Thursday, July 31, 2008

Where to find forest? Am lost in trees.

Frank Kermode at The New Republic reviews a recent book on literature, a modern answer to E M Forster's Aspects of the Novel, James Wood's How Fiction Works. For Kermode, one example of Wood's clarity of insight regards the "indirect free discourse" represented in Henry James' What Maisie Knew:

Maisie meditates on the status of the dead girl, Clara Matilda, "who was in heaven and yet, embarrassingly, also in Kensal Green," a London cemetery, which she had visited with the dead girl's mother to see her "little huddled grave." "James's genius," we are told, "gathers in one word: 'embarrassingly,'" and Wood asks whose word it is.

He argues that it is Maisie's, embarrassed to witness adult grief, a little afraid of it; and he develops this theme with his usual resource. And yet the embarrassment surely arises less from the confusion that Wood identifies than from a much more obvious childish puzzle, of a sort that adults rather than children can find words for. ...Maisie's reaction arises from ambiguities in the cultural code that Wood inherits from Barthes. He rightly comments that "huddled" must be James's own word, but he thinks that Maisie might, by a stroke of Jamesian genius, have used the word "embarrassingly" to describe her own confusion. Yet it seems virtually impossible for it to be anything but an adult's way of describing a child's commonplace eschatological difficulty.

Now, it seems to me (from an admittedly ignorant standpoint: I'm working only from what was provided in the review) that "embarrassingly" could mean:

+ Maisie is embarrassed (confused, flustered) by the incongruity of what she is told to believe and what is physically presented to her, and by her own inability to reconcile the two;
+ Maisie assumes the adults should be embarrassed by their failure to reconcile that incongruity;
+ Maisie, as children are wont to do, projects feelings even upon inanimate things or dead creatures and people - assuming that the dead girl's situation is embarrassing for herself (or even that the dead girl is embarrassed) to be expected in heaven but found in the ground.

I'm willing believe that Henry James meant for the word to capture all those varying meanings, and that he may have crafted it through a combination of an instinctive sense for the words' rhythm as well as a preconceived logical notion that he wished to communicate.

Kermode's review is titled "The Art of Noticing." And it's a very rewarding, instructive, enriching art - the problem comes when the noticing is so minute that, in the end, it is only the critic noticing his own navel. Scrutiny on this level seems to override all the joys and potential of noticing - it leaps over the fine line between artful observation and wringing meaning from as few syllables as possible in order to say something unique. The "critic's critic" continues:

Yet Wood is right to say we should read "musically, testing the precision and rhythm of a sentence, listening for the almost inaudible rustle of historical association clinging to the hems of modern words, attending to patterns, repetitions, echoes, deciding why a metaphor is successful and another is not."

But that seems to contradict Wood's hyperbolic claim James' genius "gathers" in the word "embarrassing," that perfect meeting of meaning and ambiguity - possibly just because Wood himself was clever enough to spot it. The details matter, and they're thrilling to discover and learn about, but taken individually they don't completely explain the allure of the whole.

Even music experts don't listen to music with an ear to parse every single note - the beauty of music is in the course and pulse of the intangible whole. I know music students who rave about this beautiful interval or that stunning modal change - but these are incidents that contribute to the flow; the example of those few notes doesn't describe the whole, nor do my musical friends believe those few notes alone summarize the entire genius of the composer, they're simply signs of the genius that dwells in the whole. In similar terms, it seems inane to claim that James' genius can be described in that clever use of "embarrassingly," even if it was meant to be propounded as an example rather than a culmination of his cleverness. It misses the point of the context, the acts of noticing that James himself compiled before even setting pen to paper.

Take this example. Assign a creative writing class to draft a story that incorporates a sentence that uses a word in a similar manner to James' "embarrassingly" - something ambiguous, with shades of meaning that apply to all possible points of view. The sentence cannot be the turning point or conclusion of the story; it simply must be incorporated naturally into the rhythm of description.

Now take that sentence out of each story, and the result will probably be a heap of insipid stories. Because a writer who focuses all his cleverness on little literary zingers like that will tend to indulge his love of words (not a bad trait at all) but at the cost of his love of noticing. And it shows, in the hollowness of the piece as a whole, even if it's strewn with what my mom once called "Oooh, here comes my MFA!" moments.

This isn't to say that close reading is inappropriate. I simply mean that close reading is not really the best material for a satisfying survey of "how fiction works" - and like Barthes, it sounds like Woods can't see the forest for the tropes.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

There'll be time enough for rockin' when we're old

Long time no see, TNF. Attendance call – show of hands, who’s still reading?

I had a craving for Brokeback Revisited. It was on Bravo tonight; it was the first time I’d seen it since watching it in theaters shortly after it was released. I remember going with a group of ebullient girls and shuffling out with my heart somewhere in my feet.

I remember the buzz leading up to it too – what stands out in my mind are all the girls who caught wind of two pretty boys kissing and said, “So that’s what guys love about lesbians!” And Jake Gyllenhaal saying “It’s just kissing another person.” And the praise for the courage of both stars, young heartthrobs, for taking on such “daring” roles. And tonight I was reminded again of all the promise Heath Ledger had, without having to line up for The Dark Knight to join in post-mortem fascination.

I can’t remember if I read the original story before or after seeing the movie; but what I do remember was the impression that the movie was far more compassionate toward the wives. It struck me again, tonight – even when the emotional tension was shattered by the regular and jarringly loud ads for Million Dollar Listing and Shear Genius. Ennis (Ledger) and Jack (Gyllenhaal) are neither of them perfect husbands – if they’d been more caring or wise, in the modern sense, they would have never gotten married at all – but in the end, as much as I feel pity and grief for Jack, his quashed dreams and his violent and undeserved end, it’s Ennis’ struggle I feel more poignantly. Where Jack runs - or tries to run - Ennis stays despite overwhelming pain.

When Ennis is divorced from his wife, Jack assumes they’ll run off together and work a ranch, like he’d always wanted. But Ennis – whose daughter is waiting in his truck during their exchange – reminds Jack that while he’s no longer married, he still has a life and responsibilities in Wyoming (of course, in his own particular idiom of speech, which sounds kind of like Jack’s car as it growls away). He’s broke, but Jack could support him – instead he stays for his daughters. It may have been a mistake to create that family in the first place, without love for his wife or the possibility of love, but he won’t stamp that wrong onto his daughters’ lives as well, and he genuinely adores them in his silent way.

And his daughter stays by him. In the last scene, she visits him to tell him about her engagement and invite him to the wedding. And he does what he couldn’t do for Jack so many times later in their long and agonizing affair – he quits his job to make the time to drive down and be there. She leaves, forgetting her sweater, and he folds it lovingly, putting it away in the closet where he keeps Jack’s old shirt, and he murmurs, “Jack, I swear.”

Jack, I swear. I actually teared up; despite the commercial breaks, the grainy TV, the truncated credits. Brokeback Mountain isn’t about being gay. It’s about love. Many kinds.