Monday, September 20, 2010

Degree of Difficulty, pt. 1

I've been complaining a lot lately about the way that we discuss -- or rather, don't discuss -- difficulty in fiction.  To recap, it seems to me that the critical response to a "tough" or "inaccessible" book often falls into one of two categories: either the reviewer feigns comprehension, praising and criticizing so vaguely and so respectfully that calling him out on his confusion is nigh well impossible, or, perhaps even worse, the reviewer adheres to the Lev Grossman school of preemptive anti-intellectualism, declaring that the whole project of the novel or story collection in question is defunct, academic, "a drag," with no real regard for the specific approaches, techniques, and aesthetic of the work in question.

The problem with both of these approaches, in my opinion, is that they're motivated by something other than the writer's attempt to convey his own experience of a particular book.  They are political, not in the sense of national party politics, but in the more general sense in which we might describe "office politics" at a company or "campus politics" at a college or university.  The writer who pens, for example, exclusively positive reviews of experimental or avant-garde works is trying to pony up a readership, not so much for the book in question, but for other books of the same ilk, including, perhaps, his own; he also may hope to curry favor with other, more successful writers, meaning that the review is not, in fact, intended as a communication with other potential readers, but with the author of the book under review -- on the street, we call this "sucking up." 

On the other hand, the anti-intellectual reviewer, while seeming to go on the offensive, actually is also playing defense, trying to protect the novelistic conventions (and pleasures) of yore from what he sees as an invading tribe of egg-headed marauders.  Like the Fox News nutjobs who remind us every year that Christmas is under attack, these bozos seem to think that the works of Dickens and Austen (and Franzen and Updike) are in dire peril of being crowded off the shelves by the likes of Joy Williams and Gilbert Sorrentino.  It's all a game of literary politics, and like any other form of politics, those politics cast every statement made under them in the seedy light of half-truth and overgeneralization. 

Yet, what is it that actually makes a book difficult?  And why are some kinds of perceived difficulty considered more impenetrable than others?

Perhaps the most extreme form of difficulty can be found in books that are difficult at the level of the sentence.  The obvious example that springs to mind here is James Joyce, though he's not really an author I can handily cite.  Confession time: I have never read Finnegan's Wake, and to be completely honest, it is likely that I will be nothing but a rotten smell behind a locked apartment door long before I ever attempt it.  I have, however, opened it, and this is what greeted me within:

"riverrun, past Eve and Adam's, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodious vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.  Sir Tristram, violer d'amores, fr'over the short sea, had passen-core rearrived from North Armorica on this side the scraggy isthmus of Europe Minor to wielderfight his penisolate war: nor had topsawyer's rocks by the stream Oconee exaggerated themselse to Lauren's County gorgios while they went double their mumper all the time: nor avoice from afire bellowsed mishe mishe to tauftauf thuartpeatrick..."

This is the kind of prose that sends me reeling through the stacks in the direction of the T's, groping around for Thurber's collected works as an antidote.  I don't claim this is a universal reaction.  But what, exactly, makes it so off-putting to me? 

I'll admit it: there are some things I'd rather not find on my bookshelf.

I'd like to point out a couple of things that have occurred to me.  The first is that, although I certainly don't know the meanings of all the words in the preceding passage, I don't think the issue is strictly one of vocabulary.  As Lewis Carroll definitively proved in his wonderful poem "Jabberwocky," it's possible to have a piece of writing that thrives not on the reader's facility with the language used but simply with the context.  Here's a brief passage from that poem that illustrates my point:

"He took his vorpal sword in hand: / Long time the manxome foe he sought – / So rested he by the Tumtum tree, / And stood awhile in thought. / And, as in uffish thought he stood, / The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame, / Came whiffling through the tulgey wood, / And burbled as it came!"

At least seven of the words in those eight short lines are nonsense words, words that literally no one could possibly understand.  Yet Carroll does two things to keep the verse from becoming incomprehensible.  The first is that he keeps the sentence structure simple.  We're never perplexed about what part of speech a word is.  It's especially clear to us who the two subjects of these sentences are – "he" and "the Jabberwock" – and the verbs Carroll uses are action verbs, placing these subjects in motion.  This gives us the illusion that we can visualize the scene he's laying out, although we of course supply our own meaning to both "Jabberwock" and "whiffling" in the second sentence.  The second thing Carroll does is place the "difficult" (i.e. nonsense) words mostly in what I'd describe as low-impact locations in the sentences.  By this I mean that the difficult words are most often used as modifiers (specifically here, as adjectives, five out of seven times in this passage), which could be removed without significantly changing the sentence's meaning.  For example:

"He took his sword in hand: / Long time the foe he sought – / So rested he by the tree, / And stood awhile in thought. / And, as in thought he stood..."

Though the modifiers are necessary aesthetically – the verse clearly would lose its unique sound, and the imaginative landscape it evokes, without them – they are not completely essential for meaning.  (Sidenote: interestingly enough, the verse in the poem that uses the most nonsense words at high-impact points in the sentence ["Twas brillig, and the slithy toves..."] is even itself a kind of large-scale modifier, setting the scene just before and after the in-scene action takes place.)  Thus, the reader can appreciate these words as decoration, embellishment, without relying on them for comprehension.  These words function like the hippy chick friend who sees the world as poetry, who's moved almost to tears by the indoor rainbow that hangs in the air, however briefly, one afternoon in the mall when the fire alarm goes off and the ceiling sprinklers rain down unnecessarily.  Having her there makes everything more beautiful, more meaningful, but you don't necessarily want to copy her notes from trigonometry class.

Yet in the passage I quoted from Finnegan's Wake, the sentence structure works against the reader's attempt to contextualize the unfamiliar words.  The first sentence – or perhaps I should say mid-sentence – is in fact the more comprehensible of the two I quoted.  The second sentence, in addition to its difficult language, immediately presents several grammatical challenges.  For one thing, at least in American English, we're accustomed to "neither/nor" used in tandem as a conjunction.  Since the sentence doesn't use a "neither," the "nor" that then appears immediately sent me looking back, assuming I'd missed something.  For another, the sentence structure doesn't place the words that are (to me) difficult or incomprehensible at low-impact spots; it doesn't even make the parts of speech obvious (is "avoice" being used as a noun?). 

I'm not saying any of this as a judgment, positive or negative, of the sentences in question, but merely as a statement of fact: the James Joyce sentences repel me, not primarily because they employ words that I don't recognize, but because they don't seem to anticipate my lack of recognition of those words.  Opening Finnegan's Wake is like opening a novel and discovering it's in German: there's a sense in which I feel that this wasn't written for me.

Yet, there are times in my own experience as a reader when a work that was difficult at the level of the sentence did speak to me, even if that wasn't apparent at first.  The obvious example of this, as I've noted before on this site, is the work of Thomas Pynchon.  At the sentence level, Pynchon is, I think, a lot more easily parsable than late-period Joyce, but here's an example of a sentence from the opening section of Gravity's Rainbow that offers its own brand of WTF.  Here, Pynchon starts describing one of Captain Geoffrey "Pirate" Prentice's famous banana breakfasts that he cooks for his men:

"Now there grows among all the rooms, replacing the night's old smoke, alcohol and sweat, the fragile, musaceous odor of Breakfast: flowery, permeating, surprising, more than the color of winter sunlight, taking over not so much through any brute pungency or volume as by the high intricacy to the weaving of its molecules, sharing the conjurer's secret by which – though it is not often Death is told so clearly to fuck off – the living genetic chains prove even labyrinthine enough to preserve some human face down ten or twenty generations... so the same assertion-through-structure allows this war morning's banana fragrance to meander, repossess, prevail."

Whew.  What's puzzling in this sentence is different from what was puzzling the earlier examples: with the exception of a single word ("musaceous"), I'm familiar with all the vocabulary employed here.  Even at the larger level of images, there's nothing evoked that I can't easily translate to a concrete visual.  "Old smoke, alcohol and sweat," "winter sunlight," even "living genetic chains" are all perfectly clear, straightforward, and not particularly unfamiliar.  Yet what confuses readers here – or at least what I found confusing upon first encountering it – is the rhetorical structure in which these component parts are placed.  In comparing the scent of the banana breakfast with DNA, Pynchon is not trying to better or more clearly evoke the sensory experience of the breakfast.  He skips from the level of description (which the reader anticipates at this junction) and goes straight to the level of themes, making a direct argument about the way an object's internal intricacy, its encoding, allows it to survive despite external threat.

This is a move that many traditional writers make – but at important moments, moments when the characters themselves might step back to observe the world around them with heightened clarity.  Pynchon, though, just drops this in almost at random, in the middle of a scene establishing the men's daily routine.  A lot of readers find this technique jarring and intrusive, and I can certainly see why.  The effect of it – and several other sentences like it over the course of the book – is to create a world so densely riddled with rich veins of meaning that the present action often seems distant or absurd by comparison.

There are many, many other ways that fiction can be difficult at the level of the sentence.  Another obvious one that springs to mind is when the book is written in the voice of a character or narrator whose dialect does not match the reader's: a classic case of "what's tough for me may be easy for you," and probably a secondary issue for American readers like me tackling Irish writers like Joyce.  But I guess my main purpose here, rather than cataloging every variety of difficulty at the level of the sentence, is to point out the perhaps obvious fact that a writer's style is not merely a superficial element, a mannerism to be "gotten past." 

Sentences are what a novel is made of, the air you have to breathe when you're inside the book.  When sentences are difficult, I think that more than a book's length or subject matter or themes, they are the biggest impediment to the work reaching a broad audience.  However, I also think that, if used purposefully, difficult sentences can allow writers to communicate ideas and images to their admittedly more limited audience that could not be expressed any other way.  The question, in evaluating a work, shouldn't be, "Is this hard to read?" but "What makes this hard to read, and why?"  Our desire to look past the language to the thing/world/character being conveyed is so strong, though, sometimes it makes this question tough to ask, let alone answer.


scott g.f.bailey said...

This post comes at a good time for me, as I am going to read Finnegans Wake this Fall, after I finish the new Franzen. I've read bits of "FW" over the years, and while some of (maybe a lot of) the meaning of passages I've read escapes me, the language--especially if you read it aloud for the sound of it--draws me in. I have a feeling that the story is a lot simpler than people make it out to be; we'll see, I suppose. I want to find out what it's like to live in the linguistic world of Finnegans Wake. I trust Joyce enough to just go along for the ride and find out what (if anything) it means to me. I admit to having had some difficulties with sections of Ulysses, but that didn't stop me from enjoying the hell out of that book. I read the Iliad in the Fitzgerald translation and there were sections of it that baffled me because I didn't get the references. But again, it's one of my favorite texts. I could say similar things about Paradise Lost.

On the general subject of difficult texts, I might float the idea that some texts are at least partially impenetreble to every reader, including the author. It is possible--even, I hope, probable--that a writer will include passages that he cannot himself really "understand," but that he knows are "right."

scott g.f.bailey said...

Also, I hope my misspelling of "impenetrable" doesn't weaken any of my claims!

The Chawmonger said...

Hey Scott, thanks so much for reading, and for this thoughtful comment. You make an interesting point about the possibility that even the author may at times find his own work difficult or impenetrable. I had a professor in college who used to say, "Our poems are smarter than we are" -- the same can be said about fiction, too, I think. The best difficult fiction, for me, is fiction where the author tries to reach beyond what language can typically do to express something larger, or stranger, or more complex. Maybe the reason that some difficult books are unsuccessful as art is that the author has taken a relatively simple idea and expressed it in an intentionally obscure or confusing way.

Anyway, glad you enjoyed the post -- and I'll be interested to hear what you think of Finnegan's Wake :-)

scott g.f.bailey said...

I've only recently stumbled upon your blog, but you write well and thoughtfully about literature, so thank you.

I think you're right about "fiction where the author tries to reach beyond what language can typically do to express something larger, or stranger, or more complex," but I wouldn't limit it to "difficult" fiction. Some authors are simply showing off their virtuosity with language (a lot of Shakespeare and Nabokov), but I do think others are out there in the dark, grasping at whisps of maybe-nothing and building ladders of words so the rest of us can try to share the view. That's my opinion of Joyce, anyway. I'll see how it goes.

The Chawmonger said...

Wow: "grasping at whisps of maybe-nothing and building ladders of words so the rest of us can try to share the view." Well-said, dude.