On Mystery

November 18, 2012 § Leave a comment

All art is charged with mystery — an indivisible strain of magic or irrationality or the unanswerable, what Keats described as “negative capability” — but that doesn’t excuse readers or writers from exercising rigor in their work. The universe is mysterious too, but not because it’s portentous or hollow or opaque. Rather, the universe is mysterious precisely because we can look more and more closely at it, with greater and greater rigor, to understand better and better its mechanics. This is what leads us to its wonder.

So it is with human-made universes, too. You can’t understand the fundamental contradictions and ambiguities of a work without prying deeply into it. But in the practical world of books and authors and critics and readers, everyone wants to lay claim to possessing or discerning the artistic brand of mystery. My sense from the criticism I’ve read (professional or scholarly or amateur, the distinctions are insignificant) is that it’s easy to talk about the ineffable or the sublime because practically everybody gets a pass on that stuff. Who would dare take you to task for a poor treatment of the unknowable?

But there’s real mystery, and there’s pseudo or hollow or false mystery. And I think the modern sense of the world’s complexity and insanity — and the prevalence of fuzzy conformist talk about books — breeds, like a damp cupboard, a lot of fusty talk about mystery in writing.

Let me give examples — one of false mystery, one of the real thing.

Here’s a passage from the very beginning of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. (I like picking on McCarthy’s writing because he enjoys a very rare literary kind of renown. There’s only so much of that kind of renown to go around, so I think it’s important to mind its allocation.)

At fourteen he runs away. He will not see again the freezing kitchenhouse in the predawn dark. The firewood, the washpots. He wanders west as far as Memphis, a solitary migrant upon that flat and pastoral landscape. Blacks in the fields, lank and stooped, their fingers spiderlike among the bolls of cotton. A shadowed agony in the garden. Against the sun’s declining figures moving in the slower dusk across a paper skyline. A lone dark husbandman pursuing mule and harrow down the rainblown bottomland toward night.

A lot of words are thrown together for portentous effect, and because of these short phrases a grand hazy stateliness is attributed to McCarthy’s writing. (Example: “The phrases and clauses in that sentence, written without punctuation, add up to a kind of rushing prose, seemingly spontaneous, but highly crafted. Such rhythms can be almost biblical in their power.”)

What happens when you look closely? I submit the thing falls apart and we see a core that’s not sublime, but ridiculous. When McCarthy writes that the protagonist is “a solitary migrant upon that flat and pastoral landscape”, he’s giving a cue that we should take the mythic power of “that” landscape for granted. How can it be both “flat” and “pastoral”? Pastoral indicates lushness — it’s a sentimental term, and it doesn’t go with barrenness. And a phrasing like “lone dark husbandman” is cliche. This mystery isn’t rigorous! It’s taken off the shelf. So calling it mysterious is too generous. It’s pompous.

On the other hand, I’ve been reading Gogol’s Dead Souls, and I’ve found the whole thing is a grand jest of a book where the narrator is spinning a tale he doesn’t totally know and indulging in digressions that aren’t totally relevant in a story world that’s capricious toward reader, protagonist, and narrator alike. In the marrow of the writing there’s a very essential frivolity. For example, here’s a man going home to his wife after visiting a fair and running from an argument with his brother-in-law:

The brother-in-law went on repeating his excuses for some time, without noticing that he had long ago got into his barouche, driven through the gates, and was surrounded by nothing but empty fields. One cannot help thinking that his wife did not hear about the fair in much detail.

The writing itself is plain and matter-of-fact but a Gogolian strangeness prevails in its substance. I like the transition from the facts of the conversation to a sudden surprising emptiness, via simply getting into his carriage. And see how the narrator doesn’t even know what happens next — he replaces that gap in knowledge with a musing speculation. You see that kind off off-kilter narration throughout the whole book. That is fundamentally how Dead Souls is written, and it works in the plain facts of the storytelling.

This is not a flashy example of mystery — if it were flashy, it wouldn’t really be mysterious — but I mean to demonstrate the organic strangeness and the organic gaps in Gogol’s writing, and how they’re used to substantial effect. When you read an entire book written to its core in this shifting, musing, non-omniscient way, it’s an experience like none other.

In these posts, I pick examples out of thin air and I assess them very briefly and selectively, so you should look into these examples for yourself if you care. My point, as always, is not to accept the apparent or conventional virtues of a piece of writing, but to try to respond to its native strangeness from the inside out.

Storytelling: Using Pieces in Combination

July 29, 2012 § Leave a comment

There’s a scene in Searching for Bobby Fischer, about chess prodigy Josh Waitzkin, where a street hustler watches Josh playing briefly and exults to Josh’s mother (as she’s dragging him away) that “Your boy used pieces in combination to attack”.

It’s a nice little nugget on sophistication and craft in any creative form. Anyone can throw themselves at a winning attempt in sports or art or whatever, but on a different plane there’s building something (in this case, a coordinated offense) to fulfill a creative end.

In writing, for example, there’s a huge difference between simply writing about your subject with one single-minded thread (attacking directly) and using many of the different elements available to you to realize your subject (using pieces in combination).

Example: a direct attack, from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road:

Out on the roads the pilgrims sank down and fell over and died and the bleak and shrouded earth went trundling past the sun and returned again as trackless and as unremarked as the path of any nameless sisterworld in the ancient dark beyond.

There’s one line of thought and description in this passage: the Earth is a barren place. Everything here is simply a restatement of that barrenness — pilgrims falling over and dying, the “shrouded” earth, tracklessness, namelessness, “the ancient dark beyond”. “Variations on a theme” would be too generous. McCarthy’s just re-emphasizing the same notion with homogenous bits of portent. If you’ve read it, you know that the whole of The Road uses one line of description. It’s a crude attack.

Here’s a multi-pronged attack, from John Updike’s short story “A&P” (which I’ve quoted on this blog before):

The one that caught my eye first was the one in the plaid green two-piece. She was a chunky kid, with a good tan and a sweet broad soft-looking can with those two crescents of white just under it, where the sun never seems to hit, at the top of the backs of her legs.

I see two threads here: 1) the crudeness of the narrator’s ogling (“chunky kid”, “good tan”, “soft-looking can”) and 2) the little bit of delicacy that shows his eyes aren’t going to the typical places, when his eye notes the paleness at the top of her thighs, “where the sun never seems to hit”. When Updike invokes the shadow of the sun, it’s a great playful accent.

These two threads interplay — the narrator’s ogling is of a piece with his observing, and this combination, this balance, perfectly establishes the particular kind of richness in the narrative voice and the point of view, or state of mind, of the piece.

Counting the threads in a bit of a description is, in my experience, a nice little rule of thumb for knowing whether a story’s got any tricks up its sleeve and is worth reading past the beginning. It almost literally makes the difference between one-dimensional and multi-dimensional writing.

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