Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Ratios and momentum in Messud

I finished Claire Messud’s book, The Emperor’s Children, two days ago. I enjoyed it. The plot picks up in the second half, and she has a talent for pacing -- building up characters to pivotal moments, then rendering the climax forcefully. But I had qualms with her style.

One thing I caught myself thinking while I was reading was why I didn’t enjoy her long, meandering sentences as much as I enjoyed those of, say, Dave Eggers. I ended up taking AHWOSG from my bookshelf and comparing sentences between the two books, trying to figure out what made Eggers’ prose pop while Messud’s feel wasteful. I did a bit of word association between the two authors.

Messud: adjectives, adverbs, filler, passive, non-visual
Eggers: nouns, verbs, strong, rhythm, direct, visual

Here’s a sentence that caught my eye while I was reading Messud. This is Danielle, describing her feelings towards her illicit lover, Murray Thwaite.

No, the alien was her intimate, the man she felt she so thoroughly understood, with whom she would now reluctantly have conceded she was in love (and how foolish was that?), who seemed, infuriatingly, impossibly, inevitably, to be able to turn her off like a switch, to relegate her to the realm of the irrelevant, a playmate for his daughter merely to be tolerated, and, ideally, escaped.

I’ve marked the sentence; in bold are the strong, tangible nouns and verbs:

No, the alien was her intimate, the man she felt she so thoroughly understood, with whom she would now reluctantly have conceded she was in love (and how foolish was that?), who seemed, infuriatingly, impossibly, inevitably, to be able to turn her off like a switch, to relegate her to the realm of the irrelevant, a playmate for his daughter merely to be tolerated, and, ideally, escaped.

Ratio of strong words to total words: 7:67.

Now, I’ll underline the weak adverbs:

No, the alien was her intimate, the man she felt she so thoroughly understood, with whom she would now reluctantly have conceded she was in love (and how foolish was that?), who seemed, infuriatinglyimpossiblyinevitably, to be able to turn her off like a switch, to relegate her to the realm of the irrelevant, a playmate for his daughter merely to be tolerated, and, ideallyescaped.

Ratio of strong words to weak adverbs: 7:7

These proportions are horrible. Long, winding sentences need to be staked with strong, short words. At the very least, the strong words need to outnumber the weak ones. Neither happens in this sentence (or in most of Messud’s other sentences). While I don’t subscribe to the rule that you should never use adverbs, having three in a row, in the middle of the sentence (infuriatinglyimpossiblyinevitably), is overkill.

The second problem with this sentence is that there’s no momentum.

No, the alien was her intimate [A], the man she felt she so thoroughly understood, with whom she would now reluctantly have conceded she was in love (and how foolish was that?), who seemed, infuriatingly, impossibly, inevitably, to be able to turn her off like a switch [B], to relegate her to the realm of the irrelevant, a playmate for his daughter merely to be tolerated, and, ideally, escaped.

Here's the bold section, by itself: No, the alien was her intimate [A]who seemed to be able to turn her off like a switch [B].

This new sentence, stripped of its detail, is the pith; point A moving into point B. When Dave Eggers, or DFW, writes a long, complex sentence, each section they add between point A and point B moves the action forward. Now look at Messud’s sentence. It starts at [A], but the next two clauses spiral the same point. When she arrives at point [B], she spirals around a few more times. Add insult to injury: the ending peters out with a halting, three-comma-three-word construction (“, and, ideally, escaped.”). There’s no momentum, there’s no rhythm; when the passage is already about something non-visual, that’s killer.

But hey, it’s her style. The entire book is like that – verbose circumlocutions of interesting ideas that seem to land flat. I know style is a personal preference. The friend who recommended the book to me said that she loved it because the prose was “pretty outstanding, and the kind of writing that deserves to be read aloud and [with] some rumination.” At what point, though, is style so inimical to the absorption of the plot, and the ideas, that we can say it’s the “wrong” style?

Sunday, April 7, 2013


A grab bag of memories from my time in the dirt-red city.

Weekday nights, we played basketball until dusk, and played harder as the sun sank lower -- cut hard, crashed hard, ran harder -- not because of the competition, or because of pride, but because if we ever took a play off and just stood on the court, watching everybody else move, the mosquitoes would alight on us and start sucking. Playing hard meant no sucking.

A graduation party for a white man, in the front yard of a black man’s house. The torches lit up with electronic orange embers. There was a whole goat, he said. We’re roasting it all. When it arrived on everyone’s plate, the meat was charred black – at least it looked that way in twilight – and so tough that chewing wasn’t possible. Rather, it sat in the pocket of one’s mouth, stewing in saliva, subjected to periodic attempts at mastication.

It was a celebration, I think, of Australia Day. What that meant I’m still unsure of. But on the rooftop in Ntinda, we saw the Nakasero hills, dotted with evening lights, before darkness swept over the sky, and then all there was to look at was an inflatable pool in the middle of the rooftop, plastic and rubbery and drained of almost all its water. There was maybe 12 inches left. It’s a party, right? Want to step in, wet your feet? Why not? As we ate hot dogs and hamburgers and talked vermiculture, the guests radiated outwards, towards the edges of the roof. 

Another party. This time a housewarming, or maybe just an overdue get together, in a front yard of a house on top of a hill, where the grass swept down and down and down back into the city. There was a vegetable platter. A burger was dropped on the concrete. A woman talked about her months living in the Congo. The only lights outside were candle lights, which lent all conversation an intimacy not wholly undeserved. The end of the night ended as it could only have: with a German drinking game.

Monopoly. At 9pm. We had finished dinner, the three of us, on a foldout table, and, with no plans, no events in the city, no desire to leave our gated apartment complex, we brought out a ragged Monopoly set and laid out the pieces. Within 25 minutes, we had our properties: orange and light blue vs. red and yellow vs. dark blue and the railroads. Money exchanged hands rapidly. After an hour, there was a winner, but nobody remembers who. The point was, after the game, after we packed it back in, after we brushed our teeth, after we tucked inside our mosquito nets, all of us thought the same thing: I haven't played that in years. 

I went to this roadside nursery yesterday. The seedlings and saplings were sequestered in black plastic bags, arrayed along the ground in formations that reminded me of Minesweeper. I tiptoed between them. Do you have any herbs? I asked the woman. She did, but only rosemary. Were there any other plants that were edible, or might produce edible fruit? She shook her head every time I pointed, and said, "No eat." The final accounting: 6 rosemary suckers and a clay basin for 12 dollars. The next day, I walked to a construction site along the road where a Pakistani had hired a crew to dig ditches for fiber optic cables. We asked him if we could take some of his dirt, then carried a 60 pound bag back to the apartment complex. The dirt was orange, nearly red, mud-water-and-scorched-earth. I plucked the rocks out of the dirt as I poured it into my clay basin, and then set the six rosemary plants. Postscript: They all died two weeks later.

I tried to learn how to cook, because when it got dark, I didn't feel comfortable walking outside, on our road, without lamp light, for fifteen minutes to the nearest restaurant. I made spicy pasta every day. On one heater, I poured water in a pot and set it to boil. On the other heater, I poured oil in a skillet and set it to simmer. When each was ready, I put pasta in the water and chopped garlic and pepper flakes in the oil. I moved the pasta from the pot to the skillet, and stirred it together. After dinner, I drank the leftover pasta water, and bottled the rest.

The move. We piled it all into the car -- kitchen appliances, backpacks, yesterday's plantains, books, something so fragile I needed to hold it between my legs -- and drove down the road, a five minute drive, if that, to the new house. The one with the capacious kitchen. The commodious living room. Two bathrooms, two bedrooms, enough space outside for a lopsided, uneven basketball court, and a backup generator that powered the lights, even when the rolling blackouts arrived. The house was different. New. More intimate. We had to wear slippers for the linoleum floor. The closet wood was a dark liqueur. There was a refrigerator!

Sunday, December 2, 2012

beachcombers in the bulwark

It's been a while since I've written here -- a few months removed from a year, actually. There's a new blog in town now, one catered to the needs of my nascent novel. You can find it here:


Quotidie, of course, is Latin for "daily." I'll be writing short posts every day for the next ~550 days on my Tumblr. It won't be a blog that's best checked every day; more like a blog that's best checked every fifteen days, when you can jump over to it and absorb all the small tidbits I've been working on. That way there'll be more of a narrative arc, you know?


The best New Yorker articles, ever

Constantly updated. This is a true work in progress. Every New Yorker article is great -- given a certain threshold -- but these are the ones whose forms and content have actually inspired the stuff I've written.

"Somebody Has to be in Control," Ian Parker.

"You Belong With Me," Lizzie Widdicombe.

"The Aquarium," Aleksandar Hamon.

"Grub," Dana Goodyear.

"The Other Obama," Lauren Collins.

"Master of Play," Nick Paumgarten.

"Alone in the Dark," Philip Gourevitch.

"Keeping it Real," James Wood, on the conventions of the novel

"Holden at Fifty," Louis Menand.

"Everything is Fiction," Keith Ridgeway.

"This week in Fiction: Junot Diaz"

David Hoon Kim. "Sweetheart Sorrow." (Just....wow.)

Mikhail Iossel, "Life: How was it?"

Jeffrey Eugenides, "Posthumous."

Donald Hall, "Out the Window."

Saturday, December 1, 2012