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?

1 comment: