Sunday, January 18, 2009

Ostentation

Leon Wieseltier's review of Martin Amis's book, "The Second Plane," contains a sentence that symbolizes how I feel about the relationship between style and substance. In it, Wieseltier criticizes Amis for his showy style:

When he [Amis] describes the second plane on its way to the south tower as “sharking in low over the Statue of Liberty,” the ingenuity of the image is an interruption of attention, an ostentatious metaphorical digression from the enormity that it is preparing to reveal, an invitation to behold the prose and not the plane.

I disagree somewhat with this, in that I think "sharking" give a metaphorical perspective that asks us to reexamine the iconic image of the second plane, and the metaphor is apt. However, in general, I agree with the sentiment. A much better example of showy prose comes from the National-Book-Award nominated "The Zero," a novel about the 9/11 clean-up. Similes and metaphors pile up, and those tropes, far from expanding our understanding when we examine them, become distractions. For instance, these sentences describe the crew at Ground Zero reacting to a work stoppage:

In line, the guys edged forward and peered around one another like kids waiting for recess, trying to see why the buckets had stopped. Their boots crackled on the surface of the debris, tiny shifts like the warm pack on a deep snowfall. (49)

These similes in consecutive sentences do not increase our understanding. In fact, they're distracting, mostly because they are not apt. The kids at recess metaphor is just plain wrong. Kids waiting for recess are really eager to go to something fun, and they wait impatiently for freedom. Guys working at Ground Zero might be confused, wondering why the buckets have stopped, but they're not like kids at recess.

Instead of using the "kids at recess" simile, the author could have used one akin to "like schoolchildren during a fire drill." This simile is more apt in that: (1) something disagreeable (school) has been interrupted; (2) the kids are wondering why it's been interrupted; (3) they're afraid something bad may have happened, but they also know it's probably nothing; (4) in a weird way, they kind of want to get back to it. In all of these ways, the workers are like the schoolchildren; thus, it's an apt simile.

I think Weiseltier is asking for precise writing that does not obscure meaning, but that carries meaning while augmenting it as well. He does not value prose that calls attention to itself--the kind of prose that gets books nominated for awards...the kind of prose that invites us to behold the description, not what is being described. In that way, I agree with him.

2 comments:

MC said...

First poor Steve Martin and now Jess Walters. Well I can’t defend ol’ Steve Martin-he deserved your scorn. But I’m not so sure of Jess Walters. I have tow main reasons why I disagree with your assessment.

1) You base your argument on ONE example.

2) You didn’t finish the novel

This book was short-listed for the National Book Award in 2007 and was generally well received by critics. However, I do think it is a kind of noble failure, but for different reasons than you present. I think he was very ambitious in what he was trying to do with the novel and was ultimately a failure due to his cop out ending in my opinion. But where his previous book Citizen Vince was basically a literate crime novel-The Zero was pure literature.

Eric said...

My responses:

1) I had two other examples (one from the same page) but I didn't want to confuse the issue. Plus, in the one example I did give, there are TWO instances of shit similes....in consecutive sentences!!!

2) I got over 50 pages in, and my issue was not with plot, it was with style, and the style wasn't going to get any better. Where there's smoke, there's fire.

As for it being shortlisted for the NBA, I'd like to point out that (a) it didn't win; and (b) everybody makes mistakes.

Thanks for the discussion.