Posts Tagged 'nicholson baker'

Faking fluency.

A couple years back Martin Amis described re-reading Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, a book he’d admired as a younger man:

I looked at Catch-22 not long ago and I was greatly embarrassed – I thought it was very labored. I asked Heller when I interviewed him if he had used a thesaurus. He said, “Oh yes, I used a thesaurus a very great deal.” And I use a thesaurus a lot too, but not looking for a fancy word for “big.” I use it so I can vary the rhythm of what I’m writing – I want a synonym that’s three syllables, or one syllable. It’s a terrific aid to euphony, and everybody has their own idea of euphony. But the idea of plucking an obscure word out of a thesaurus is frivolous, I think. [1]

Nicholson Baker is even more fastidious. In U and I he objects to the “deracinated adjacency of the thesaurus” and says he refuses to touch one; but he concedes that this prejudice is snooty and absurd, and admires John Updike and Donald Barthelme for forthrightly admitting that, yeah, sometimes they dig impressive-sounding words out of the thesaurus. [2]

Me, I consult my thesaurus not to find new and astonishing ways to say “big” but to recover unflashy middle-school vocabulary words that, when I summon them for occasional use, get bogged down on the journey between memory and forebrain. It happens to everyone. Here’s Charlie Citrine, narrator of Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift, suffering what we would today call a brain fart (though brain constipation would be a better image):

My brain was disintegrating. The day before, in the bathroom, I hadn’t been able to find the word for the isolation of the contagious, and I was in agony. I thought, whom should I telephone about this? My mind is going! And then I stood and clutched the sink until the word “quarantine” mercifully came back to me. Yes, quarantine, but I was losing my grip.

At one time I would, like Charlie Citrine, fume and grind my teeth when a word like “quarantine” failed to arrive at my command. Then I realized that there was no shame in going halfway to meet it; that’s what the thesaurus is for. It’s not a Wunderkammer for browsing exotic words, but a filing cabinet for storing everyday ones, so that you can find them when you need them, and get on with your writing.

Citrine has little cause to worry about his “disintegrating” brain. A lauded author, playwright, and journalist possessed of a preposterously, even aggravatingly high degree of verbal fluency, he’s happy to oblige when visitors challenge him to demonstrate that he has actually absorbed the contents of the dense tomes he leaves on his coffee table:

“Take this monster – The Hastings Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics – Jesus Christ, what the hell is that! Now Charlie tell us, what were you reading here?”

“I was checking something about Origen of Alexandria. Origen’s opinion was that the Bible could not be a collection of mere stories. Did Adam and Eve really hide under a tree while God walked in the Garden in the cool of the day? Did angels really climb up and down ladders? Did Satan bring Jesus to the top of a high mountain and tempt him? Obviously these tales must have a deeper meaning. What does it mean to say ‘God walked’? Does God have feet? This is where the thinkers began to take over, and–”

“Enough, that’s enough. Now what’s this book say, The Triumph of the Therapeutic?”

For reasons of my own I wasn’t unwilling to be tested in this way. I actually read a great deal. Did I know what I was reading? We would see. I shut my eyes, reciting, “It says that psychotherapists may become the new spiritual leaders of mankind. A disaster. Goethe was afraid the modern world might turn into a hospital. Every citizen unwell. The same point in Knock by Jules Romains. Is hypochondria a creation of the medical profession? …”

…And so on. I assume that Citrine, like Bellow’s other first-person narrators, is a barely veiled version of Bellow himself: did Bellow talk like this? It’s easy for writers to create the illusion of fluency by polishing, double-checking, reaching for the thesaurus: characters therefore are nearly always more articulate than their creators.

It’s much harder in real time. With practice you can learn to fake fluency by speaking confidently and grammatically – which is already more than most of us can manage – and, when you find yourself out of your depth, by edging around to a topic you do know well. Honest-to-god verbal fluency requires high intelligence, which is rare.

Those of us who have a brain for certain kinds of trivia – who remember names or dates or numbers – have an unfair edge, when faking fluency, over those who forget such details: but it can hobble us, too. We become overconfident, imagining that because we can name something, we’ve mastered it. I do the Sunday crossword puzzle with a friend sometimes, and she’ll quiz me, when I’ve impressed her by hauling out some unfamiliar name:

“And who is Thomas à Becket?”

“He was Archbishop of Canterbury. He was murdered by…somebody…because…because some English king, can’t remember which, said, ‘Will someone’…no, ‘Will no-one rid me of this troublesome priest?'”

“Why’d he say that?”

“Come to think of it, I’m not really sure. Wait, meddlesome priest. Meddlesome.”

The other day I found myself trying to describe to this same friend the events of the English civil war. I got the names and order of the kings right, and correctly named the decade of Cromwell’s rule. But checking my facts afterward, I was wrong about nearly everything else: the various parties’ motives, the sequence of events, the religious underpinnings of the conflict. All the stuff, in other words, that would demonstrate actual comprehension.

Looking at the various nonfiction books on my shelves, I wonder – if my friend plucked up one of these books at random, and asked me to summarize its contents in the manner of Charlie Citrine, how well would I do?

Suppose her hand fell on C.S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man, a slender book which I’ve read at least twice, most recently a couple years ago, and which influenced my thinking during the writing of my own novel.

I remember Lewis’s starting point being some contemporary government report – or was it a newspaper article? – on reforms to the British educational system.

I remember him using the word Tao in a non-denominational way to refer to, uh, our innate universal sense of morality, I think.

And of course I remember “men without chests”, Lewis’s phrase for the regrettable products of modern education, although I couldn’t say now how he introduces the phrase or exactly what it means. [3] [4]

That’s about it. Given a half hour I think I could, even without access to my library or the internet, spin around these fragments an extremely vague but passably coherent précis of Lewis’s argument. Off the top of my head? Fat chance.

Whenever I come across a reference to The Abolition of Man I’ll nod knowingly: Ah, yes, a text I too have mastered. Carry on, fellow educated person. But in fact my multiple readings of that book have left only a series of faint impressions, like the ghostly roadways of an extinct jungle civilization, detectable only in satellite photos.

Which brings up the question, why do I read at all? But that’s a subject I’ve delved into already…in an essay that, I find upon revisiting it, also references C.S. Lewis. One of the symptoms of declining intelligence is that you start repeating yourself.

M.

1. In a review in his collection The Moronic Inferno, Amis eviscerated Joseph Heller’s God Knows for “[w]riting that transcends mere repetition and aspires to outright tautology.” A sampling: “‘lugubrious dirge’, ‘pensive reverie’, ‘vacillating perplexity’, ‘seditious uprising’” …etc.

I identified the same tic re-reading Catch-22 nine years ago and complained that Heller’s prose “clops along like a three-legged horse”.

2. U and I, written in 1991, is about Nicholson Baker’s “obsession” with, and debt to, his literary hero and fellow psoriasis-sufferer John Updike. The digression about the thesaurus now inevitably and unfortunately summons to mind the anonymous slur quoted by David Foster Wallace in a harsh review a few years later: that Updike was nothing more than “a penis with a thesaurus”.

3. To return to U and I, one of the charms of that book is that Baker resolved when writing it to forgo the “artifice of preparation”: in order to preserve his pure, spontaneous, un-fussed-over impressions of Updike’s work, every line he quotes, every story he describes was retrieved from his own, frequently faulty memory. (“I remember almost nothing of what I read,” he admits.) Where Baker misquotes he appends the correct quotation in square brackets.

4. Checking my memories of The Abolition of Man: Lewis begins with a discussion of a newly-published elementary school text; Tao is the term he uses for the alignment of one’s desires with objective reality, necessary to human thriving; and men without chests refers to people governed by reason alone, lacking the guidance of sentiment or magnanimity, which, according to the Medieval theologian Alanus, is seated in the chest.

Speaking of Nicholson Baker, in September I quoted a whimsical suicide fantasy in his A Box of Matches and last year I talked about his “intensely fine-grained” debut novel The Mezzanine.

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’Cide by ’cide.

Last year in an essay on Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions I quoted a comment the author made years ago in an interview. The subject was suicide:

As a problem-solving device, it’s in the forefront of my mind all the time. It’s like walking along the edge of a cliff. I’m in the country and the pump stops. What’ll I do? I know: I’ll kill myself. The roof is leaking. What’ll I do? I know: I’ll blow my brains out.

It made me think of a bit in Nicholson Baker’s Box of Matches where the narrator, who often eases himself into sleep by imagining ludicrous methods of killing himself, visualizes a Rube Goldberg suicide apparatus:

If you kill yourself, you are being inconsiderate, because others must deal with the distasteful mess of your corpse. The self-filling grave solved that.

The self-filling grave involves a shotgun, a tripwire, and a “complicated system of pulleys and weights” that releases a load of earth over your corpse as you fall. This passage stuck in my memory because I’d had a similar fantasy, except with a vat of acid.

When I was twenty or so and sad and aimless and lonely, in emails to my friends back home I would occasionally crack wise about my upcoming suicide. Until one day the phone rang and it was a friend who feared I was about to hurl myself off a bridge.

I tried to explain: No, I have no intention of killing myself. I’m just saying it’s comforting to know that it’s in my back pocket, so to speak, as a fallback in case things get really bad. Don’t worry, I’m fine. Please can we stop talking about this. Really I’m fine.

And I learned to stop talking about it: no point freaking out my friends and family. I’m twenty years older now, and perhaps a shade wiser; less prone, anyway, to hyperdramatizing every slight and setback. But I’ve been carrying the old suicide charm around in my back pocket this whole time, and even now, every so often I’ll pull it out and give it a wistful caress.

I’ve got this buddy – let’s see; I’ve used X. and Y. already in recent months, so I guess I’ll call him Z. – who’ll fall sometimes into a state of deep apathy. He was in a highway accident years back – he calls it sheer bad luck, but I’d guess reckless driving played a part – where if his tumbling vehicle had tumbled an inch to the right or left, he would now be dead. Since then, he says, he hasn’t much cared whether he lives or dies. He’s flirted with suicide more than once: had a rope around his neck, had a gun barrel in his mouth; and in between, snarfed chemicals of uncertain provenance in the vague hope he’d be spared the trouble of waking up next morning.

When he muses about killing himself, I find myself echoing that friend who called me twenty years ago to dissuade me from jumping off the bridge: I tell Z. he’s got a lot to live for – things are gonna start looking up any minute – his friends and family would be heartbroken if he died – and so on and so forth. He just shakes his head in frustration. “You can’t understand,” he tells me. “If you haven’t been through it, you can’t possibly understand.”

Maybe on these occasions it would help if I shared with Z. my own daydreams of self-obliteration. Maybe it would lend my platitudes the sheen of authority. But I’m afraid he wouldn’t take me seriously – he’d conclude that to me suicide is, so to speak, a conversation piece: an antique blunderbuss to hang above the fireplace; while to him it’s something you keep loaded and ready by the door for when the wolves get too close.

But then, maybe like me and Kurt Vonnegut (who died at age 84 of “injuries sustained in a fall at his Manhattan home”), Z. really has no intention of killing himself. He just likes to fantasize about it.

Much of our opinionating these days consists of declarations that you, the privileged reader, couldn’t possibly understand what I, the long-suffering author, have been through. If you’re not gay you can’t know how discouraging it is to grow up in a world where heterosexual marriage is held up as the endpoint of romantic fulfilment. If you’ve never been homeless you can’t imagine what it’s like to feel the indignant stares of middle-class people when you blemish their parks and sidewalks with your untidy existence. If you’re not a person of colour you can’t conceive how much emotional labour goes into merely standing up under the daily bombardment of racist microaggressions.

In a sense this is all very true: I can’t know what it’s like to be anyone other than myself, a straight white male middle-class Gen-Xer from the Canadian prairies. It’s certainly easier to project myself into the mind of a fellow straight white male middle-class etc. etc. than to imagine life as a Lapp reindeer-herder, or a Sentinel Islands hunter-gatherer, or a minor party functionary in Pyongyang, or a black female multimillionaire tennis superstar.

But even being a fellow straight white male middle-class etc. etc. doesn’t entitle me to pretend to know what my friend Z. is thinking. Even if like him I’d been in a car accident, gotten divorced, tried coke and heroin, felt the barrel of a gun in my mouth, we’d still be separated by a billion little experiences, every one of them big enough to contain a Russian novel’s worth of suffering and self-blame.

I suspect if people could read each other’s novels they’d discover that we all have more in common than we realized. We’ve all felt belittled and condescended to. We’ve all suspected we were being judged not on our personal qualities, but on our reputations, our appearance, or the company we keep. We’ve all lain awake thinking, “No-one would even miss me if I vanished off the face of the earth.”

The most universal experience of all is knowing that no-one else could possibly understand what we’ve been through.

M.

A discerning elimination.

We’ll begin with Sam Spade sneakily entering a room in Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon:

He put his hand on the knob and turned it with care that permitted neither rattle nor click. He turned the knob until it would turn no farther: the door was locked. Holding the knob still, he changed hands, taking it now in his left hand. With his right hand he brought his keys out of his pocket, carefully, so they could not jingle against one another. He separated the office-key from the others and, smothering the others together in his palm, inserted the office-key in the lock. The insertion was soundless. He balanced himself on the balls of his feet, filled his lungs, clicked the door open, and went in.

In Rex Stout’s The League of Frightened Men, the reclusive criminological genius Nero Wolfe answers a criticism from his assistant that he has neglected to follow certain promising leads in their current case:

“In the labyrinth of any problem that confronts us, we must select the most promising paths; if we attempt to follow all at once we shall arrive nowhere. In any art – and I am an artist or nothing – one of the deepest secrets of excellence is a discerning elimination. Of course that is a truism.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Yes. Take the art of writing. I am, let us say, describing the actions of my hero rushing to greet his beloved, who has just entered the forest. He sprang up from the log on which he had been sitting, with his left foot forward; as he did so, one leg of his trousers fell properly into place but the other remained hitched up at the knee. He began running towards her, first his right foot, then his left, then his right again, then left, right, left, right, left, right…As you see, some of that can surely be left out – indeed must be, if he is to accomplish his welcoming embrace in the same chapter. So the artist must leave out vastly more than he puts in, and one of his chief cares is to leave out nothing vital to his work.”

Wolfe is obviously correct, at least insofar as his observation applies to the art of writing. (How it applies to the art of detection, I couldn’t say.) But I would extend it by adding that the amount of detail the artist elects to put in or leave out is a question of style.

I’m not sure if the theorists of literature have devised a name for this element of a writer’s style, so let’s call it granularity. The fine-grained writer will include more details of his characters’ actions, of their inner thoughts, of their surroundings, while the coarse-grained writer will include fewer. The parodic extreme of the fine-grained technique would be Wolfe’s narration of the hero’s tortured progress toward his lover in the forest: “First his right foot, then his left, then his right again…”

(…Which, as shown by that excerpt from The Maltese Falcon, is not that much of a parody.)

Its polar opposite, the quintessence of coarse-grainedness, would be a bare plot outline: “She meets him in the forest. They make love. Afterward…”

This isn’t to say that the fine-grained style is more precise, let alone better. A fine-grained but clumsy writer will include every detail of a character’s action but the one that matters; a talented coarse-grained writer will include that detail and no others, and the reader will be perfectly satisfied.

The famous quip about Henry James, that he “chewed more than he bit off”, could be applied to most fine-grained writing. But while James may too often have tried to stretch a stare, a blush, and a fluttered eyelid into a four-course meal, he was no more fine-grained than hard-boiled, hard-drinking Dashiell Hammett. Fine-grained writers are alike only in their high estimation of their readers’ level of wakefulness. One may be fine-grained on matters of psychology, another on sociology, another on technology. The one who transcribes every flicker of a character’s flow of consciousness won’t say a word about that character’s appearance, while the one who’ll specify which hand the hero uses to pluck his keys from his pocket will expect you to deduce said hero’s emotions from actions alone.

Assuming a work of finite length, the more fine-grained the writer’s treatment of any aspect of the story – internal or external, personal or historical, metaphysical or concrete – the more coarse-grained must be the treatment of all the others. The trick is to choose the degree of magnification, adjusting to the length of readers’ attention spans and to the overall size of the story you want to tell.

By these means, a story of any size can be shrunken or enlarged to fill any number of pages. Nicholson Baker’s intensely fine-grained 1988 debut The Mezzanine describes an office worker returning from lunch, crossing his building’s atrium, and heading up the escalator to the mezzanine floor, reflecting on the mundane events of his morning. Many a science-fiction work has narrated the rise and fall of a galactic civilization in fewer words.

You might quibble with my use of the word “size”; you might say that The Mezzanine‘s visit to the CVS for a new pair of shoelaces is no bigger or smaller, literarily speaking, than Frodo and Sam’s march to Mordor. To me it’s obvious that stories do come in different sizes – that Ulysses’ wanderings around the Mediterranean are bigger than Leopold Bloom’s wanderings around Dublin in Ulysses, that To Kill A Mockingbird is bigger than Catcher in the Rye. A “normal-sized” story would involve two or three main characters, take place in an area no smaller than a neighbourhood but no larger than a city, encompass a timespan of between a few days and a few weeks, and have an outcome affecting people besides the characters themselves…but not too many people.

These parameters, you’ll notice, are distantly descended from Aristotle’s three unities, but unlike Aristotle I don’t mean to suggest that stories adhering to these rules are somehow superior. They are, I think, easier to write. To successfully tell a very small or very large story requires special skill as an author; for large stories, Nero Wolfe’s discerning elimination – knowing what to leave out – and for small stories, what I’m calling magnification – the enchanted lens that allows a Nicholson Baker to expand a broken shoelace or a stop at the men’s room to chapter size without losing his readers.

The master of magnification is that proverbial padder of word counts, Charles Dickens. In an old post on Sentimental Education I compared Flaubert unfavourably with Dickens:

[When Flaubert’s hero] fights a duel with a flighty aristocrat, or attends a ludicrous meeting of a radical political club, or serves an evening on duty with the National Guard, one wishes for a bit of Dickens’ comic expansiveness, his eagerness to digress, his concern to endow every character, no matter how minor, with a quirk or a verbal tic or, at the very least, a funny name. The fleas that harass Frédéric while he huddles in the guardhouse would have been good for a couple paragraphs in Dickens; Flaubert mentions them and moves on.

But whether you’re eliminating or magnifying, the key is to do it discerningly. Henry Fielding in Tom Jones compares a good writer to a tourist,

who always proportions his stay at any place to the beauties, elegancies, and curiosities which it affords. […] The woods, the rivers, the lawns of Devon and of Dorset, attract the eye of the ingenious traveller and retard his pace, which delay he afterward compensates by swiftly scouring over the gloomy heath of Bagshot or that pleasant plain which extends itself westward from Stockbridge, where no other object than one single tree only in sixteen miles presents itself to the view[.]

Inappropriately fine-grained writing, then, we might visualize as a slow, rattling buggy-ride across the naked prairie, with an overfamiliar driver directing our attention to every shrub and hillock as it passes.

Fielding is in my view guilty of the opposite impropriety, whipping his horses too briskly through the final chapters of Tom Jones, crammed as they are with revelations and reconciliations which the reader would enjoy the luxury of examining at greater length. Take the reaction of Squire Western upon learning that the penniless bastard Jones, whom he has been damning and blackguarding through the preceding 800 pages, is to be reinstated as Squire Allworthy’s heir. Western’s profane rants against those who would undermine his sacred right to tyrannize his daughter are some of the novel’s most hilarious passages; we chuckle as we wonder how he will step down from his habitual perch of enraged dignity. But Fielding only informs us that

No sooner, then, was Western informed of Mr. Allworthy’s intention to make Jones his heir than he joined heartily with the uncle in every commendation of the nephew, and became as eager for [his daughter’s] marriage with Jones as he had before been to couple her to Blifil.

One sentence! This is the same Fielding who expended four entire chapters on the life story of a random hermit Jones encountered on a hilltop outside Gloucester. Discerningly, my good man, discerningly.

M.