30 March 2009

Hadley, Tessa. "She's the One." The New Yorker. 23 Mar 09. 62-69.

Look, I'm sorry. All I have time to Finish! these days are magazine articles. The books I pick up I scan so as to sum up and explicate them in six or seven sentences. It's no way to read.

I'm going to put forth an extended metaphor that like all metaphors maybe is flawed. It ties in to ideas about traditional and nontraditional writing styles that've been running through my mind lately. It also ties into something James Wood writes about in How Fiction Works about realism and convention, specifically that the former has become the latter to such an extent that, oh, it's so incredibly dull. (No handy, easily quotable quotes are presenting themselves, so take my word for it.)

In short: realism is very rarely not dull and conventional.

So, then, my analogy:
realism : food :: experimentalism : sex
I mean, here, to line up two instincts I seem to have as writer with two instincts I share with all of humanity. I mean also to do this without becoming one of those irritating diaristic bloggers whose sex life becomes eighth-rate e-pulp for a handful of anonymous RSS subscribers.

It seems in my life that food is of greater necessity than sex, that I hunger for the former more often and more physically than I do the latter. Call me a prude or whatever. And so maybe in line with this it also seems that bad food—like really bad and depressing food—hurts more and feels worse than bad sex. There's a Shoebox Greeting here, to be sure, but it's rare that "bad sex", whatever it might be, is all that bad. It's still pretty nice. It's still a treat. Afterward I feel kinda okay. But bad food, and by this I mean the sort of thing that's unpalatably, spit-it-out bad (a green-olive omelet, maybe, or cottage cheese on banana bread), is just unbearable. It makes me want to run away from myself or from life or something.

Such is the case with fiction. Realism is very much the food I run to books for, and when it's bad—when every metaphor rings obvious and when characters get so predictably marshaled toward conflict with one another, when unsurprising detail is meant to carry far more weight than it ever really could—I hate books and I hate life and writing and everything. I want to spit it out. I get very depressed. Experimental writing—which I don't have the time to try to define, but I basically mean both language-driven fiction and fiction of the impossible, so maybe "nontraditional writing" is best—when bad (when language performs without ever revealing, when surrealism fails to save a banal situation) is still kind of a treat. Afterward I feel kinda okay because at least I've been given access to something if not new then at least un-ordinary.

But sometimes realism is great. Like: great. And it's like when you sit down to eat a meal, and you take a bite and you make that noise in your throat, the one that goes: "Oh, yeah. Fuck I forgot that it could ever be like this." And just like that meal can remind you of everything you ever loved about eating as a kid, really good realism (which is probably just realism written "freshly", to continue to destroy food metaphors) makes you remember every reason you started reading as a kid and every reason you continue to come back.

Nontraditional writing, too, when great, is mindblowingly, impossibly great. It's a different kind of greatness. It's not, okay, a lesser kind of greatness. It's, at the risk of being gross, like drainingly great. And it's greatness is new, relatively. It's adult and mysterious. There's no early-developmental analogue. Okay? Maybe?

I'm losing control of this metaphor. Please open the comments window to dispense your ridicule. But all this is something that came to mind after reading Tessa Hadley's story in the New Yorker, which suffers from a flat ending that's asked to carry too much weight (though is probably the only way she could have ended it), but which also includes such incredibly food-great passages as this one:
Hilda complained about the farmer whose land they were walking on. She said that she had contacted the R.S.P.C.A. because he didn't treat the foot rot in his sheep, and that he'd tried to stop her walking there, although it was a public right of way. It was true that quite a few of the sheep seemed to be hobbling on three legs, or half kneeling, their front legs bent at the joint. Ally worried that the farmer would come out to confront them. She didn't want to have to take sides. As she tramped beside Hilda on the way back, the day draining out of the sky seemed to empty her, too, leaving her weightless. When they arrived back at the cottage, they could still see each other clearly, but the light was at its moment of transition, and, as soon as they went inside, the night outside the windows appeared perfectly dark. In the cottage downstairs there was only one room, with a kitchen at one end and a sitting room at the other, a flagged floor and a wood fire smoldering in a wide stone hearth, one wall stripped back to the naked stone. Hilda put logs on the fire and switched on a couple of lamps. (66)
Why do I love this so much, this whole story minus the end? It's not the verisimilitude that we traditionally value in realism so much as the density of it all. No: the quickness. Again, like McPhee, I'm attracted these days to writing that moves faster than I do, writing I have to keep up with. Hadley's story begins at a writing center, the sort of place where unpublished writers pay to get instruction from published ones, and probably the thing I like the most about this story is that after the first page we never go back to this writing center. Bad realism would follow certain rules (picked up, perhaps, in a paid course at a writing center) and "keep the story focused" on its "unique setting" and the relationship between Ally and Hilda would get straitjacketed into predictable gestures and exchanges taking place in predictable, professional locations. It would be unreal, it would taste like shit, and we'd all run upstairs, to the dirty unspeakable books we keep under the bed.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Circus Peanuts.

5:29 PM  

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