Examining Pro’s Prose Part 4


Today we’re going to examine some prose from Nell Zink’s newest novel Mislaid. She came to prominence last year, when her debut novel, The Wallcreeper was championed by the New York Times as a notable book of the year. I wanted to see what all the fuss was about.

Unfortunately, this post is going to be quite harsh. I won’t focus on any single “writing rule,” but instead I’ll go through and point things out that catch my eye. I haven’t finished reading the book yet, but from a prose standpoint, it is pretty terrible. All the examples below occur within the span of a few pages. The examples are far from exhaustive. Almost every sentence breaks a rule.

First, the novel is a collection of sentences that tell you what happened. In my last post, we looked at the various levels of showing a scene, action, or character trait versus telling it. It is difficult to find even one scene in the first half of the book (what I’ve read so far) which shows you anything. Everything is told. Giving examples can’t give you a grasp on how large this problem is, but here’s an attempt.

“Soon the detective, a working-class townsman, sympathized with Peggy.”

First, we’re told he sympathized. Why not show it? Also, “a working-class townsman” adds nothing (and introduces point of view inconsistencies: how does the main character know this?). Extraneous bits like this abound in the novel and are weak attempts to “add detail,” but are without substance.

“Nor would they have found anything anyway. The runaway was keeping a very, very low profile.”

These sentence fragments occur on almost every page. A rule we haven’t talked about yet is: only ignore proper grammar and usage rules if you are going for a special effect. This should be done so sparingly that no one notices (three times over the course of a whole novel maybe?).

The effect is stilted, choppy prose. I can’t find it now, but there is a paragraph where there are more sentence fragments than complete sentences. Another rule is to minimize modifiers. If you have to modify a verb or noun, you probably haven’t put enough work into choosing the right words. Never use the modifier “very.” At least make it interesting if you’re going to break the rule. The use of “very, very” is inexcusable under all circumstances. Also, past progressive tense creeps in here.

I’ll do a whole paragraph now:

Lee looked up and down the street, watching for slight women with brown hair. He watched for women with blond children. He watched for anyone at all. It was a quiet afternoon, paced by the rhythm of traffic lights. He stood up and walked, thinking he might ask after her, if he happened to see her kind of store. He walked the length of town and as far as the railroad tracks. Ice cream, real estate, musical instruments. Porcelain figurines and teacups. He shook his head at his own dumbness, got back in the car, and sat.

He …

First off, avoid repetition. It is hard as heck when writing about one person to not start every sentence with “he,” but with work it can be done. Look at any of the greats we’ve already discussed. They will never have 8 out of 9 sentences start the same way. The sentence fragment thing appears again.

These sentences all tell you what he did but never do we get beyond a superficial level of showing. The longest sentence in the middle breaks the rule of being clear and direct (and is grammatically incorrect). I still don’t get the comma construction in the middle of it. It reads like an appositive, but can’t be, because then the if-clause makes no sense.

To prove it can be done, I’ll “fix” these problems without altering content or breaking with the intended effect of the style. I’ll even remove the “was.”

Lee looked up and down the street, watching for slight women with brown hair. He watched for women with blond children or anyone at all. The rhythm of the traffic lights paced the quiet afternoon. Lee walked the length of town and thought he might ask after her if he happened to see her kind of store. Along the vacant street, ice cream, real estate, musical instruments, and porcelain figurines caught his attention. Lee traveled as far as the railroad tracks before he shook his head at his own dumbness, got back in the car, and sat.

It’s better but not great. I would like for this to expand out into three paragraphs and really pull the reader in. The whole book suffers from this, because I always feel at arms length from the characters. This novel gets praised for making us think about complicated topics like race and sexuality. Since I never get inside the characters’ heads, all I end up thinking about is how unbelievable their actions are.

Another rule we haven’t discussed is point of view (POV). This is more important than most people want to believe. You either write something highly experimental or you stick to one clear POV. If you use third person limited and change POV, it must be clear. The fluid POV in this novel makes many sentences confusing and forces the writer to use even more extraneous phrases.

“Stillwater Lake retreated far from the bamboo grove. It stood in yellowish-gray mud streaked with reddish brown that looked to Lee like diarrhea.”

If it were clear that this is Lee’s POV, the phrase “to Lee” is unnecessary. It is almost always considered a bad writing practice to indicate a simile is a character’s opinion (unless in an open third person omniscient situation, which this isn’t). With clear POV and narrative voice, we understand all sentences to be the character’s opinion. It is redundant to specify. Also, that alliteration (looked to Lee like) is terrible and should be removed. It is interesting that removing “to Lee” fixes both problems at once.

The first sentence has an awkward choice of verb. It isn’t clear to me what exactly happened or what it means without more context (to be fair, more context comes a few paragraphs later). It is true that lakes can “retreat” if there is a drought or something. Is this what happened? Starting the next sentence with “it” is usually seen as a mistake, because the preceding sentence ends with a noun. This makes it unclear whether “it” refers to the subject of the preceding sentence or the ending noun.

Another rule we haven’t discussed is: all dialogue tags should be “said.” Using other words comes across as amateurish, because it is used by people who are not good at writing dialogue to make the dialogue sound more convincing. It is most commonly found in low quality pulp fiction from many decades ago. If you need to use another word, you haven’t voiced the dialogue properly. If you don’t need another word, don’t use one. I’m pretty sure this book must have been professionally edited, so I’m surprised to see the editor let these slide.

“I can spell ‘astronaut,'” Karen volunteered.
“That’s a third-grade word,” the clerk said. “You’re very smart for such a tiny little thing. You sure you don’t want to have her be white?”
“We’re black and proud,” Meg said.
“I’m blond,” Karen objected.
“There’s no blond race,” the clerk corrected her.

As you can see, “the clerk corrected her,” is redundant. Editors often write “RUE” for this type of thing: Resist the Urge to Explain. You don’t have to explain the clerk corrected Karen when we understand from the dialogue this is what she was doing. It isn’t even clear to me that “objected” is the right alternate to “said” in the above. “Said” works much better in that passage. On the next page we get, “Karen repeated solemnly.” Not only do we get an alternate dialogue tag, but it gets modified with an adverb.

I could do this all day, and I truly feel bad about it. I didn’t come to this post with the intention of bashing Zink’s prose. Philip Roth’s American Pastoral is sitting on my desk right now, because I intended to use him. I started Zink’s book and decided the opportunity was too good to pass up. We keep looking at excellent stylists. It is important to see something in comparison.

I know there will be a lot of excuses that sound good. She’s intentionally subverting the oppressive writing rules that stifle creativity to show they aren’t necessary to create a good novel. Or, she used a voice conducive to the satire and wit of the content of her material … or whatever. Let’s face it. She probably thought a lot about the plot, characters, themes, symbols, and so on and never put much thought in to how the prose came across.

This is fine. Some people write excellent prose with no content. We shouldn’t strive for either extreme. I’ll agree that rules are meant to be broken and that focusing too much on them will create mechanical, uninteresting prose. But they exist for a reason and those reasons became apparent when I had trouble reading this novel. Breaking the rules has to be a deliberate choice, and I’m not going to be convinced Zink did this deliberately until I’ve seen that she can follow the rules.

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