Friday, May 25, 2012

On Longwindness

 "I can assure you, sir, that these things really suck!" -- Don Van Vliet,when selling a vacuum cleaner to Aldous Huxley

You're not a drone for not being drawn to Don DeLillo; he either appeals to you or he doesn't, as is the case with any other serious (or less serious) writer who wants to get your attention.
The charges that DeLillo is tedious, wordy and pretentious, not necessarily in that order, are themselves tedious and , it seems, levied by a folks who either haven't read much of the author, more likely, put forward by a host of soreheads who use DeLillo as a representative of a kind of fiction writing they dismiss wholesale. I'm not an easy sell when it comes to be seduced by writer's reputations--my friends accuse me of being too picky, too "critical"--but I've read most of DeLillo's fifteen novels since I discovered him in the early Seventies; if I didn't find his writing brilliant and vibrant or found his narrative ruminations on the frayed American spirit engaging, I'd not have bothered with him. DeLillo is a serious writer,  sober as a brick, but he is not pompous.I always marvelled at the economy of his writing. 
He does write long sentences in parts of his novels, but they are so precisely presented they seem positively succinct. And that, I think, is a large part of their power.
Power and purpose are the things that make a long sentence of fiction a thing of wonder;good sentences are like pieces of great music that you read again, listen to again. The Godfather of the terse, abrupt phrase, Hemingway could, when he chose to , compose a long sentence that had the advantage of serpentine rhythms snaking their way around a nettlesome gather of conflicting emotions and sentiments, but still had a wallop of an adroitly worded police report. The longest sentence he ever wrote, 424 words in his story
"The Green Hills of Africa" is cinematic in its sweep:

That something I cannot yet define completely but the feeling comes when you write well and truly of something and know impersonally you have written in that way and those who are paid to read it and report on it do not like the subject so they say it is all a fake, yet you know its value absolutely; or when you do something which people do not consider a serious occupation and yet you know truly, that it is as important and has always been as important as all the things that are in fashion, and when, on the sea, you are alone with it and know that this Gulf Stream you are living with, knowing, learning about, and loving, has moved, as it moves, since before man, and that it has gone by the shoreline of that long, beautiful, unhappy island since before Columbus sighted it and that the things you find out about it, and those that have always lived in it are permanent and of value because that stream will flow, as it has flowed, after the Indians, after the Spaniards, after the British, after the Americans and after all the Cubans and all the systems of governments, the richness, the poverty, the martyrdom, the sacrifice and the venality and the cruelty are all gone as the high-piled scow of garbage, bright-colored, white-flecked, ill-smelling, now tilted on its side, spills off its load into the blue water, turning it a pale green to a depth of four or five fathoms as the load spreads across the surface, the sinkable part going down and the flotsam of palm fronds, corks, bottles, and used electric light globes, seasoned with an occasional condom or a deep floating corset, the torn leaves of a student's exercise book, a well-inflated dog, the occasional rat, the no-longer-distinguished cat; all this well shepherded by the boats of the garbage pickers who pluck their prizes with long poles, as interested, as intelligent, and as accurate as historians; they have the viewpoint; the stream, with no visible flow, takes five loads of this a day when things are going well in La Habana and in ten miles along the coast it is as clear and blue and unimpressed as it was ever before the tug hauled out the scow; and the palm fronds of our victories, the worn light bulbs of our discoveries and the empty condoms of our great loves float with no significance against one single, lasting thing---the stream.

I think there's a clutch of  otherwise smart people who distrust and actively dislike anything that suggests elegant or lyric prose writing. John Updike, who I think was perhaps the most consistently brilliant and resourceful American novelists up until his death,was routinely pilloried for the seamless flow of his perfectly telling details. If one cares to do a survey, I suspect they'd find the same caustic template levied at other writers who are noted for their ability to detail the worlds they imagine in ways that make the mundane take on a new resonance. Nabokov, DeLillo, Henry James,  Richard Powers have all been assessed by a noisy few as being  "too wordy". The sourpusses seem to forget that this fiction, not journalism, that this literature, no police reports.
The secret, I think, is that a writer possessed of a fluid style manages to link their  mastery of the language with the firm outlining of  the collective personalities of the characters , both major and minor. The elegance is in service to a psychological dimension that otherwise might not be available. The thinking among among the anti-elegance crowd is that writing must be grunts, groans and monosyllabic bleats, a perversion of the modernist notion that words are objects to used as materials to get to the essential nature of the material world. Lucky for us that no one convincingly defined what "essential nature" was, leaving those readers who love a run on sentence with more recent examples of the word drunk in progress. I don't mind long sentences as long as their is some kind of mastery of the voice a writer might attempt at length; I am fond of Whitman, Henry James, Norman Mailer, David Foster Wallace and Joyce Carole Oates, writers who manage poetry in their long winded ways. That is to say, they didn't sound phony and the rhythms sounded like genuine expressions of personalities given to subtle word choice. Kerouac, though, struck me as tone deaf. After all these years of complaining about his style, or his attempts at style, the issue may be no more than a matter of taste. Jack Kerouac is nearly in our American Canon, and one must remember that the sort of idiom that constitutes literary language constantly changes over the centuries; language is a living thing, as it must be for literature to remain relevant as a practice and preference generation to generation.