Examining Pro’s Prose Part 7

Today we’ll examine something I think Ethan Canin does well: description. Description is one of those things that is very hard to get right. I think this is because it is difficult to notice when someone has done a good job. Bad description jumps out; good description goes unnoticed.

Everyone notices an overwrought passage that contains strange similes and metaphors and goes on forever trying to paint as explicit a picture as possible. The story breaks to set the scene. This is a case of show-don’t-tell-itis. The reader ends up skimming to find the story and gets nothing out of all the work that went into the description. Or the reader that suffers through it gets bored.

For this reason, I’ll make the first rule of description: show as little as possible without sacrificing useful information. This is counter to what most of us have been taught, but one carefully chosen detail can tell the reader more than a whole page of useless ones.

Ed wore Reebok’s to the party. Does that detail tell us anything? Probably not. Tina picked up on Ed’s Saucony Kilkenny XC5 minimal running flats as soon as he entered the party. Does that tell us something? Maybe. Ed is a runner? Tina knows enough about running shoes to identify these? We’re getting somewhere now. This example isn’t great, because most people won’t be able to visualize the shoe. But you should see the point that describing because you feel you need to or that it makes the scene “more realistic” is not a noble goal. Describe with purpose.

This brings us to the second rule: make the details serve more than one purpose. Often people think of description as the way to paint a picture in the reader’s mind. It can serve many other purposes in addition to this and often multipurpose description keeps the story moving.

Here’s an example. Take something simple like describing snow (I’m in the middle of NE Snowpocalypse 2016). Someone who has show don’t tell ingrained in them might try to give every painstaking detail as accurately as possible. But this isn’t non-fiction; it’s literature. The same exact thing can be described in multiple ways, giving different moods.

Maybe the character is falling in love, so she sees the beauty in it. The sun hit the ice crystal dangling from the pine, breaking the light into a dozen shimmering rays. The gentle snowflakes danced among the light. Blah, blah, blah. As you see, you can use words like “shimmering,” “gentle,” “dance,” “light,” “sun,” etc to emphasize the joy of the character.

The same exact scene could be described by an angry character. Harsh light glared off the frozen surfaces. The snow plunged relentlessly and suffocated everything like an infinite, oppressive mask. Okay, so maybe that got a little depressive or melodramatic with words like “harsh,” “glare,” “plunge,” “suffocate,” “oppressive,” etc. But I merely wanted to illustrate a point. There isn’t one objectively accurate way to describe anything.

Now you see why good description is hard to spot. You don’t have alternate versions to compare it to, so you’ll read right over it and not realize the carefully chosen details. The details will evoke the right feeling, but you didn’t read a version that didn’t evoke those feelings to see how well it was done.

Obviously this can be taken too far, and you’ll start to produce abstract, experimental prose poetry. Striking the right balance is hard, so let’s examine how a pro handles it. Here’s a passage from For Kings and Planets by Ethan Canin. The main character was kissed by his best friend’s sister. Note how the description doesn’t come as a block. Details are woven in and out of thoughts and actions so that the story doesn’t stop.

He would leave Marshall reading a book on the porch and then set off rambling along the shoreline, not sharp in his thinking until he had passed two or three curves on the great spits of sand and the house had long ago vanished behind the dunes and the low stands of trees. She lived constantly in the center of his thoughts. He would try to think about his plans for the rest of the summer, but his eyes would conjure up her forthright gaze; he would try to listen to the clap and rumble of the surf, but would instead recall their conversation together on the porch, and then the kiss, and then in return her enigmatic scolding.

Note how the use of “clap” and “rumble” suggests a rough ocean, which imitates the turbulent emotions he feels. The curves of the shoreline mimics the winding thoughts in his head. The girl lives in the the center of his thoughts, and he stands in the center of a vast nothing.

Canin could have spent a page writing a description of the beach, and then continued with the story. We would have gotten a much more vivid picture in our minds, but that would have been boring. Instead, he chose a few sparse details of description that added to the mood, and then wove them into the action.

Here’s an early passage (pg 17) from Carry Me Across the Water. Many writers describe a ton of physical traits of their characters. Here we see a hyperfocus on one tiny detail that draws out characterization.

Walking up the front path to Jimmy’s building, Kleinman took a yarmulke from his back pocket and set it on his head. It wouldn’t stay in place: maybe God knew. Since boyhood, yarmulkes had never stayed—something about the shape of his cranium: an irreligious skull. He still had plenty of hair, though—thank his mother’s father for that. He laughed and pushed the yarmulke down on the crown again. He was trying to start off on the right foot with Claudine.

In that amount of space, we could have gotten a description of his size, hair color, age, body type, clothing, etc. But that would have given us much less information than focusing on the action of putting a yarmulke on.

First, it was in his pocket. He is putting it on to make an impression. This tells us he cares much more about what Claudine will think of him than wearing it. We see that he was raised Jewish, because he’s had the problem of keeping it on since boyhood. We see that he’s basically always been irreligious. He’s well-educated enough to know that hair genetics is passed through your mother’s father. He has the ability to laugh at himself as he fumbles with the yarmulke. Etc.

If you want to read more, I’d highly recommend Canin. His subtle use of description to create moods and characterization is excellent.

Year of Giant Novels Part 2: Don Quixote

I’ve made it into Part 2 of Don Quixote. I’ll fully admit upfront that it has become a bit of a slog. I find it difficult to get motivated to keep reading. The book is indeed episodic, and many of those episodes involve a random character telling a story. This makes it hard to care about the story when you know the character is only there for 20 pages or so.

In any event, let’s continue to point out ways in which the book was way ahead of its time. If you’ve studied classic philosophy, you’ll probably be familiar with Descartes’ First Meditation. This was published in 1641, and it has a thought experiment so famous that people refer to it as Descartes’ evil demon.

The idea is that there might be some powerful evil demon out there that makes us believe reality is a certain way, but in fact, it is completely different. How do we know such a thing isn’t deceiving us? This lead Descartes to doubt all of reality as the starting point for his philosophy.

Now that I’m reading Don Quixote, I’m confused by why we attribute this to Descartes. Thirty years before Descartes wrote this thought experiment down, Cervantes perfectly articulated the same idea. Unfortunately, I didn’t mark the page, or I would quote it directly.

This was probably one of my favorite moments in Part 1, because it so brilliantly illustrated the whole point of the book. Some people see Don Quixote and try to convince him he is crazy; what he sees is not reality. But in a great twist Don Quixote argues back that they are the ones being enchanted by an evil sorcerer. It is he, Don Quixote, that sees reality and everyone else is being fooled. As Descartes found out, it is quite difficult to argue back against that.

Part 2 is where things get really heavy on the meta-fiction. Cervantes’ novel Don Quixote has made it into the fictional universe of Part 2. Early on, he even has a character make the same criticism I made above. There are too many digressions in which Don Quixote (the person) isn’t a character. Don Quixote and Sancho go off on new adventures and keep meeting people that know all about him because of reading Part 1.

You have to know a bit of real life history to be in on some of the more complicated jokes. Someone under the pseudonym Alonso Fernández de Avellaneda wrote a fake Part 2 to Don Quixote (sort of like fan fiction). In real life, this fake version actually got Cervantes motivated to finish the real Part 2.

But that’s not all. He actually uses the fake Part 2 for plot points in the real Part 2. This fake Part 2 has been read by the people in Cervantes’ real Part 2. Don Quixote (the character) is unaware of this fake version of himself for some time, and some great silliness happens when he finally realizes this impostor version of himself exists.

He gets upset when he encounters people who have read the fake version in which he is no longer in love with Dulcinea. To spite the fake version, he decides to change what he was planning on doing (which actually corresponded with something that happened in the fake version!). These meta-fictional episodes play right into the novel’s main concept of blurred lines between fiction and reality, because the fictional version of Don Quixote overlaps with the “real” Don Quixote in places.

These jokes get quite complicated, and really nothing like it existed for hundreds of years afterward.

Best Books I Read in 2015

I read over 60 books this year. Although I averaged less than one physical book a week, I also trained for a half-marathon and listened to a lot of these on tape while training. They were divided pretty evenly into three categories: genre fiction (sci-fi, fantasy, romance, mystery, etc), literary fiction, and nonfiction. This post is not to be confused with Best Books of 2015. Instead of doing a list, I’ll give each of the best books an award that indicates what made it stick out to me.

Best Overall: Hyperion by Dan Simmons.

This book cannot easily be described. It pulls together several sci-fi elements that made me skeptical at first. Anything that deals with time manipulation, particularly time moving backwards, usually makes me groan. This cleverly makes it work.

The mystery is brought up early, and the narration is done through a sequence of stories. Each story hints at different pieces, but are wildly different in tone, style, time frame, and reference point. Each story is excellent in its own right. Together they form a beautiful non-traditional narrative.

Simmons is not only a master at suspense and mystery, but proves he can create a timeless work of art that still feels fresh and original 25 years later.

Most Surprising: The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James.

What a truly ahead of its time book. I hate most of the traditional “marriage plot” novels like Pride and Prejudice, Wuthering Heights, and so on. Even though this looks like such a novel on the surface, it goes deep into issues that plague us still.

Some of the basic questions explored include but are not limited to: Is marriage a partnership of equals? What is the purpose of marriage? Do you lose some autonomy when you choose to get married? What does it mean to live a meaningful life? How should one balance work, a career, and leisure? Is one ever truly free in one’s actions? Is clothing an expression of the self? Does being a rebel subject you to being manipulated more strongly than someone that appears to go with society’s expectations? How does money affect relationships? How does one balance the life of the mind with the living of life?

The writing is also fantastic. It is dense and mature but not impenetrably so. The plot moves along through dialogue, and is not nearly as wordy and dull as many would have you believe (unless the above questions don’t interest you). I find Austen far more difficult to slog through than this.

Anyway, The Portrait of a Lady is an excellent examination of life’s toughest questions that seems even more relevant today than back when it was written.

Most Thought-Provoking: Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell.

I had never read anything by Gladwell despite hearing his name come up all the time. This book will make you think hard about everything you thought you knew about how to be successful. The stories are interesting and provide counterintuitive examples. I have to wonder if this book is an outlier of Gladwell’s work, because I then picked up The Tipping Point and found every aspect of it subpar.

Best Characters: Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood.

I blogged a full review of it here.

Is Twitter our Penal Colony?

I know that’s quite the inflammatory title, so I’ll explain it up front. I recently read Kafka’s In the Penal Colony. If you haven’t read it, go do it. I liked The Trial and The Metamorphosis, but neither compare to the true horror that is In the Penal Colony.

I’m going to spoil the whole story so that it can be discussed. The story takes place around an execution machine called the Harrow. The main character asks questions about it. In a brilliantly paced set of revelations, the reader becomes aware of how the torture happens:

The condemned person is gagged and strapped to the machine. A bunch of tiny needles stabs them for six hours, repeatedly tattooing their crime on their body. They bleed a lot, but the machine is carefully designed to not let them die. Then they’re buried alive.

But it’s much, much worse than that. There is a collection of laws that must followed in the colony (it was unclear whether anyone had access to them to know what they are). When charged with the crime, you are not told what it is. You have no chance to defend yourself. You are convicted without trial. The first time you learn of any misdoing is too late, because it is from the words appearing on your body from the Harrow.

Unfortunately, this should sound all too familiar from Twitter shaming. People post jokes without knowing what the rules are for offending the wrong group. Then they get accused and convicted without trial. The first time they learn of their un-PC crime is when the words start flowing across their Twitter feed. By then it is too late. They will probably lose their job and have the next several years of their life wrecked.

Does the story give us any hope or are we stuck in this twisted sense of justice forever? The end of the story is hard to make sense of. The executioner turns the machine on himself and gets the words “Be Just” tattooed on him. By administering this punishment on others, the executioner has clearly broken the rule of being just. This machine and system is so clearly unjust that we don’t need the story to understand that. By analogy, I think the Twitter punishment is not just, but the people doing it have not realized this yet. They call it social justice the same as the executioner in the story calls the Harrow justice. This doesn’t make it so.

One interpretation in light of this analogy would be that when members of the mob become targets themselves, they will be dealt a sort of poetic justice and see how wrong they were. Although this is satisfying to see when it happens (think of the “dongle joke shamer” who lost her own job as well), it is a “two wrongs don’t make a right situation” and is unsustainable. An eye for an eye and the whole world would be blind.

Ultimately, I think the ending teaches us that we can only get out of this mess if the people instigating it take matters into their own hands to stop it. Outside forces won’t ever be enough. Unfortunately, these people will probably have the machine of their own making turn on them for this, and like the main character, they too will be a victim of this justice. But it has to be their own choice, otherwise the practice will continue unhindered.

Thoughts on Joanna Newsom’s Divers

I’ve made it no secret that I think Joanna Newsom is one of the most important living musicians. After five years, she has finally released her newest album Divers. I must begin this post with a ton of caveats. Writing about Newsom is difficult, because her albums are so complex. The melody, rhythm, and harmony could be analyzed for all their intricacies or for how they interact with the lyrics. The lyrics could be analyzed on their own. I can’t even get to a fraction of it, so I won’t try.

To me, this album is the pinnacle of what she has been working towards. It contains some long-form highly metaphorical harp/voice pieces like she did on Ys. It has some more modern pieces like on Have One on Me. And it has some very traditional folk style pieces like The Milk-Eyed Mender.

The album is unlike most in that all the songs must be taken together to get the whole experience. They are inextricably tied together. This post will mostly be about things I hear that relate to the main themes explored.

The main ideas have to do with the elusiveness of time (it moves both forward and backward? more on this later) and the impermanence and cyclic nature of life. One thing that jumps out after several listens is that the album itself is a cycle. The last word of the album cuts off without finishing, and the word gets finished as the first word of the album. The first song starts with birth and the last song ends with what could be considered death.

Now I’ll go through the places where time comes up. In “Anecdotes” there are two references. “Anecdotes cannot say what Time may do” and “temporal infidelity” (a bizarre phrase that I love). In “Waltz of the 101st Lightborne” we get “Time is smaller than Space is wide.” At the end of “The Things I Say” is a strange sound that I can only interpret as the sound of playing the song backwards. This is the first foreshadowing of the last song.

In “Divers” we get the theme of the backward motion of time again with “infinite regress” and “infinite backslide.” In “A Pin-Light Bent” the idea of “inversion” comes up several times, again giving a dual meaning to inverting the direction of time.

The last song, “Time, As a Symptom,” ties it all together. The entire song is about time. “Time passed hard,” “The river of time,” “Time moves both ways,” “Time is just a symptom of love,” and so on.

This last song is probably one of the best things she has ever written. For one, it must be listened to as the last track on the album. Part of its greatness is that all the songs leading up to it keep alluding to what is to come (as I think I demonstrated above). These ideas get in your subconscious and are ready to bear the impact of this piece.

It is also the only song on the album to have a big climax. It builds and builds until it explodes in a brilliant, exalted moment with the perfect words to summarize what the album is about: “Joy of life.”

I could go on and on about how I think certain songs relate to other ones, but as I’ve said before, I think her music is best not over-analyzed. It is so abstract and metaphorical that the best way to experience it is to let the image/sound combinations evoke feelings on their own. After repeated listens, you’ll start to notice how they fit together which will enhance the experience. This is what makes her so important. I don’t know of anyone else doing this type of thing (maybe The Dear Hunter).

I can’t recommend this album enough to anyone with a serious interest in music.

The Stories of Cheever Part 2

Today we’ll cover two of the most famous of Cheever’s stories, “The Enormous Radio,” and “The Swimmer.”

“The Enormous Radio” was one of Cheever’s earlier stories, so I’m going to assume he did some growing before he hit the pinnacle of his story writing. This story is truly mystifying. I’ll try my best though.

The story begins with a husband buying a new, large radio. Something seems wrong with it, because they get static and weird conversations interrupting the normal programming. The story predates The Twilight Zone, but the premise could have fit right in with it: the radio picks up on conversations happening around their apartment building. They can listen to the lives of other people.

This also feels like the plot to Rear Window, except the suspense never builds. The wife hears a lot of terrible things she doesn’t want to hear (but can’t tear herself away), but it’s not like she gets wrapped up in a murder or anything. In the end, they fix the radio, but it’s too late. Their earlier peaceful marriage has been ruined by the thing.

There are a few ways to interpret the end. At first, I assumed it was ironic. The wife kept saying that at least they didn’t have problems like these other people. I thought the end was a big reveal that they actually did have these problems all along. The radio showed that all people have problems including the main characters. The radio gave voice to their hidden inner problems, hence the irony.

Later, I realized the radio might have caused the problems. This is the more obvious reading. They are bringing other people’s problems into their home which causes stress on their relationship. It is a less literary reading, and the end doesn’t have as much force if interpreted this way but seems consistent throughout.

So what did this story do to deserve such lasting fame? One obvious thing is that it handles a gigantic cast of characters in a very small space in an inventive way. You learn about these people and their problems through short clips of dialogue through the radio. It’s hard to consider this a knock-out reason, though, because lots of writers had been experimenting with this type of thing by this point.

Thematically is where it does its best work. The story examines the question of what it means to be happy in a new light. At this point, American authors seemed to have the dreary “realism” of what it means to not be happy down: Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, etc. The other side was the fairy tale type story which gave an unrealistic portrayal of happiness. This story suggests that the couple is genuinely happily married, but they still have problems. It isn’t neat and tidy, but it isn’t dreary either.

Let’s move on to “The Swimmer,” aka, the greatest short story ever written in the English language. When I say I don’t get the Cheever phenomenon, it mostly has to do with this. The more regard people give to a story, the less likely I am to like it.

The story is about a man that decides he is going to “swim” home by diving in and swimming across all his neighbor’s pools until he gets home. It is midsummer and the swim starts off easy. But as the story goes on it gets colder and harder to swim. At one point a storm breaks out and it appears to be autumn. He can’t really remember some things that people keep telling him, and things generally get weirder. Finally, he makes it home to find his whole family had moved out a long time ago. The main character stands there confused by the whole thing.

I get it. It fuses a metaphor with reality to create a surreal David Lynch-esque story. The swimming home is a journey which represents his life. He’s out drinking (probably an alcoholic which blows all his money based on several people saying they won’t loan him any more), and his family leaves him without him even noticing. In both a literal and metaphorical sense, he escaped the reality of his life for this fantasy.

Of course, the story is extremely well written. It starts off with a clever hook of this swimming feat, but as it gets weirder, it keeps the suspense of trying to figure out what is going on. The little details that each of the neighbors drops allude to different parts of his life, so all the pieces are in place for the big reveal at the end. It’s sort of like The Sixth Sense where the ending allows you to go back and think about all the earlier details in a different way.

But I must return to the question: what makes it so good? I’m at a loss for that, because the journey as a plot device is as old as stories themselves. The journey as a metaphor for someone’s life is as old as metaphor usage. Surrealist conflation of metaphor and reality had been going on quite a bit by this point in literature. So even though it is a particularly well-done combination of these things, it wasn’t breaking any new ground or anything.

I also find the first half to be very boring, and it was difficult for me to get into the story. Why should I care about the character at all? Maybe this is part of the point. The guy is clearly a stand in for Narcissus. He is so self-absorbed, looking at his own image in the water that he loses his life without realizing it, so readers aren’t supposed to identify with him.

Next time we’ll move on to two stories I understand a bit better.

The Second Section of Purity as Franzen’s “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way”

That title is quite the mouthful. Here’s what it means. A year and a half ago I wrote a post explaining how David Foster Wallace’s short story/novella “Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way” was a parody of Barth’s “Lost in the Funhouse” in order to describe his philosophy of literature. What I want to write here is an interpretation of Franzen’s second section of his latest book, Purity, arguing that this describes Franzen’s philosophy of literature.

If you’ve been reading this blog for any significant amount of time, you probably know I subscribe to the idea of valid interpretations of literature. If we consider any well-supported interpretation as valid, then all interpretations are valid making all interpretation meaningless. So I want to give some background context before I start in order to make my case stronger. I really believe this was Franzen’s intent with the section.

Franzen has been describing his philosophy for quite some time in essays and interviews (see this article for more background on this). I’ve either become more aware of it or he has become more vocal or a shift has occurred. In any case, his views seem mostly in line with what DFW described in “Westward” which had to do with love, the relationship between writer and reader, and how to build that relationship. As far as I can tell, he’s never actually included this philosophy in his fiction like DFW did with “Westward.” This makes it plausible that the time has come for such an undertaking.

One of the key points is the similarity in material from Barth and DFW for this section. The most common interpretation of “Lost in the Funhouse” is that the funhouse is about Ambrose’s first sexual encounter. The second section of Purity is framed around various sexual experiences of youths be they lusftful, loving, abusive, and so on. If not taken as metaphor, the whole section comes across as strange and out of place. The wording and detail provided seem excessive and unnecessary as backstory (presumably most readers will read it that way). As metaphor, all these details make sense and certain bizarrely specific sentences point to the interpretation I’m going to give.

Lastly, the section is titled “Republic of Bad Taste.” One learns in the section what this refers to, but as a primer to the section it seems to indicate that the section is about taste, bad taste, and maybe what would make good taste. In other words, the section as metaphor for literature itself. I understand that each of the pieces of context are weak in and of themselves, but I think taken as a whole along with how tight this interpretation is gives sufficient evidence for this as an intended interpretation.

Warning: The content below contains minor spoilers. It will not cover beyond the second section, so if you are planning on reading the book, no major plot points are revealed that aren’t alluded to in the inside flap description. Also, this content is NSFW due to sexually explicit material.

For those who haven’t read the novel, we need a starting point. Here’s a synopsis of the section. Andreas lives in Stasi controlled Germany (probably East Berlin, I can’t recall if this was specified). His father is a somewhat high ranking Stasi officer. His mother sleeps around and Andreas finds out someone else might be his father. He writes subversive poetry which shames his parents, and he breaks off relations. He goes and lives in a church and runs sessions to help at-risk youth. He sleeps with tons of them (none underage). Here he meets Annagret. She tells him about being abused in the past, and he falls in love with her. They carry out the murder of the abuser and then separate for years to not get caught.

First, there is a clear “Anxiety of Influence” dynamic established with the parents. Andreas’s mother and father exert great influence over him, yet he wants to do his own thing. He also meets a person who claims to be his real father. Andreas tries to deny this out of embarrassment, but deep down he knows it’s true. Within this interpretation, we should read this as when someone points out influences in your writing you aren’t proud of.

The other main idea presented in the section is of what art is for. Andreas as a child drew pictures of naked women to masturbate to. This couldn’t be less subtle. He literally creates masturbatory drawings; a way to say we all go through a youthful phase where we only create art for our own pleasure.

Most current aesthetic theory shuns this form of creation. As with DFW, the post-modernists like Barth provided useful fodder, but ultimately got it wrong. The language games of these writers were neat, but didn’t connect with people. Franzen even has his character Andreas write a poem, “Muttersprache/Mother Tongue,” which is a language game itself about influence.

Franzen’s character states this frankly as, “I’m worried there’s something wrong with me. All I want to do is masturbate.” The reply he gets suggests that we are to view this type of art as immature and all great artists eventually grow out of it: “You’re only fifteen. That’s very young to be having sex with another person.” This whole exchange makes very little sense as a defining moment of backstory, but framed in this interpretation as a metaphor for artistic creation, it comes across as necessary to drive the point home.

Andreas then tries to strike out on his own and leave his influences behind. The feeling is so strong, he wants to kill his parents. “It didn’t speak well of his sanity that he actually had to squelch the impulse to run after her and kill her with whatever came to hand.”

He finally evolves into a better person when he meets Annagret. He falls in love with her as she tells him a story that he can intimately identify with. This brings us exactly to DFW’s idea that literature is important because it teaches us we are not alone. Just as Andreas hears a story familiar to his own experiences which causes him to fall in love with the author, we are to read Purity and find traces of our own weird and terrible lives that bring us comfort and fall in love with the author.

Annagret is under the control of her abuser, and Andreas decides to free her by killing him. This is like the author/reader relationship that DFW idealized. After the deed is done, Andreas admits his love for Annagret and she replies, “I barely even know you.” Well of course! We as readers are Andreas who have fallen in love with Franzen/Annagret who is telling the story. We may feel something, but he certainly doesn’t know us.

In a moment where the metaphor goes so far that I have to wonder how anyone could overlook it, Andreas has to bury the body while it is raining outside. This makes the ground wet, and he keeps leaving his footprints all over the muddy ground. To put it as a blunt cliché, he leaves his footprints all over the work he is doing for her.

The author/reader relationship is summarized in another line that must seem strange if the story is read as realistic, but fits perfectly into this interpretation. “He had a confusing twinned sense of her closeness and complete otherness. Together they’d killed a man, but she had her own thoughts, her own motives, so close to him and yet so separate.” This is exactly how great literature works. You feel close to the characters and author, yet you remain completely separate.

[Sorry if there are more typos than normal. I had a teething puppy nipping at me while editing.]

Extrapolating Meaning from Ashbery’s “The System” Part 3

The previous section ended by pulling ourselves out of the futility of knowledge and the search for happiness. The next section begins by throwing us back into real life. This reminds me of the movie I Heart Huckabees in the separation of the philosophical and the real. We can achieve peace by solitary meditation, but as soon as we go back to living we lose that:

“…back to the business of day-to-day living with all the tiresome mechanical problems that this implies. And it was just here that philosophy broke down completely and was of no use.”

Real world problems seem so different than the abstract problems we worry about in academic settings. He proposes a labyrinth image for the path of our lives, but returns with some optimism. It only seems the labyrinth directs our steps “but in reality it is you who are creating its pattern.”

The next segment returns to the Frost symbolism of a fork in the road and can be read as almost a meditation on the meaning and application of the idea in real life. Ashbery points out that we take the straightforward path first and only after understanding its destination do we return to the convoluted and less traveled path.

In a previous part, I commented on the cyclical nature of using “track” instead of “path” and this returns as well. After going down the less traveled path you find out the two options actually join up at the end, and the end is actually the beginning where the fork was.

He goes on to condemn wallowing in the difficulties all this presents. Go out and live. “Do you really think that if you succeed in looking pathetic enough some kindly stranger will stop to ask your name and address and then steer you safely to your very door?” He then proposes many explanations for why you would stand there looking like that and references Robert Browning’s poem saying Childe Roland probably had that look as well.

As you change, words that have stayed the same take on new meanings. You hope for a moment in the future where you can participate in the play being performed in front of you; for a time where artist, viewer, actor, director are all one and the same, but there is no “indication this moment is approaching.”

The poem switches back to the big universal questions. “Who am I after all, you say despairingly once again, to have merited so much attention on the part of the universe?” It moves to grandiose language of dying and rising. I think this is a return to the knowledge issue: realizing everything you knew is wrong and revising your worldview based on this.

But “clouds of unhappiness still persist in the unseen mesh that draws around everything,” so this new life hasn’t changed anything. The language here is what I consider quintessential Ashbery. He takes the small and personal and expands it into the gigantic. The personal is you waiting for a reply. Look how he makes the transition so naturally:

“There is not much for you to do except wait in the anticipation of your inevitable reply. Inevitable, but so often postponed. Whole eras of history have sprung up in the gaps left by these pauses, dynasties, barbarian invasions and so on until the grass and shards stage, and still the answer is temporarily delayed.”

The reply comes, and it is God giving comfort. Yet you should not expect any more comfort in your actual existence from this. Ashbery switches from a long period of “you” pronouns to “we” which softens the harshness of the section. We all have childish wants and get angry at delayed satisfaction. We give in to impulses.

After coming full circle on the path, you end up rejecting “oneness” in favor of a plurality of experiences and diversity. Paradoxically, once embraced, you realize everyone is basically the same. He begins an extended movie metaphor. It starts out by claiming that the movie doesn’t lie. It will show us things about ourselves we didn’t realize. It then moves on to classic Ashbery paradox. “That is why we, snatched from sudden freedom, are able to communicate only through this celluloid vehicle that has immortalized and given a definitive shape to our formless gestures.”

In the last part, Ashbery comes back to the “new year” language. It is a strange summary of what you experienced. “These ample digressions of yours have carried you ahead to a distant and seemingly remote place, and it is here that you stop to give emphasis to all the way you have traveled and to your present silence.” It turns sort of David Lynch-esque. The film is maybe a mirror, and all the characters are played by the narrator. It is a return to the solipsism of the beginning and the poem itself comes full circle.

On Sontag’s “Against Interpretation”

I meant to do this a while ago as a contrast after the series on Hirsch’s Validity in Interpretation. If you are unfamiliar, Susan Sontag was a well-known cultural critic and essayist (among other things). She started publishing in the mid 60’s and continued all the way into the 2000’s. “Against Interpretation” was published in 1966.

The context here is interesting. Hirsch reacted to the New Criticism as somehow being too loose. You could make anything mean anything through a close reading. He wanted only certain narrow, well-justified interpretations to be valid. In “Against Interpretation” Sontag also reacts to the New Criticism, but in the opposite direction: the whole idea of interpretation is wrong-headed.

She begins by lamenting for a time when we weren’t so inundated with theory. She argues that we’ve become too obsessed with content. We tend to approach a work of art ready to interpret and extract its content. We start pulling out symbols and translating these into some meaning before we even have a chance to experience the work.

Art is supposed to be messy, complicated, and uncomfortable at times. The act of interpretation clears out the mess, simplifies it, and makes it comfortable. We often feel an overwhelming urge that works of art must be about something. How often do you hear, “I’ve heard of that book. What is it about?”

It is even possible that the artist intended certain objects to be interpreted as symbols, but the meaning is not what gives art its merit. Abstract art tries to be all form and no content in order to resist the destruction of interpretation. But artists shouldn’t have to flee from interpreters in order to escape.

In the seventh section of the essay, Sontag makes a startling prediction. “The fact that films have not been overrun by interpreters is in part due simply to the newness of cinema as an art.” I think from our vantage point, 50 years later, we can say she was correct. Open any newspaper or go to a film blog or find an academic journal of film studies. Cinema gets dissected through interpretation as much as any other art form.

She ends the essay with a solution to this problem of over-interpretation. Commentary and criticism are both possible and necessary. We need to switch from our obsession with content and talk more about form. She points to Barthes and others for people who have given solid formal analysis. We could also try to “reveal the sensuous surface of art without mucking about in it.” We can focus on description rather than on what you think the description means.

When we interpret, we take the sensory experience for granted. The purpose of art is to be experienced, not over-analyzed. “Our task is to cut back content so that we can see the thing at all.” The goal of criticism should be to make works of art more real to us. “The function of criticism should be to show how it is what it is, even that it is what it is, rather than to show what it means.”

Now that I’ve summarized the essay, I’ll comment on it. I think this is in some sense an overreaction or maybe even a straw man argument. For example, Hirsch, who values the author’s intent, would probably say that if the author intended for the work to be a purely visceral experience with no excess symbolism in it, then to read that symbolism in it would be an invalid interpretation.

More specifically, genre matters. Some genres call for detailed, complicated interpretation and some call for no interpretation. Sontag’s essay seems to call for a complete rejection of interpretation whereas the other side seems to argue that if you want to interpret, then here are some tools for it.

Maybe this is the 50 year gap, but I don’t know anyone that calls for always interpreting all the time. Even the most analytic of critics would admit that it is perfectly valid to just experience a work sometimes. So I guess I’m somewhat confused at what this essay is really arguing against.

On the other hand, I fully agree that we often over-analyze and reach for interpretations without first experiencing a work. I absolutely hate the question: what is that about? Romance novels can be about something. A TV sitcom can be about something (or in a particularly famous case about nothing). Essays can be about something. Great art stops being art if you try to reduce it to some five sentence plot line. The thing that it is about is not the thing that makes it worth experiencing.

Thoughts on William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition

If you couldn’t tell, I’ve been trying hard to get a post out every Wednesday. I also haven’t done any book reviews in a long, long time. This is because I’ve been trying to keep everything organized on goodreads, so when I finish a book I write a quick review and give it a rating there.

This week I drew a blank for a post. I recently finished William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition, so it seemed fitting to say a few words about it here. To set the stage, here’s a quick plot synopsis. A girl named Cayce has the skill to identify logos that will succeed in advertising.

You should think of this as a speculative fiction thing and not an intuition she has developed through years of practice. For instance, her parents discovered it when she was a child and had a violent nauseous reaction to some particularly bad logos. Now she consults with firms as a freelancer. She has the ability to “recognize patterns” in culture.

Anyway, a mysterious collection of short video clips keeps getting found on the internet and a cult following happens. No one knows where they came from, how people are finding them, or who is making them. A key point is that they are universally appealing and moving works of art.

These video clips lead us to one of the major themes of the book. If we abstract the video clips, this gives us the major thematic questions: In a digital age, bombarded by information, how can we know who is creating what we see/read? Is it part of a larger set of data and being selectively skewed to bias us? How do we know where to go to get “real” information?

Cayce is approached by an ad agency to investigate who is producing the video footage. This adds to those earlier questions, because where some people see untarnished art, other people see an opportunity to skew and manipulate using it. If that ad agency succeeds, can we ever tell? I think this is an important and difficult question for our time (and note that he published the book in 2003 before internet tailored advertising was “a thing”).

Overall, I found the premise of Cayce’s skill and the spot on cultural commentary to be the high point of the book. It kept me interested and brought to the forefront of my thoughts important questions. Let’s move on to the points I didn’t like as much.

At first, I found the style of the book to be clever, fast-paced, and ultra-modern. Gibson uses the present tense, and he “evolves” the language to drop the subject of the sentence when understood. This fun style didn’t stay fun for long. It turned choppy and grating. I assume the intent was to create a sense of fast-paced, forward motion, but in the long run it did the opposite.

Somewhere along the way, the plot turned to a huge Pynchonesque ultra-conspiracy as Cayce uncovered more and more information. I’ll admit that it plays in with the theme that we never know who is controlling our media, but overall it wasn’t convincing.

It works in Pynchon, because his style is so complex and intense that it plays into the mindset of uncovering the conspiracy. As I pointed out already, Gibson’s style is the opposite. It is simplistic to the point of creating sentence fragments.

By the end of the book, I had to will myself to read it. The style plus the conspiracy plot points made it a slog. Overall, I enjoyed it and gave it a 4/5 on goodreads. It is inventive and original and raises lots of important questions. But I have to recommend it with reservation (I’ll probably do a top 5 books I read this year with my real recommendations).