Saturday, June 2, 2012

Transparency, Translucency, Opacity: Some Thoughts on the Continuum of Novelistic Prose

If the medium of prose can be likened to window glass, then the major genera of novelistic prose (popular, literary, experimental) might be placed on a continuum stretching from transparency through translucency to opacity. The overwhelming majority of the prose that people purchase and read, the prose of popular fiction, is carefully crafted to create an illusion of transparency. It seems a clear, flawless, almost invisible window through which the stories and characters are viewed. Transparent prose is the quintessence of 'slick shit,' even slicker than the glossy paperback covers that usually bind it. (I hasten to add that my use of the phrase 'slick shit' is not as derogatory as it may seem; it was the phrase the Epstein brothers used to refer to their Casablanca screenplay, a work I hold in quite high esteem.) Transparent prose flows like an undammed river, presenting no obstacles to readerly navigation. It is written to be safely and enjoyably consumed, and while it is not exactly the literary equivalent of Muzak (because it must successfully create an alternative world and transport the reader there, a function no one would apply to a canned instrumental arrangement of "In My Life"), it is undeniably the kind of prose most closely associated with commodification. All those rows upon rows of genre novels as superficially different and profoundly similar as breakfast cereals in a supermarket are written in transparent prose. The transparent is a plain style, eschewing complex sentence structures and figurative language, but not all plain styles are transparent. Hemingway and Carver, for example, are masters of translucent plainness, and Gertrude Stein's The Making of Americans stands as a perverse masterpiece of the plain opaque. The prose of Stephen King, Elmore Leonard, and Thomas Harris (a trio I choose solely because they are the three best contemporary popular novelists I have read in recent years) can stand as exemplary of a prose that tends toward transparency as a Platonic ideal. James Ellroy would also be a good example, although in recent years his telegraphic style has tended to interpose itself between reader and representation, becoming a reductio ad absurdum of the truism that plainness can be just as mannered as complexity. It's not necessary to quote examples of transparent prose, because it's all around us. Open any bestseller and you will see it.

The prose of literary fiction--which I suppose can be defined as fiction intended primarily as an aesthetic object and only secondarily as a commercial one--tends to cluster around the translucent middle of the continuum. If the transparent is a pane of clear glass, the translucent is a tinted or molded window that "diffuses the light so that objects beyond cannot be seen clearly" (as Webster defines 'translucent'). Translucent prose calls attention to itself, becoming a visible barrier between the reader and the object it represents, a lens that distorts the object in the very act of making it visible. If transparent prose is as smooth as a fiber optic cable, translucent prose twists itself into barbs that tear at the reader's brain. In so doing, translucent prose retards the reading process, forcing the reader to notice the medium as well as its representations, the designs and patterns and flaws in the glass as well as the objects still visible beyond. Thus, it raises the questions of reading and writing as processes, makes unavoidable a sense of the novel as a constructed object, and, ideally, forces into consciousness the ideologically inflected decisions made by writers while writing novels and readers while reading them. The slick prose of popular fiction seems designed to forestall these three moments, to keep the reading process easy, fast, naive, and anything but (horror!) dialectical. Translucent prose tends to be dialectically unsettling, with the power to destabilize our received opinions not only of reading and writing but of the world and ourselves. Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!, Melville's Moby Dick, Joyce's Ulysses, the vast roman fleuve of Proust--these are the first works that come to my mind as masterpieces of translucent prose. We can always 'see' (in the Conradian sense) the objects that Faulkner or Joyce or Melville or Proust prose-poetically present to us, but we can also always 'see' (indeed, we can never help but see) the poetic prose that presents them. Thus are we teased into questioning the novelistic illusion that enraptures us. If you seek more examples of translucent prose, walk down the literature aisles of a Barnes & Noble (this may be your last chance; brick and mortar bookstores might soon be deader than Adorno). Hemingway, in his own minimal way, is as translucent as Faulkner (James M. Cain would be their transparent contemporary), but in general, translucent prose tends to lengthen sentences to the point of absurdity (Proust, Thomas Bernhard, Faulkner), to promiscuously compound subordinate clauses (Henry James, Proust), to revivify words you might never eye outside pagan papyri and obscure incunabulae inscribed for the perusal of callipygian queens (Joyce, David Foster Wallace, Alexander Theroux), to break up the reading process by means of footnotes, endnotes, parentheses (Nabokov, Wallace, Faulkner), to launch into seemingly endless catalogues of exemplary objects (Rabelais, Joyce, William Gass), to burst unexpectedly into metaphors as natural and abundant as white blossoms on an apple tree after an April rain (Proust, Antonio Lobo Antunes, Bruno Schulz).

If the outer limit of transparency is the purely instrumental prose of children's books (which seems translucently minimal to the mature eye), the endpoint of translucence would be an opacity through which not even the outlines of represented objects would be visible. Opaque prose approaches the condition of a window painted black. It seems to exist only as language on a page, without any recognizable referent. It enacts a disappearance of signified into signifier. I think of Finnegans Wake, Stein's The Making of Americans, Julian Rios's Larva, the later works of Arno Schmidt. None of these is perfectly opaque, of course (only Dadaist glossolalial poetry touches that ultimate Malevich black square), but in passages of each the signified seems to dissolve into 'pure' language. In a way, this is analogous to certain paintings by Picasso and Braque from the early 1910s in which the iconicity of the painted sign (the resemblance between an object and its painted representation) is stretched to the breaking point in a process more familiarly known as Cubism. Perhaps paradoxically, opaque prose tends not to Beckettian sterility but to platitudinous plenitude. It builds Great Chinese Walls of words, literary monuments that seem almost enormous enough to be visible from space. Beyond their walls we can barely see, and this very fact may lead us to suspect a Melvillean void on the other side of the pasteboard mask, an essential Derridean meaninglessness that all language conceals. And it's only a small step from there to the idea that all of this "free playing" of the signifier isn't free at all; it's a compulsive, hysterical defense mechanism. One might further remark that opaque prose silvers the back of the window, transforming it into a magnifying mirror reflecting the writer's already engorged ego back upon itself in an infinitely inflating, infinitely repeating series. It is a synthesis of the infinite and the infinitesimal, an enormous claustrophobia. (Which is not to say it can't be great fun to read. The Wake, for all its opacity, is laugh-out-lud* funny.)

* I'm letting the typo stand since it's perfectly Wakish, referring to the legendary King Lud of London, namesake of Ludgate. It is also, as Joyce the Joyous would surely have pointed out, related to the Latin ludere, to play (whence comes Huizinga's Homo Ludens and the various ludicrosities of postmodernism). And we musn't forget old Ned Ludd, apocryphal first luddite, who would be sledgehammering my Toshiba right about now--


Joe Miller said...

How would you classify Pynchon's style, then? I would say that it's by turns opaque and translucent.

BRIAN OARD said...


I'd call Pynchon's prose mostly translucent, perhaps with opaque tendencies that he doesn't push very far. Compared to the four works I mentioned as examples of opaque style, Pynchon's prose actually seems rather (gasp!) conservative--an adjective I've never applied to TP before and will surely never apply again.

Anonymous said...

Why do I love reading your blog? Because of sentences like this: "... brick and mortar bookstores might soon be deader than Adorno." That and you make me think. Thanks.

Joe Miller said...

I think you're right. The only text of his that's really opaque (excepting Mason & Dixon, which isn't that inaccessible once you've adapted to the diction) is Gravity's Rainbow, and even its prose is just occasionally dense.

Jeremiah said...

I think I'm going to have to start sending this post to friends and family when they ask me what kind of books I like to read. Specifically, I find more and more that I ONLY like to read prose that is translucent (the jury is still out on the opaque). A novel written in transparent prose will almost inevitably start to bore me by the end.