just trying to keep score.

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“Elvis had turned his back on the Church of the Almost-Here End, sold his soul to MOR, but Jerry Lee kept pumping—Holiness! Tongues!—and with each new clawsome, wild wife, with every new midnight violence, every extravagance of face, he slid further from grace. The King and The Killer: This was their desert.”

Nick Tosches, Country: Living Legends and Dying Metaphors in America’s Biggest Music

And the other best thing, which has more to do with the journalism than the style, are the Jerry Lee stories, although those are just as much bound up in style and delivery as anything else in this book.

Da Capo 08.22.96 (orig. Scribner’s 1977)

June 05, 2014, 10:30am  Comments

“Isn’t it? she said. What is that? The first amendment?
You’ve got to, I said. Fight. For your right. To party?”

Anne Marie Wirth Cauchon, Nothing

Occasionally the style goes off the rails, veers into self-parody, but not often: this is probably the worst, and it took a couple readings-over to get past the on-point-ness and understand quite how much Ruth is making fun of Bridget (who, also a little too spot-on, she compares on the previous page to a picture of Marilyn Monroe in a newly-broken frame, “the reproduction of that syrupy, mousy face, but shattered. It was pathetic, really.” — which seems rather too nice and too tidy for the character thinking it, or any character in Cauchon’s world). Fortunately, the focus seldom gets this sharp, seldom shows the seams quite this strongly.

Two Dollar Radio 11.13

December 03, 2013, 9:30am  Comments

“My moods were a slingshot; after being locked-down and anaesthetized for years my heart was zinging and slamming itself around like a bee under glass, everything bright, sharp, confusing, wrong — but it was clean pain as opposed to the dull misery that had plagued me for years under the drugs like a rotten tooth, the sick dirty ache of something spoiled. The clarity was exhilarating; it was as if I’d removed a pair of smudged-up glasses that fuzzed everything I saw. All summer long I had been practically delirious: tingling, daffy, energized, running on shrimp cocktail and the invigorating whock of tennis balls. And all I could think of was Kitsey, Kitsey, Kitsey!”

Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch

Just: whock.

This is maybe the best thing The Goldfinch does, the recovery and relapse, the tracking not of Theo’s impressions but of his ability to take impressions. Better than the bildungsroman stuff, and the novel-of-ideas art stuff. But more importantly, this is one of those paragraphs that you used to try, in high school or in college or just after, arch and a little pastiche-y, that almost nobody can pull off; this is that paragraph pulled off.

Little Brown 10.22.13

November 25, 2013, 9:30am  Comments

jim crace, harvest

“It did not take many working days before I understood that the land itself, from sod to meadow, is inflexible and stern. It is impatient, in fact. It cannot wait. There’s not a season set aside for pondering and reveries. It will not let us hesitate or rest; it does not wish us to stand back and comment on its comeliness or devise a song for it. It has no time to listen to our song. It wants to see us leathery, our necks and forearms burned as black as chimney oak; it wants to leave us thinned and sinewy from work.”

This is an impressive piece of voice, which makes sense coming from Crace, who is an excellent stylist. Walter Thirsk’s narration of the dissolution of his village is perfectly constructed by his author, mannered enough to be timeless without becoming archaic, and methodical enough to serve character without cheating interest or incident.

Nan A Talese / Doubleday 02.12.13

April 23, 2013, 10:41am   Comments

fiona maazel, woke up lonely

“My parents were part of the middling salariat that votes right but acts left. Men who tout family values while dropping a load at Tart’s Bigbar. Women who abort their kids in secret. They were Reaganites who imposed an old-fashioned aesthetic on the scheduling of our lives, so that we seemed to meet only at dinners, which were opportunities to know each other that we never took. Our family congress was more like antecedent to purdah among friends…”

I feel like Woke Up Lonely suffers from a mis-fit, between the ambitions of its scale and themes and its execution, and between the complexity of its language and the simple absurdity of its plot. And style, here, is a symptom, a clue: ironic and distanced and very highly wrought, but working in broad strokes that wind up seeming nebulous. The backdrop of the story — which involves a mass-movement cult, and government surveillance, and North Korea — is a big canvas; in the middle of that canvas is a set of Rube Goldberg mechanisms that resolve into a reluctant hostage crisis. But the stuff that works well in Lonely are individual stories, single-character vignettes, while the big stuff — the cult and its ambitions, especially — remain frustratingly amorphous. So you wind up with formulations like “antecedent to purdah among friends” that clearly mean something, without quite knowing what.

Graywolf 04.02.13

April 11, 2013, 11:00am   Comments

gass continued

“But guys smiled or winked at him, and Joey had to assume they felt he had somehow cheated his way to perfection. They did not honor good grades — on the contrary — but they prized chicanery, and any successful dodge, so long as it didn’t threaten the curve, and Miss Gyer had no curves. She was a tall woman made entirely of posture. The y in her name was her best feature.

Skizzen is not the only one who overworks his words; this isn’t an important moment in the book, but it is a very good example of Gass’s language, as he plays off of the pun on “curve” to emphasize Skizzen’s haplessness between the society of corner-cutting boys and the inflexibility of Miss Gyer: there’s a great deal of information coded into Gass’s language in this very short space, and it’s very poised and witty and intentional. And this is a minor moment, not anything complex, in a book that concerns itself with complex ideas; Gass’s prose tends to ornate, long, late-style sentences, each one of which bears the mark of the same kind of pressure on its language, each one of which does precisely what it’s author wants it to do. It’s instructive, and it’s exhausting.

April 07, 2013, 11:00am   Comments

john warner, the funny man

“Following that gig, when he pours from the limousine in front of his house, he looks at it for a fleeing moment of rare self-awareness and wonders if it is a palace or a prison. As he approaches the front door a motion-sensitive light snaps on, causing him to blink and shade his eyes, and once inside he must deactivate and then reactivate the alarm. He doesn’t think about these things at the time because he doesn’t want to.”
This is a good moment, which follows another, longer good moment, and Warner’s an excellent writer, and based on his other work he’s someone I’m predisposed to want to like; it makes me wonder why I’m not enjoying this book more. It should surprise nobody that I’ve come up with a couple of explanations. One is simple and technical and small: the protagonist is referred to throughout — or at least thus far — as “the funny man.” There’s a reason for this, but it’s only handed out late, and is a side-joke that nothing ever gets done with — more on that soon. Occasionally there is a pronoun, but most often “the funny man,” and the style is the pleasant mock-formal intentionally-stilted prose used in the better parts of the internet, which one suspects will age in the same way one reads sixties thrillers or seventies suburban romance and can date the book without flipping to see the copyright date. It’s a set of stylistic choices that are, perhaps, unsustainable over 300-odd pages. The other explanation is more general, and may be more correct: the “fleeing moment of rare self-awareness.” Obviously, this is what the comedy depends on — a lack of self-awareness, the mis-fit between what the hero is and what he thinks he is. More functionally, the important element is the mis-fit between what what his narrator tells us about him, and what his narrator is, because it really is the narrator who tells us jokes and amuses us, not the funny man. And this places us in the rather unsatisfying postmodern situation of the package being more interesting, more enticing, than its contents.

Soho 09.27.11

November 28, 2011, 7:29am   Comments

giraldi continued

“‘I have a nagging suspicion that only about forty percent of what you write is true. I also think your people all speak alike, at least you and Friend and Romp.’
‘Well, Morris,’ I said, ‘style can be infectious. Look at blue jeans. I am friends with Friend and Friend is friends with Romp.’”

Then again, Giraldi knows this, and — even though Busy Monsters is composed largely of a voice and a series of set pieces — a bunch of the set pieces are good, and the voice eventually works in them. Which means that, for a reader enamored of (say) Sam Lipsyte, I’d imagine this to be great, or at least safely worth an if-you-liked-then-you’ll-like. Because, after 300 pages, even the stingiest version of me is won-over-enough to stop nitpicking.

August 05, 2011, 12:00pm   Comments

daniel woodrell, under the bright lights

“A sort of fond sadness meandered through Shade. It was partly because he loved his brother and knew him perfectly, partly because he did not know him at all. The unlighted chamber where one’s true and most secret longings and convictions are housed has a door that is impressively sealed. The more you turn the knob and peek through the keyhole, the more you have to guess, and the less you know.”
Absolutely a piece that’s carried by style, as it’s rooted in a place and a geography; this is a book that doesn’t pull you along to find out what happens, because mostly you already know and the plot’s just something to hang everything else on. Instead, it’s a book you wind up reading slower to keep up with the nuances and stay within the voice. Or, really, voices: Woodrell is great at dialect, at rhythms of spoken language, and in his narration he drops into a southern gothic semiformality that’s just as distinctive. Both of these voices are cadenced, rhythmic; the gulf between narration and speech, high and low, is huge and striking.

“There had been a time, not too long ago, when Francois has been energetic in his defense of the stepped-on multitudes, passionate in his pleas for those mendicants before the bar, those old neighborhood losers whose humanity he would not deny. He’d had a threat in his stance toward the system that had not always been kind to those close to him, and a mind quick to become belligerent in his quest of justice for the smallfry.”

reprinted in The Bayou Trilogy, Mulholland Books 04.28.11

May 11, 2011, 10:21am   Comments

david mitchell, the thousand autumns of jacob de zoet

"Crumpling, burning and freezing, Jacob retreats, but the garden has quadrupled in length, and it may take a Wandering Jew’s eternity before he reaches the cucumbers, where he kneels behind a screen of dock leaves; where the snail on the pail flexes its stumpy horns; where ants carry patches of rhubarb leaf along the shaft of the hoe; and he wishes the Earth might spin backwards to a time she appeared, asking for rosemary, and he would do it all again, and he would do it all differently." 

One of the keynotes of any discussion of Mitchell’s work winds up being his mastery of genre, his ability to mimic styles. This generally gets brought up in the second or third paragraph of any review or profile. For all his ability with pastiche, Mitchell is also an amazing writer at the sentence level — here folding together both Jacob’s embarrassment, his regret and happiness in his infatuation, with the pastoral scene of the physick garden he’s in (and all the medical and spiritual resonances of that); right down to the obvious, intentional, clinking flaw of the rhyme in the middle of the passage.

Random House 06.29.10

July 04, 2010, 7:06am   Comments