story, while Lethem is a Classicist, focused on beauty.

Or maybe the answer is as prosaic as my commute companion suggested today: I wanted a "beach book," and not a literary novel, in that particular place and time.

But maybe the truth is that I'm just not very "literary" at all. And maybe I can live with that.


gwekeers said...

Or maybe you just don't care for sonnets written on Belgian lace . . . what is literary, anyway?
Enjoyed reading about McCloud's tribes. Agree with him that most have at least one foot in each.

Courtney Putnam said...


I love this post. It almost feels like a braided narrative to me.

And my mother would be very pleased about your Hemingway appreciation. :-)


Yojimbo_5 said...

...OR, it was a crappy book.

Hemingway would've thrown it off the ferry.

John said...

My sense, limited and speculative as it may be, is that you enjoy plot. You enjoy a story that goes places, that has vibrant characters that "fret and strut" across their stage. I think you also enjoy creative prose and taking chances with language... but as someone that has co-created a few narratives with you... I cannot picture you happily accepting a story that builds its base around elegant prose at the expense of compelling plot.

Walaka said...

John: that's a lot like McCloud talking, there. Perhaps is prefer le mot juste to a bon mot.

RAB said...

"I'm not saying any of these language choices are bad, incorrect, or even inappropriate..."

Actually, yes you are. And that paragraph is bad writing. Why be afraid to say it?

Walaka said...

I meant that things like the serial "and" (which I use) and metaphor and so on are not bad per se, just that their employment in combination here did not work.

But, yeah, I do think it is a bad paragraph. The time-traveling crab-hand scuttling with ink just seems overloaded.