Thoughts on English

December 4, 2009 § Leave a comment

Why is English so hospitable to nonsense syllables and words?

Hickory Dickory Dock,
the mouse ran up the clock


Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall

I think English was first a dance-hall, drinking language of peasants. Or maybe it was the language that peasant and working parents spoke to their children in the crib. Think of all the nonsense words: dither dather, scribble scrabble, hither and thither; there is a bubbly, fizzy, unharnessed (un-nailed down) quality to English that welcomes new words and babble. Speaking of nonsense, closer to our own day, I recall, as kids, my brother and I running around the house singing with Roger Miller,

And you had a do-wacka-do,
Wacka do, wacka-do, wacka-do

What is black jazz scat-singing after all but elaborate nonsense lyrics? An early English poem by John Skelton (1460-1520), Phillip Sparrow, is full of delightful nonsense rhyme. By contrast when Dante’s (1265-1321) wanderer confronts demons howling bizarre syllables in the The Inferno it startles dramatically because the rest of Dante’s Italian is so structurally poised.

Pape Satàn, pape Satàn aleppe!»,
cominciò Pluto con la voce chioccia;
e quel savio gentil, che tutto seppe,

disse per confortarmi: «Non ti noccia
la tua paura; ché, poder ch’elli abbia,
non ci torrà lo scender questa roccia.
(Inferno, VII, vv. 1-6)

Does it make any sense to appeal to our highly developed infantile qualities? No, but there is something going on–a language does not easily shake off its beginnings. Perhaps this ‘baby talk’ understructure explains why it is so hard to do English well. Our complex verb forms are very complex even for native speakers:

“If that had happened, I would have had to…”

Contrast Spanish, a romance language, wherein workers, peasants and Indians can, usually, gracefully handle the horrendously complex subjunctive. Our grammar is so unsettled, our punctuation seems improvised. The only thing vaguely settled about English is the sentence order and that is a distinct disadvantage. Subjec–Verb–Object. It is too rigid. Unlike romance languages English must adhere to its sentence structure. We lose sight of the subject so easily in English. We do not have masculine and feminine designations for nouns or clause markers. Romance languages can devise elaborate sentences with numberless clauses because the clause denominator–which, that, whom, whose–is clearly marked as masculine or feminine–you can always trace back and identify the subject noun.

T. C. Boyle Pro & Con

September 27, 2009 § Leave a comment

#1) The largest feeling reading TC Boyle, after the first few chuckles, is sadness; his writing makes you realize how hard literature is. He has all the pluses on his side and he still doesn’t pull it off. 1) Be entertaining: Boyle knows how to entertain. 2) Charm: he recognizes social hypocrisy and can deal with it in funny ways, he has a wide embrace of social pathology. 3) Shorthand: he gets to the point. 4) Technique: he keeps things moving. He knows how to move people around.

#2) Why does literature have to be so damnably difficult? His writing has what most other writers don’t have: humor, momentum wisecracking knowingness. Boyle’s got all the gifts but one: heart. He so earnestly tries to get through the story that he misses the most important thing. Yes but…you want to remember and retain. Mostly his stories become linguistic exercises; topping the previous metaphor. Yes, literature is made up of words but it is also made up of the extraneous and there is no extraneous in Boyle. Everything is down to the metal.

#3) Or he overdoes it. Boyle writes over his characters, he applies the literary standard, lapsing when he shouldn’t, allowing clichés. He won’t let anything unfold. The momentum is driving and sharp, but arch. He understands the made up nature of American life and it allows him to puncture it from all sides. But America does work after all, not every money maker is a con, not every housewife is a harridan, not every babe is a whore out for herself.

#4) It is in the interstices that America runs (and inspite of itself), you’d never know that from Boyle where the cartoon standard applies. Boyle tries to make literature out of comics. Graphic novels. In the weird way that graphic novels can be made to strive towards written literature, to emote and promote ambiguity and depth, so Boyle’s prose strives towards the picture frames of a graphic novel. The words get in the way. They are fueled on his metaphors.

#5) The event drives character rather than the other way around. Think of the many ways Boyle must describe anger, surprise, or disgust: a set of revolving emotive stills and a straining after words that exhausts imagination to keep up with his relentless events. It is bar-stool storytelling. Or campfire storytelling: who doesn’t love it? Its appeal is as old as…

#6) Often the thoughts narrated aren’t the character’s thoughts; they are Sociology’s thoughts. Or Boyle’s sociological thoughts.

#7) Overwritten: the characters are plundered, not observed. They are not even invented they are starched, typed out – (does anyone type anymore?) They are buttered with jam, oiled, creamy and sauced and jammed and yolked and creamed again with parmachiano; they are indicated. Shrimped and pimped and recopied; they are meatballed with parsley, oats and gin.

#8) Boyle tends to mount forward movements like military campaigns or football plays. He moves his narrative forward via the exertions of metaphor. Vein popping metaphor making. He goes into the breach. Narrative advances by straining language through metaphor. Yes you can do this but — unless you are Shakespeare, watch out.

#9) Language plundered for its mobility. Boyle tries to get around the technical difficulties of his art by forcing metaphor; too many contrivances, though art is contrivance, he goes too hard at it. Masked by nearly unlimited charm. Where does charm come from? Being different from the norm (which is usually dull as darts).

#10) Consider the world and all its things as an audience waiting to tell you interesting things. Waiting to be noticed and tell you things. You don’t get the sense that Boyle listens to the world of things. He is not open to the world of things so they can’t tell him what they want to tell. He writes over eveything. He writes over his characters and he writes over his things. Arch, contrived, flip, and yes, fun. I don’t mean to sound so harsh. I am trying to identify a technique or a style.

#11) TC Boyle goes wrong by offering up a constant string of metaphor and simile; he never lets the reader put anything together. He does all the work.

#12) His recit is faulty. When Boyle writes, “His ears pointed up and with a flash of white teeth turned like a felon…” it is fair to ask do ears really point up? Do teeth really flash like that? Or when he writes, “The Doctor’s eyes snapped wide open at the thought–” it’s fair to observe that eyes don’t really snap. When Boyle writes, “Ashen, the long bones of his legs chattering, Will Lightbody got unsteadily to his feet,” it’s OK to complain that leg bones don’t really chatter. You have to go back to early Mark Twain to get this kind of Western exaggeration: “Yup. He was spitting teeth after the fight.” Yet, somehow Twain manages to really see, to really describe. Boyle seems to be writing from a memory of rhetoric…

#13) Sometimes I think Boyle is doing stand-up comedy, skits, gags, riffs…no fictional pressure, tension…am I wrong?

Exposing the tyrant while writing a beautiful book

June 22, 2009 § Leave a comment

(from left to right: Young Huber Matos just before Castro threw him in prison for 20 years; Guillermo Cabrera Infante in his prime; Carlos Franqui, an elderly exile in Italy)

Family Portrait with Fidel by Carlos Franqui
Mea Cuba by Guilermo Cabrera Infante
Como Llego la Noche (How night arrived by Huber Matos; not sure if the English translation is out yet.)

Franqui and Infante were both artist intellectuals who held official posts in the early Castro government; by 1965 both were disillusioned and planning their escapes. Their books are by turns fascinating witty brutal and tragic. Matos is a man with truth for a backbone; he was sentenced in 1959 and served out a 20 year sentence, obtaining release from prison in 1979; he was on to Castro early on and paid a steep price.

These books are not hard to get hold of. When you hear pretty-faced Hollywood/and TV reporters praise Castro you realize that these people do not read. How many talking heads have given a stern look over the last couple days and said, “we don’t know much about Raul Castro but…”

This is nonsense. It common knowledge that Raul is a bigger thug and murderer than Fidel and it is well documented. In the early days of the Revolution Fidel would purposefully humiliate Raul in large meetings to the point that fellow revolutionaries, hardened murderers, would turn their faces away so as not to have to share in Raul’s utter abasement.

Anyway, these books are loaded with fascinating and sometimes funny but always tragic detail of life under the tyrant.

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