Monday, July 25, 2011

Forget About It : My Very Short List of Annoying Novelistic Cliches

I usually oppose prescriptive approaches to art, but even I have limits. Here are a few literary cliches that contemporary fiction writers should probably avoid:
  1. A shot rang out. No it didn't. Gunshots don't ring; landline telephones and Salvation Army bells do. Shots snap, crackle, and pop (like a cereal commercial); they also explode, echo, ricochet, erupt, burble, and whistle (past the ears of those lucky enough not to be on the receiving end--which is what Hemingway meant when he said you never hear the one that gets you), but they never really rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrriiiiiiiiiinnng.
  2. Any sentence beginning with the word 'suddenly.' Especially overused by thriller writers, as in "Suddenly a shot rang out. Thompson dove for cover. "Let's get outta here," he grunted to the blonde, already hot-footing it for the door."
  3. "Let's get outta here." Don't say it; make like Nike and just do it. This and all closely related lines of dialogue are the novelist's easiest and cheapest way to signal a shifting of scenes. If you can't accomplish this simple task more artfully, you shouldn't write.
  4. Stage directions, such as 'he rose,' 'he walked across the room,' 'he staggered,' 'he sat,' 'he stood,' 'he opened the door,' 'he closed the door.' These bland but necessary directions cast a pall of boredom over any page on which they appear. Why can't we write 'he sank into his naugahyde Barcalounger and relaxed to a Pat Boone LP,' or 'he took a sip of fine Kentucky bourbon and neighed like a Derby horse,' or, less whimsically, 'he dragged his left foot to the front of the room'?
  5. Paragraphs composed entirely of short simple sentences. Or, in James Ellroy's case, fragments. Of short. Simple sentences. During the 1980s heyday of minimalism, whole novels were written in this facile 'see Dick run' prose. Critics straightfacedly hailed their strength. And vigor. Now it's over. Thank Dog.
  6. Authorial moral earnestness. The most serious novels are, in Kundera's great phrase, "an investigation of human life in the trap the world has become." A novel should not exist primarily as a platform for authorial posturing (though we all do strut a bit; we're only human). The author's morality (and his/her politics, philosophy, etc.) informs every sentence of a good novel. It need not be billboarded. If you write well enough--and authentically enough--the ideological/intellectual stuff will take care of itself.
  7. Postmodern Self-Consciousness. After almost half a century of novels in which writer-characters write the novel we are reading and/or make fictional appearances to comment upon their own fictions, etc., etc., this sort of thing has hardened into a blood clot in the aorta of contemporary literary fiction. Still something of a subversive strategy when Salman Rushdie used it in Midnight's Children, its status as cliche was clearly signalled by its deployment in Neil Simon's Jake's Women (which was, to be fair, superior Simon). Whenever a technique appears in a Neil Simon play, it has ceased to be subversive.
  8. Academic novels. These days, most well-reviewed, 'serious' writers of 'literary fiction' are either graduates of MFA programs and/or pay their bills by 'teaching' at colleges and universities (living off LitFic is incredibly difficult; even David Foster Wallace had a professorial day job). This sorry situation has led to a glut of campus novels (even Denis Johnson wrote one[!]). Like every other genre, this one boasts a few very good books (David Lodge's Small World and Chabon's Wonder Boys come to mind), but most fail to rise above mediocrity.
  9. Suburban social realism (or as Parisians might call it, le roman de Franzen). I think everyone has had enough of the bland banlieues americaines, n'est-ce pas? The only original suburban novel still possible is an utterly tasteless Pynchonian allegory in which all the boring, bourgeois characters, ashamed of being trapped in such an imaginatively impoverished genre, commit mass suicide at the end of chapter one. In the second chapter, fire destroys the suburbs. The rest of the novel tells the story of a family of neurotic rabbits who hop around madly and shag each other silly amidst the ruins of the human world. The book ends with the triumph of lapine fascism and a song-and-dance number titled, "When Rabbits Rule the World (It'll be Auschwitz Time for Kitty Cats)."
  10. Insert Your Least Favorite Literary Cliche Here.

Friday, July 22, 2011


The Sunset Limited is that rare Cormac McCarthy work that doesn't go far enough. Ol' Cormac is usually dependably excessive, to say the least. Blood Meridian is the most surrealistically excessive Western in our literature, just as Moby Dick is our most surrealistically excessive sea story. The unlimited pneumatic mayhem of No Country For Old Men (or for any other men--or women--except Anton Chigurh) served to indict our entire culture, but even that wasn't enough for McCarthy. Not content with laying waste to a part of a part of the country, he let the entire world have it in The Road. And sometime in between these works, he crafted this odd, unplatonic dialogue that he calls 'a novel in dramatic form.' Well...Sorry, Charlie, but it's nothing of the kind. Judged as a novel, The Sunset Limited is a thin, weak concoction. It comes off much better when we read it as what it really and obviously is, a play. It's a promising script for a potentially great dramatic production, provided the actors and directors play it with minimal solemnity and maximum irony (there is much dark comedy here, even a Beckettian note in White's frequent attempts to leave the room). The biggest problem is that McCarthy fails to take these two men far enough into themselves. Neither recounts the worst thing he has ever done, and neither presses the other to do so. This final reticence may reflect well upon the two men's humanity, their mutual respect and capacity for empathy, but it robs the play of a potentially shattering dramatic crescendo, a pair of glorious, Sam Shepard-style titanic monologues in which Black and White recount their worst moments. As it is, the text is haunted by these lacunae, the monologues that never were. Leaving them out is an entirely defensible artistic choice, but I don't think it was the correct one in this case.


The Da Vinci Code is garbage, utter tripe, a book so poorly written that it can be read as an unintentional parody of pop thriller writing. I read it several years ago, and I have yet to receive a reply regarding the bill I subsequently sent to Dan Brown, charging him a (fairly reasonable) dollar value for my wasted reading time and demanding payment in full. A blurb on the cover of my copy quotes Nelson De Mille's hysterically effusive description of the novel: "This is pure genius." To which I can only reply: If this is pure genius, I'd hate to smell crap. I have retitled the book Thriller Written with a Mixmaster, because it reads as though Dan Brown tossed an average thriller, a tourist's guidebook and a volume of dotty art history into a Mixmaster and pressed 'Puree.' This is not to say, surprisingly, that the book is entirely without merit. (Nothing that riles the religious right can be entirely without merit.) But its few noticeable merits--superfast pacing, clever puzzles--shrink to subatomic size in proportion to its most glaring demerit: the absence of any perceptible authorial talent. To call The Da Vinci Code 'junk food for the brain' is an insult to junk food. This is a cheap, disposable thriller so poorly written that it doesn't even qualify as a guilty pleasure. If I rated books with stars, I would give it a black hole.

Monday, July 11, 2011


"The furthest frenzies of French modernism or futurism have not yet reached the pitch of extreme consciousness that Poe, Melville, Hawthorne, Whitman reached. The European moderns are all trying to be extreme. The great Americans I mention just were it." -- D. H. Lawrence

The biggest problem facing readers of D. H. Lawrence's nonfiction is the separation of the author's invaluable insights from his errant crackpottery. Studies in Classic American Literature contains a surprising number of the former and far too much of the latter. As a testy, polemical, provocative examination of several essential 18th and 19th century American books, this 88 year-old text remains highly valuable. As a basic primer on how to read these books--trust the tale, not the teller; great advice for reading anything--it is probably unbeatable. As an exercise in American cultural criticism, it is a fundamental and prescient volume. "Can you make a land virgin by killing off its aborigines?" Lawrence asks at one point, posing the question of American genocide at a time when Wounded Knee remained a living memory. In his essays on James Fenimore Cooper, Lawrence anticipates (and perhaps exceeds) Leslie Fiedler's signature insights into race and myth in American literature. He uses the Leatherstocking novels to define an endlessly suggestive 'myth of America': "[the novels] go backwards, from old age to golden youth. That is the true myth of America. She starts old, old, wrinkled and writhing in an old skin. And there is a gradual sloughing of the old skin, towards a new youth." Near the end of the same essay, Lawrence gives us his darkest reflection upon the obsidian mirror of American fiction: "The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted." These two sentences can teach us much about the contemporary American right and its psychotic, suicidal, anti-American cruelty--a psychosis that often manifests itself in a drive to smear all liberal aspects of government and society with rhetorical excrement and then complain that they stink. Sarah Palin brandishes all the firearms, but the telegenically cruel Paul Ryan (who eerily reminds me of Bret Easton Ellis's Patrick Bateman) is the real Natty Bumpo of contemporary American fascism. That old fascist cyborg Dick Cheney is so enamored of Ryan's hard, isolate stoicism that he has stated, "I worship the ground Paul Ryan walks on." (Which I guess clears up all the confusion about the true religion of the American right, n'est-ce pas?) As this brief digression suggests, the best parts of Lawrence's book remain more relevant than anything in any other octogenarian work of criticism. But these best passages are embedded in far too much of the aforementioned crackpottery: long anti-feminist tirades, a bit of anti-semitism, pages and pages of blather about the Lawrencian "Holy Ghost," a bunch of bizarre, bitchy non sequiturs... Amazingly, the book is still worth reading. It is worth our time to separate the true Lawrencian gold from the resentful, forgettable dross.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

My Proust Questionnaire (Happy 140th, Marcel)

In honor of Marcel Proust's 140th birthday, I've decided to submit to a version of the infamous Pivotian, Liptonian, Vanity Fairian 'Proust Questionnaire.'
  1. Your most marked characteristic? None of your business
  2. The quality you most like in a man? Wit and sensitivity
  3. The quality you most like in a woman? Friendliness and wit
  4. What do you most value in your friends? The fact that they are my friends
  5. What is your principle defect? Perfection
  6. What is your favorite occupation? Turning sentences around, making worlds of words, liking that other world.
  7. What is your dream of happiness? I have more interesting things to dream about
  8. What to your mind would be the greatest of misfortunes? Total paralysis or the disintegration of the mind
  9. What would you like to be? An enigma
  10. In what country would you like to live? England, specifically London, even more specifically Bloomsbury, most specifically of all Bedford Square
  11. What is your favorite color? The deep blue of shadows cast by evergreen trees upon freshly fallen snow
  12. What is your favorite flower? Queen of the Night Tulip, the most decadent flower in the world
  13. What is your favorite bird? The one between my index and ring fingers
  14. Who are your favorite prose writers? Marcel Proust, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, Walter Pater, Vladimir Nabokov, William Faulkner, many others
  15. Who are your favorite poets? Ovid, Dante, Shakespeare, Donne, Whitman, Dickinson, Yeats, Rilke, Celan, Hart Crane, Allen Ginsberg, T.S. Eliot, many, many others
  16. Who is your favorite hero of fiction? Tyrone Slothrop
  17. Who is your favorite heroine of fiction? Fanny Hill
  18. Who are your favorite composers? Bach, Beethoven, Berg, Wagner, Mahler, Morton Feldman
  19. What is your favorite symphony? Beethoven's Ninth
  20. What is your favorite opera? Wagner's Tristan und Isolde 
  21. Who are your favorite painters? Picasso, Titian, Rembrandt, Cezanne, Fragonard, Goya, Manet, Van Gogh, Beckmann, many others
  22. Who are your heroes in real life? A 'real life' hero is a dangerous thing to have.
  23. Who are your favorite heroines of history? Ditto
  24. What are your favorite first names? Alexandra, Marina, Natasha, Miranda
  25. What is it you most dislike? Today's Republican Party, a surreal collection of Burroughsian Talking Assholes
  26. What historical figures do you most despise? Hitler, Stalin, and many other religious figures
  27. What event in military history do you most admire? It's difficult to find anything admirable in human slaughter
  28. Who are your intellectual heroes? Jean-Paul Sartre, Noam Chomsky, Mahatma Gandhi, Thomas Jefferson, Emma Goldman, Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, Alfred Kinsey, Albert Einstein, Richard Dawkins
  29. What natural gift would you most like to possess? Perfect vision
  30. How would you like to die? As Bartleby said, I would prefer not to...
  31. What is your present state of mind? Weird to surreal, a Gaudi palace of spiralling dreamstone
  32. To what faults do you feel most indulgent? Excessive love, and any other 'fault' born of authentic passion
  33. What is your favorite word? Superflux
  34. What is your least favorite word? No
  35. What is your motto? Doubt Everything

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Celebrating Marcel Proust's 140th Birthday

No one outside the hardcore Proustian community seems to have noticed yet that this Sunday, July 10, 2011, is the 140th birthday of Marcel Proust. I suggest celebrating the occasion by taking a long swig from the Modern Library 'Proust Six-Pack':

This is a box set of the complete In Search of Lost Time (A la recherche du temps perdu) in six sturdy paperback volumes, as translated into English by C.K. Scott Moncrieff and subsequently revised (twice) to bring it into line with the most recent French edition. (Ideally, of course, one should read Proust in French; I'll be working on that for the rest of my life...) I have my quibbles with some of Moncrieff's choices, but his translation remains the best Proust in English. I've sampled the other recent translations and found them flat, bland and unsatisfying, a weak stew. Moncrieff's work, on the other hand, is sinuously, Art Nouveau-ishly impressive enough to be a monument of English prose.

A single sentence in Robert Hughes's The Shock of the New convinced me that it's impossible to really know Proust until you've experienced Art Nouveau  architecture at its excessive best. So one might also celebrate Marcel's cent-quarantieme by watching Japanese director Hiroshi Teshigahara's great and beautiful 1984 documentary Antonio Gaudi. (It's available from the Criterion Collection and can be rented from Netflix.) This is an almost entirely wordless 72-minute visual essay that plays like a poem or a modernist symphony (or a Proustian novel), piling image upon image upon image, allowing breathtakingly photographed examples of Gaudi's works to speak for themselves. When a narrator's voice enters near the end, it seems to come only to demonstrate the superfluity of words. The images are the thing.

This would also be a good time to study some of the Old Masters that Proust especially loved: Chardin, Rembrandt, Vermeer. Look at Vermeer's View of Delft and try to find Bergotte's little patch of yellow wall (but don't kill yourself doing it):
That's how I'll be marking a date that should be as important as Bloomsday on the literary calendar.


Tuesday, July 5, 2011

A thought on Terrence Malick's DAYS OF HEAVEN and Henry James's THE WINGS OF THE DOVE

"Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal..." -- T. S. Eliot, "Philip Massinger," The Sacred Wood

By the Eliotic standard, filmmaker Terrence Malick must be considered a 'mature poet,' even in his early work. Malick's second film, the beyond-beautiful Days of Heaven, boldly steals its central love triangle from Henry James's The Wings of the Dove (a novel written, appropriately, in the same general period in which the film is set [within a decade or so]). Genders are switched, and the action is shifted from London drawing rooms and Venetian palazzi to the harsh world of the early 1900s Texas Panhandle (portrayed credibly by Alberta, Canada), but the attentive and literate viewer will have little difficulty seeing the wealthy, doomed Sam Shepard as wealthy, doomed Milly Theale, the conspiratorial Richard Gere as conspiratorial Kate Croy, and the lover-turned-conspirator-turned-lover Brooke Adams as lover-turned-conspirator-turned-lover Merton Densher. Critics have often pointed out the thin, elliptical nature of Days of Heaven's narrative, a story so slight as to be dwarfed by the stunning visuals, but it seems less elliptical and more intertextual (not to mention more interesting) once one identifies the Jamesian intertext.

Monday, July 4, 2011

The Grand Unified Conspiracy Theory of English Literature : A Satyrickall Diversion

Ben Jonson spilled the beans four centuries ago in an unwritten letter recently discovered bound between the endpapers of a nonexistent book in the London Library: The Looney Hypothesis is all true, every bit of it. The Earl of Oxford wrote Shakespeare's plays and Shakespeare wrote Marlowe's plays and Marlowe wrote Middleton's plays and Tommy the Kyd wrote John Webster's plays between rackings in the tower; Ben Jonson wrote everyone else's poetry and John Donne wrote Ben Jonson's; Donne also wrote most of George Herbert's poems (the ones not written by Marvell), Marston wrote all of Tourneur's works, the Countess of Pembroke wrote Sidney's Arcadia, Spenser wrote Francis Bacon's essays, and Bacon wrote Queen Elizabeth I, who wrote nothing save death warrants; Addison wrote Steele's essays and Steele wrote Addison's; Marvell wrote Milton's epics while Milton wrote poems, pamphlets and precious little else, being blind (surely no one still believes that Bennettian wives' tale about the blind bugger's dreary dictation to his dutiful daughters?); Alexander Pope wrote Homer's epics and Samuel Johnson wrote Swift's satires and Henry Fielding wrote Tristram Shandy and Sterne wrote Richardson's Clarissa over a single sleepless weekend; Wordsworth and Coleridge were inventions of William Blake, while Hazlitt and De Quincey were prosey aliases for Byron and Shelley; Keats wrote every Romantic poem but found criticism Byronically 'killing'; Mary Shelley wrote all of Percy Bysshe's poems and Percy wrote the tale of Frankenstein; Jane Austen's books were written by George Eliot, Eliot's by Anthony Trollope, Trollope's by Thackeray, Thackeray's by Dickens, Dickens's by Lewis Carroll, Carroll's by Michael Jackson, Jackson's by Walter Pater, Pater's by John Ruskin, Ruskin's by Marcel Proust, Proust's by James Joyce, Joyce's by Virginia Woolf, and Woolf's by a dustman from Sydenham named Willie Stoat; Flann O'Brien wrote the half of Finnegans Wake that was not written by Myles na gCopaleen, Brian O'Nolan wrote all of Flann O'Brien's works, James Joyce wrote Brideshead Revisited as a piece of high satire, and Graham Greene wrote the rest of Evelyn Waugh while vacationing in Jamaica; in the beach bungalow nextdoor, Ian Fleming invented John Le Carre as a pseudonym for a former spook from Cornwall, while James Bond begat Kingsley Amis who begat Another Amis, who wrote all his father's books; and Salman Rushdie wrote everything, including the Koran.

I hope this clears things up.