Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Density in Fiction

What matters most in fiction are character and plot; an added plus would be a point made about life or human nature that arises from character and plot. Or, at least, that’s how I see it.
These essential aspects can either be strengthened or obscured by the manner in which they’re presented. I’m referring to the style of prose and the approach an author takes. Both reflect his/her attitude toward the reader.
I’ll use the word “density” to describe an attitude which results a certain type of writing. It comes in various forms, but you’re in dense fiction if it’s a struggle to get from one page to the next.
I’m going to take a close look at Hortense Calisher’s The New Yorkers because I recently tackled it. The word “tackle” applies because of its size: 559 pages in the trade paperback edition I bought secondhand (50 cents). From the get-go a long novel (anything over four hundred pages) is intimidating. It can also be seen as an imposition: the author is asking you to invest a large portion of your limited days on earth in reading the product of their fertile imagination. I have a contrary attitude when I embark on a tome: “Does this person really have that much to say?”
             My misgivings weren’t put to rest as I read the opening sentences:
Passerby often remembered the house. Even on such a good street, where new young trees, carefully wired against dogs, winds and anarchy, are regularly set out to spindle, a house still occupied by a single family is a fireside glory to all. Such houses are against the natural design of cities, and from the time of the Dutch here were unlikely to be poor ones. After the Second World War, even the rich had lost interest in them. But trees were not enough to signal to the cold, pure heavens far above this particular city what was still single and humane down below.
            On the surface, this seems like an elegant piece of writing (“anarchy” is a nice touch); but what, really, is the author telling us that we can relate to? Take the last sentence — something about trees not being able to signal to the heavens. It makes no sense to me. In fact, the excerpt contains contradictions in thinking; regarding houses still occupied by a single family, “. . . even the rich had lost interest in them” yet they are “a fireside glory to all.” Trees are “set out to spindle.” Spindle? I looked the word up, and the only definition that seems to fit is “To grow into a thin, elongated or weak form.” Is that what they’re set out for? And how about the first word of the novel? Ms. Calisher chose to use the singular (rather than “passers-by”), but she treats it as a plural. What she does is the equivalent of writing, “Person often remembered the house.” So maybe the prose isn’t that accomplished after all. Its cadence is herky-jerky (“and from the time of the Dutch here were unlikely to be poor ones”).
            I didn’t go into such an analysis (nor did I consult my dictionary) when I first read this beginning; at the time I merely felt restless (559 pages of this?). A doubt arose as to whether this was a book — an author — I wanted to commit myself to.
            Even if I’m annoyed at the outset, I’ll give a novel a chance. But what follows in The New Yorkers are more words — God, are there words! — but they’re not used to pull a reader in and carry him along. What Calisher doles out is a labyrinth of digressions and references to events which are cloaked in obscurity. As for her characters, they exist in the shadows, inexplicable in their complexity; they talk, they do this and that, but they never emerge because Calisher just won’t let people and situations be, in a human sense. I called it quits around page forty, when the main character (all I knew about him was that he was short, Jewish and wealthy) is gazing out a window at a park, thinking that it was never so much a New York park “as it was now — a great strip of the city-fear, but warmed by a window, made Roman.”
            My initial contrary attitude and initial doubts, instead of being appeased, had turned into hostility. Hortense was not being my friend. She wasn’t entertaining me, she was burdening me. Burdening me with what? Her self-indulgence. The writing was carefully worked, I wouldn’t argue that. But something is “too written” if the prose is a point of focus. And when an author enters into every nuance of thought and feeling we get the pickiness that encumbers Henry James’s work. Take this excerpt from his What Maisie Knew: “. . . if he had an idea at the back of his head she had also one in a recess as deep, and for a time, while they sat together, there was an extraordinary mute passage between her vision of this vision of his, his vision of her vision, and her vision of his vision of her vision.”
            It’s interesting to compare the beginning of The New Yorkers with that of James’s The Golden Bowl (787 pages).
The Prince had always liked his London, when it had come to him; he was one of the modern Romans who find by the Thames a more convincing image of the truth of the ancient state than any they had left by the Tiber. Brought up on the legend of the City to which the world paid tribute, he recognized in the present London much more than in contemporary Rome the real dimensions of such a case. If it was a question of an Imperium, he said to himself, and if one wished, as a Roman, to recover a little the sense of that, the place to do so was on London Bridge, or even, on a fine afternoon in May, at Hyde Park Corner.
           The “fine afternoon in May” promises that James will get things rolling, but he was incapable of something so simple as that. The density, with James, derives from the degree to which he pursues, with a stately orderliness, a line of thought until the lively life is leeched out of it. He was interested in conveying the depth and complexity of his perceptions. I suspect that Calisher was a disciple of the Master.            
            We all know who Henry James is, but who is Hortense Calisher? From the back cover I learned that she was president of both P.E.N and the American Academy of Arts and Letters. One critic called her an “urban and urbane William Faulkner.” Maybe this person was onto something. Faulkner was another author who had no restraints on his ego (in his worst work this results in a foolish mishmash of obscure verbosity). His subject matter differed radically from that of James, as did the form his density took. With Faulkner you’re slogging through a fetid swamp, with James you’re in a desert of endless, immaculate sand, with no landmark in sight.  Both have in common a stubborn refusal to cater to the reader.
            In the last half of the twentieth century, writers who wrote novels that were both dense and extremely lengthy include William Gaddis (The Recognitions), John Barth (The Sot-Weed Factor), Thomas Pynchon (Gravity’s Rainbow), and David Foster Wallace (Infinite Jest). It’s significant that they were all highly praised in literary circles (the circles that Hortense Calisher operated in). Their type of thing is deemed to be Literature. To back up that point, consider the two works that have been placed at the pinnacle of modern fiction: Ulysses and Remembrance of Things Past. To say that a novel “tests the reader” is considered a compliment rather than a condemnation. If the four authors above were trying for greatness, they were encouraged in the way in which they pursued it.
            They were, in a sense, trying to Moby-Dick their way to greatness. I know someone who read Moby Dick (he usually reads what he refers to as “junk”). He did it because he wanted to say, “Yes, I read Moby Dick.” It was a status thing (probably the worst reason to read a book). He confided to me that every page was agony, but he pressed on relentlessly. And he completed it, he climbed Mt. Everest. But it cost him two fingers and three toes; he’ll never attempt to read another “great” novel. I believe that density has played a factor in turning the general reading public against what is deemed to be “Literature.” People don’t choose to suffer, and literary fiction became associated in the minds of many with intellectual torture (often this occurs in high school, somewhere around page six of The Scarlet Letter). Maybe those critics in the1890s who found fault with Moby Dick were right. And maybe those claiming to like difficult writing are dealing in pretense. They’re stating “I’m intelligent enough to understand this.”
            Of course, I may be criticizing such writing because I’m not smart enough to appreciate it. But we’re not talking about a text on neurology (which would be incomprehensible to me). We’re talking about novels, and why should I — who rejects all forms of junk and seeks out quality work — be subjected to a sentence like this?: “In a way, a pseudo-justice assumes a legal course, a pseudo-severity, or the pseudo-habilitation of the finger-pointings whose manifest countersigns seem to be both the arrogance of the ill-considered magistrate’s investigation and the cynobalanic excitement of the anticipated sentence.” The author is Carlo Emilio Gadda, the book is That Awful Mess on the Via Merulana. Who does he perceive as his audience (or does he give a damn)? Even fiction that operates on a high plane should be democratic, inclusive. An author of great intellect should be able to perceive the simple fact that he should engage a reader, not discourage or alienate him.
             Difficult writing raises other questions that I’d like answered: Why would an author use words that aren’t in my American Heritage Dictionary? Why would an author expect me to know French or Latin or Greek? Why would he/she be so circuitous in relating events that exasperation sets in? If they used this approach when talking to the police about a crime they witnessed, they’d become the prime suspect, based entirely on their evasiveness.
            Could it be that density serves as a cloak behind which a writer hides? When obscure or inexplicable, insights and ideas can seem profound. Even characters and plot can remain immune from the scrutiny that asks basic questions: Are the people real, are events plausible? Those who put their cards on the table, for all to see, may be braver. I recently read James’s short story, “The Middle Years.” It’s done with his excessive wordiness, but it’s readable; and, being readable, its sappiness was on display. It ends with a deathbed scene in which the great author (guess who) tells his enraptured young admirer, “Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.”
            Is all dense fiction unsuccessful? No, only the bad dense fiction. Some dense work succeeds when it has a current that sweeps one along (though it may take a while to get on board). To tackle (that word again) Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude is daunting, but he cares about the reader (one soon knows when they are in caring hands). And Garcia Marquez is always focused on people. Some writers equate density with depth, but there’s no direct correlation. An author can create a unique atmosphere by the use of density, but it’s good density only when the exploration of character and situation are of foremost importance.
            I can cite other works, written in the last century, that I initially struggled with, but which had some quality that kept me going, and which rewarded me to a high degree. Gunter Grass’s The Tin Drum, Jose Donoso’s Obscene Bird of Night, Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children, Elias Canetti’s Auto- da-Fe.
            If we go back to past centuries, barriers for the modern reader crop up. Time has changed language and prose style and values, and extreme length was a virtue to readers for whom a novel was the primary form of entertainment. Sometimes these barriers cause a work to founder. But in reading Vanity Fair and The Way We Live Now, I was struck by how Thackeray and Trollope tried to please the reader, and how their focus was on human nature. I could fully relate to the people they depicted and the situations they were in.
            I need to pause and acknowledge the peculiar fact that novelists I’ve criticized have produced work that I’ve liked. Some demonstrated that they were capable of writing with perfect clarity, but chose to move into obscurity. The most significant example is to be found in the progression (or regression) of James Joyce from Dubliners to Finnegan’s Wake. Gertrude Stein’s Three Women has a childlike simplicity, her The Making of Americans — well, try and read it. Thomas Mann’s first novel, Buddenbrooks, was long and eminently readable; his last, The Black Swan, was short and eminently readable. Somewhere in between came Doctor Faustus, with its ponderous excursions into the intricacies of theology and musicology.
            As for poor Hortense Calisher, who I made a negative example of at the start of this essay, maybe she wrote other things I would like. But it won’t be in the mode of The New Yorkers. At this stage in my life I’m not out to impress anyone. I’ve developed standards as to what I value and what I reject. I read for pleasure, unashamedly. I’ll struggle through a difficult book for only forty pages; if things don’t open up for me by then, I abandon it.
            The problem I’m citing in literature extends to the other arts. I was recently exposed to current trends while at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. It was interesting that, in talking with the visual artists, they felt compelled to explain what they had created (all of which was abstract). Words, words, words, 90% of them obscure. I don’t believe that Goya or Vermeer or Manet or Van Gogh (or a hundred other artists I could name) would have any inclination to explain their work; nor did they need to. But around the turn of the twentieth century we entered an era when explanations became necessary: this is what I’m trying to do. The same thing happened in architecture, which was once concerned with those who would occupy a building or walk past it; architecture that was people-friendly, conceptually humane; it gave way to sterile, uninviting oddities. Classical music abandoned melody.
            I believe the arts should speak to us directly. In literature, praise should be given to those who make the effort — and it is work — to be clear and engaging in creating their worlds. I’m not asking for utilitarian prose; writing can be lively, colorful, inventive and still avoid the type of density that leads to obscurity. At the heart of the matter is the attitude of these authors. It’s not all about them. It’s about their fictional characters and the situations they’re in — and it’s about you, dear reader.

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