Excess is a lonely condition. If a novelist rejoices in puns, paronomasias, similes, antanaclases, acrostics, alliteration, assonance, anagrams, lipograms, well, he better really rejoice in them, because nobody else will. Readers put the book down after crashing against the first “difficult” word, critics put him down for pretentiousness, and fellow novelists will affronted by his ambition. Ask Kingsley Amis, who thought Vladimir Nabokov and Anthony Burgess were just showing off with their rococo. Excess is defensive; I never come across anyone forced to justify the plainness of Hemingway or Raymond Carver, it’s assumed that writing without florid excrescences is the natural way of the word. But for excess-lovers justification is a full-time job. Alexander Theroux was prompted to write his delightful essay “Theroux Metaphrastes” after a sentence in Three Wogs “exasperated to her very sesamoid bones a reviewer in a major newspaper” into grumbling about his amplified style. Likewise, I detect in Paul West’s “In Defense of Purple Prose” an impatience with similar criticism against his novels. Defensive is the tone guiding Steven Moore’s introduction to The Novel: An Alternative History, unique in its kind because it strives to persuade the reader that excess has always been the norm and that only recently has the genre degenerated into the plain, the accessible, the journalistic. These three texts, by the way, form a bible I go back to again and again for nourishment and consolation against a world that has long given up admiring rhetorical prowess.
So it was with hope that I purchased Ben Masters’ Novel Style: Ethics and Excess in English Fiction since the 1960s. Masters is a rising British novelist, author of Noughties (2012). He’s also written good literary criticism for The Times Literary Suplement. He also shares some of my worries regarding contemporary fiction:
We live in a time of linguistic plainness. This is the age of the tweet and the internet meme; the soundbite, the status, the slogan. Everything reduced to its most basic components. Stripped back. Pared down. Even in the world of literature, where we might hope to find some linguistic luxury, we are flirting with a recessionary mood. Big books abound, but rhetorical largesse at the level of the sentence is a shrinking economy.
I figured such an unusual attitude merited my support. He’s set up a panegyric to the stylists of yore, Burgess, Angela Carter, and Martin Amis, plus the new generation influenced by them, presumably himself, but especially Zadie Smith, Nicola Barker and David Mitchell. But if the style of excess is not dead, as he argues, he has a strange way of proving it. The chapters on my beloved Burgess and Carter are immaculate examples of textual analysis, and the chapter on Amis is so succulent that on its strength alone I bought Time’s Arrow. Alas, I won’t be rushing to buy the young folks. Goddess Suada abandoned him on the final chapter. The selection not only goes against his goal, it supports the opposite.
The overall selection, in fact, could have done with an explanation. I understand that The Alexandria Quartet doesn’t illustrate as poignantly as A Clockwork Orange a rhetorical renaissance in British letters, but both did come out in 1962, and Lawrence Durrell deserves better than a passing reference since he was to my knowledge the first post-war English novelist to rebel against plainness when a bunch of "angry young men" were busy foisting asuterity on readers. It was also a missed opportunity to bring some attention to Paul West, a Derbyshire lad. West shares some similarities with Amis: both moved to America early on; both set their first novels in England; then both switched to historical novels that engage with the horrors of the 20th century. If Amis can get a whole chapter, why can’t West get even a tiny mention, especially considering that from what I’ve read by Amis he’s several rhetorical longitudes away from reaching West? In a similar book, The Art of Excess, Thomas LeClair at least justified the omission of candidates like Darconville’s Cat and Mulligan Stew on theoretical grounds, “because they are more essentially literary games of the Nabokovian kind than responses to the master systems of the contemporary world.” LeClair, in typically American fashion, cares about size and quantity, data and structures, networks and technological analogies. As Masters remarks, he conceives “excess as a theoretical entity,” informed by science and Critical Theory, whereas Masters is concerned with “excess as a rhetorical component,” which is my kind of excess too, and that’s why the selection strikes me as desultory and harmful to his intentions.
So it begins with Burgess, except in truth it begins with Nabokov. Masters’ informative chapter shows many fascinating connections, from glowing reviews to Nabokov to similarities between novels; until now it had never struck me how alike Alex and Humbert Humbert are, two rapist murderers with a penchant for overblown oratory. I certainly believe Burgess when he claims to have read Lolita more than ten times. And have you noticed that Pale Fire is narrated by a mad literary critic and Nothing Like The Sun by a drunken literary critic? And that a poet plays a major role in both? And that both titles contain references to Shakespeare? Indeed, everything seems to begin with Nabokov. Masters has led me to reflect on how important a role he played in reviving in English-language literature the rhetoric of excess, which quite simply had never existed in the USA and was moribund in the UK. Before Nabokov, America shied away from excess: Twain, Hawthorne, Wharton, Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, Salinger, Caldwell, Nathanael West, Hemingway (Burgess: “we’ve been bemused into forgetting that plain English is too often emasculated English [ironical that this should be the medium preferred by the most vauntedly masculine of writers].”). Perhaps Tom Wolfe or the shunned Poe. Henry Ja – wait, he’s English. Who else? Even Faulkner veered more often towards the slovenly than the sedulous. Come the 60s, though, and several young Johns start mentioning Nabokov as a model. Updike was a fan. Barth teamed him up with Borges and Beckett in “The Literature of Exhaustion”. And Hawkes stated in the famous 1964 interview, “A writer who truly and greatly sustains us is Nabokov.” And a grumpy Alexander Theroux remembered a few years ago how as a young man he sent an admiring letter to Nabokov in Switzerland, only to have it returned by a very imperative Véra ordering him to leave them alone.
Now what’s extraordinary is that the English novel was in such a bad shape at the time, that it took a Russian to remind it that England had an autochthonous tradition of excess dating back to John Lyly (Amis is quoted by Masters using the word euphuism). When Burgess showed up the literary milieu was not enamored with extravagance. Angus Wilson thought The Alexandria Quartet “floridly vulgar”, writes Jan Morris in the introduction to the Faber & Faber edition. Bear in mind, Wilson was less upset by the vulgarity than by the floridness. I hope Burgess upset him even more. Burgess himself would act as a tutelary figure to Carter and Amis, another Nabokov fan, but Novel Style ultimately shows the disintegration of excess in the span of 60 years. You can assess that yourself if you compare the first and last excerpts in the book. I mean, when you start with this:
“What’s it going to be then, eh?”
There was me, that is Alex, and my three droogs, that is Pete, Georgie, and Dim, Dim being really dim, and we sat in the Korova Milkbar making up our rassoodocks what to do with the evening, a flip dark chill winter bastard though dry. The Korova Milkbar was a milk-plus mesto, and you may, O my brothers, have forgotten what these mestos were like, things changing so skorry these and everybody very quick to forget, newspapers not being much read either. Well, what they sold there was milk plus something else. They ad no licence for selling liquor, but there was no law yet against prodding some of the new veshches which they used to put in to the old moloko, so you could peet it with vellocet or synthemesc or drencrom or one or two other veshches which would give you a nice quiet horrorshow fifteen minutes admiring Bog And All His Holy Angels And Saints in your left shoe with lights bursting all over your mozg. Or you could peet milk with knives in it, as we used to say, and this would sharpen you up and make you ready for a bit of dirty twenty-to-one, and that was what we were peeting this evening I’m starting off the story with. (A Clockwork Orange)
and end on this:
With what was left of clarity she offered her friend a selection of aphorisms, axioms and proverbs the truth content of which she could only assume from their common circulation, the way one puts one’s faith in the face value of paper money. Honesty is always the best policy. Love conquers all. Each to her own. (Zadie Smith, NW.)
it’s pretty clear that excess has gone from punny to puny.
As Masters moves in time, he seems oblivious to the perceptible abandonment of language, from Burgess to Carter, from Carter to Amis, and from Amis to Smith, Barker and Mitchell. To use a pictorial analogy, Burgess is like a fusion of Michelangelo and Raphael, precision of contours with the most brilliant colors; Carter is like the Romantics, still luxurious but already a bit muted; in Amis you find the Impressionist’s haziness, loss of crispness, and a loosening of the figure that already points towards abstraction; and by Smith’s time we’re being sold Malevichs for the price of Tracey Emins.
If I had to hazard a few guesses as to why this is so, I’d start by saying that novelists after Burgess possibly suffer from an excess of Theory. Burgess, a good conservative, couldn’t care less about Marxist-driven Theory, but Carter is already entangled in the politics of feminism and socialism and she’s up to date on Foucault and whoever else was cool during her college years, but probably not Euphues. Amis is also quite political and worldly, he tackles the big themes, the Holocaust, the Soviet Union, which demands being well-read on politics and philosophy. Novelists who feel obliged to serve causes and to keep up with the world in order to report on it, won’t be dedicating a lot of time to the classics, to philology, to the study of foreign languages. Hence rhetoric suffers; wanting to report on the world inevitably forces you to become a reporter. This is clearer in the younger novelists, who’ve not only lapped up the theory on the Theory, but had the infelicity of being born at a time when they’re once again being bullied into political engagement. Someone needs to study why it is that several of the finest English-language stylists have been either apolitical, catholic, conservative or downright right-wingers like Joyce, Burgess, Nabokov, Chesterton, Fr. Rolfe, Theroux, who lived secluded in their hermetic worlds of nostalgia, elitism, pedantry and private obsessions, one of them being polishing phrases to perfection.
Although Masters thinks otherwise, his approach doesn’t differ a lot from LeClair’s; he also subordinates rhetoric to theory. The “ethics” in the subtitle was not reassuring. His book is in fact a very good study of what is known in Academe as the Ethical Turn. And what a DeLorean that was! I hadn’t thought about it in over a decade. The Ethical Turn is a school of theory derived from Wayne C. Booth’s The Company We Keep (1988). After linguistics had dominated literary studies in the 1960s and 1970s, Booth proposed to study literature not only in how they discuss and present ethical situations but also how reading affects the reader, and whether it can affect him into positive action. Bear in mind that he was escaping from 20 years of French morosophes abusing books as nothing more than autonomous linguistic structures that rendered author, reader, and the world outside the text irrelevant. When I was a student I sympathized with Booth because the dominant trends, Structuralism and Post-Structuralism, were so repulsed by the reactionary reminder that literature should also deal with ethical dilemmas and be about the stuff of life, that my natural tendency to root for the underdog made me wish him success. Well, although I still think so, the risk of literature leaning towards ethics lies not only in leading to a thinning of language, but in being once more reduced to philosophy’s decorative appendix. For instance, when Masters states that Burgess’ and Carter’s novels “illustrate” the ideas of Martha Nussbaum or Dorothy Hale, what we must retort to that is, “No, they don’t,” they were published long before those philosophers began their intellectual activity. This is a perfect example of what Milan Kundera warned about in The Art of the Novel, the tendency to turn novels into mere tools in varied fields of knowledge, when the novel is itself an inquiry into knowledge with its own methods and outcomes.
Masters’ explanation of how style and ethics go hand in hand is not problematic in itself. Excess presents “morality as a nurturing of sensibility rather than the promulgation of precepts and lessons.” I agree. Richly rhetorical fictions “position and prompt the reader” to think about “the kinds of emotive and cerebral work that might be carried out by style.” Instead of being didactic or moralizing, it reveals and revels in the complexity of existence, or to use Burgess’ words, it “can make clearer the whole business of moral choice by showing what the nature of life’s problems is.” Excess, thus, is more apt to suggest than command since it’s omnimodous like the world itself, it’s messy, ambiguous, difficult, and so represents more truthfully human experience of reality, that daily “challenging opacity of truth” that we face. I agree too. This leads to many good insights: “Alex’s colorful language forms a vital index to the types of creativity and freedom of choice that the state tries to rob him of. Language therefore becomes a mode of resistance, deconstructing the black-and-white inviolability of moral and societal convention through its own ambiguousness and adaptability.” The themes of determinism and free will ingrain themselves in the style, at the sentence level. The chapter on Carter is lucid in showing how her use of buts, ifs and maybes submerges the world in constant uncertainty and change via imagination, as an example of how the reader can herself transform the world through creativity. And this is as good a description of how excess operates on the reader’s conscience as I’ve ever found:
Generally speaking, I believe that dynamics like digression, extrapolation, discursiveness, elaboration, maneuverability, proliferation, and inclusiveness – dynamics that the novel as a form is especially conducive to – are more fully realized by an elaborate prose style. The strongest works of the stylists of excess find their ethical force in expansive thought, by which I mean their ability to elaborate and, indeed, to luxuriate; to think critically and associatively. Their authors are interested in how these effects not only embody and encourage methods of attentiveness, but in how they convey substantive kinds of transformation. These are hypotactical thinkers, concerned with the ways many things interconnect and mutually affect one another, rather than how things merely accumulate. Their best books value inquisitiveness over acquisitiveness, and therefore promote the qualitative and evaluative over the quantitative and neutral.
However, I don’t understand how this precludes minimalist novels from producing similar effects. Not all of them preach, not all of them are straightforward. The ambiguity of Camus’ The Stranger lies precisely in its anodyne language. When Meursault says, “My mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don't know,” and pages later he’s laughing at the movies, the text doesn’t instruct the reader on how to think about him. Is his behavior condemnable? Is he immoral or amoral because of his seeming emotional detachment? What I mean is that excess doesn’t have a monopoly on this strategy of insinuation and ambiguity. The minimalist Beckett, I think it was William H. Gass who wrote it somewhere, never uses the word absurd; we assume that the world is absurd from what he enacts, not from direct statements. Camus and Beckett work through juxtaposition and neutral language to suggest rather than telling. Beckett, by the way, was admired by writers of excess like Gass, West, and Theroux, who wrote a master thesis on him. Masters may have contributed to showing that “stylistic excess is key to the kinds of ethical interaction between author, character, and reader that I have been describing,” but his vaunted purpose of showing its uniqueness in opposition to minimalism in the domain of ethics is not convincing.
Excess more than ever needs an ethical defense because Masters is aware that he’s living in a world where James Wood’s opinions make things happen. His protean presence haunts the book: he’s explained, disputed, deferred to, and it goes without saying that when a negative review of Carter or Amis is quoted, more often than not it’s by him. Masters assumes that excess can’t be defended unless he deals with Wood’s two famous essays, “Human, All Too Inhuman” and “Tell me how does it feel?” However, unlike others in the past who’ve contended with Wood, ethics seriously bothers him.
We, then, come back to the urgency of justification; making fiction ancillary to something else is a way of abating the risk of its frivolity. “Style is morality”, a young Amis defensively told his dad when he blasted Nabokov. What else could he have said? “Go fuck yourself, old man, Nabokov writes circles around you?” Factual, but not very filial. Style, remember, must always justify itself. Burgess, Carter and Amis “are marred by moments of waywardness that are difficult to justify,” Masters says. Too often they use language just for its sake, without using it to illustrate ethical complexities. This reminds me of Roland Barthes’ Writing Degree Zero, the popular post-war apology of plain prose. I happen to live in a country where Barthes held so much malevolent influence during the 1960s that book reviewers policed novels for their imagery and pulled out the cuffs on whoever dared to use “metaphors without justification,” whatever that may be. That’s probably as good as reason as to why we never had a Burgess and a Carter. Masters has no clue how blessed he is for those moments of waywardness. The alternative is not a pretty sight. It seems unthinkable, if not sinful, that a novelist should want to indulge in rhetorical excess because it’s fun and enjoyable, because it’s personally challenging, because it’s his nature. What purpose could Christian Bök have had in writing a lipogram like Eunoia if not to prove to himself that he could do it?
But if the justification is not to be found in the author, we can always chalk it up to the epoch’s particularities. So Masters wants the reader to entertain the possibility that these writers go for excess because they are “conscious of writing out of excessive times”, and then juxtaposes them with Eric Hobsbawm’s “Age of Extremes” (there you go, Theory). If such a connection exists, does that mean the other thousands of writers are oblivious to the age being extreme? Did the more restrained Kundera, who knows a thing or two about totalitarian regimes, miss Hobsbawm’s memo? And, I wonder, what was extreme about 5th century BC Greece when “poetic prose” was invented by Gorgias, the spiritual father of rhetorical excess? Or in the 11th century that gave us al-Hariri and his maqama in rhymed prose? The 16th century of Rabelais and Lyly? The 17th century of Baroque preachers? The early 19th century of Moby Dick? Ever since mankind has learned to write, writers have been elasticating and magnifying language. In fact, the debate between excess and moderation is as old as the Greek orators who pitted the Attic style against the Asian style. Its longevity indicates that mankind needs excess as much as its needs moderation. The matter is defending excess it against its detractors. Even Masters’ arguments are familiar.
Given the direction he takes, I was surprised he failed to mention Robert Scholes’ The Fabulators (1967). Half a century ago Scholes also went about defending novelists of rhetorical excess. He called “fabulators” to those whom we nowadays call, although the terminology didn’t exist back then, the early postmodernists. (Burgess: “I think postmodernism, as it’s called, which is a ridiculous phrase, is contained in modernism.”) That was Nabokov, Durrell, Burgess, Barth, Hawkes. He noticed that beginning in the 1950s a series of novels had showed up at the same time which, after decades of crude realism and plain prose, had rescued form and storytelling. Inevitably this led them to being chastised for ignoring ethical content in detriment of style. Back then Scholes was already aware that they were under attack for being cold, inhumane, emotionless, too cerebral. His defense was both of their highly rhetorical excess and of their complex ethics. When Masters notices that his chosen authors, for instance, “regard writerly style as a form of commitment – whether it be a commitment to particularity, complexity, curiosity, free-play, individuality, or simply to seeing things anew” in order to suggest to the reader “new ways of existing in and thinking through the difficulties and paradoxes of contemporary reality,” he’s arriving at similar conclusions as Scholes.
According to Scholes, this type of novelist “[tends] away from the representation of reality but returns toward actual human life by way of ethically controlled fantasy.” He will “exploit language’s distinctively human perspective on life. In competition with the cold and lidless eye of cinema the sightless book must turn to the dark world of the imagination, illuminating it by the uniquely vision to be found in words.” As such, this fiction will entail “a less realistic and more artistic kind of narrative: more shapely, more evocative; more concerned with ideas and ideals, less concerned with things.” (The things bit dates it: Scholes didn’t ignore that from France serious thought was coming about abolishing character, killing metaphor, and turning the novel into an inventory of objects; if The Fabulators has a Devil, it’s called Alain Robbe-Grillet.) In these Fabulators “we do not find the rhetoric of moral certainty,” for they “do not seek the superior position of traditional moralists. Nor do they point to other times and customs as repositories of moral values, or to any traditional system as The Law.” Instead, they “nourish our consciences without requiring reduction to a formula,” using formal play. As such, they do not propose “fixed ethical positions which we can complacently assume, but such thoughts as exercise our consciences and help us keep our humanity in shape, ready to respond to the humanity of others.” Now this idea of empathy is crucial to Masters when he deals with 21st century excesstylists, who supposedly differ from the colder, more cerebral, more formalist Burgess, Carter and Amis in that their novels seek to “realize human consciousness and to investigate what it is to know another human being.”
How did we get to the simplistic prejudice that these stylists wrote cold and lifeless novels? Well, as Scholes’ passionate defense indicates, it’s an old story, but it’s telling that Masters’ plea for modern fiction to “investigate what it is to know another human being” echoes David Foster Wallace’s claim that “fiction's about what it is to be a fucking human being.” That’s what makes James Wood’s attack on “hysterical realism” one of the funniest equivocations of modern literature; few novelists and book reviewers were ever so aligned on the purpose of fiction as DFW and Wood were. Although DFW is considered the heir of the original postmodernists, he’s also connected to the rise of the New Sincerity, a trend in fiction concomitant with the Ethical Turn; both overlap in their goals of puling fiction away from cynicism, emotional emptiness and the self-consciousness of postmodernist fiction, towards a fiction that deals with “plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction. Who eschew self-consciousness and hip fatigue.” No wonder DFW targeted Barth for parody. Actually, what his generation did so well was precisely popularize the myth of emotional deficiency often attributed to their predecessors; he was a hardly alone in this or a pioneer.
Going retroactively about it, let’s start with Jonathan Franzen’s “Mr. Difficult” essay against William Gaddis (2002), which begins as an understandable complaint on difficulty and obscurity (Gaddis is difficult and obscure), but soon these are revealed to be codewords for what really bothers him, namely the fact that as he plodded through The Recognitions the “emotional temperature of the novel started cold and got colder”, and that the author’s “satiric judgments and intellectual obsessions discouraged intimacy.” With whom? The author? The characters? Why doubt, impatient reader? This is Franzen, read on, he won’t keep you in the dark for long, he’s not an asshole like Gaddis. “But postmodern fiction wasn't supposed to be about sympathetic characters.” (Aha!) “Characters, properly speaking, weren't even supposed to exist.” (False.) Before Franzen, however, his pal David wrote the famous “E Unibus Pluram” essay (1993), which has been quoted so many times we can skip it. But before that, William T. Vollmann had already written for Conjunction magazine (1990) the interesting “American Writing Today: A Diagnosis of the Disease”, which contained a set of guidelines for the New Novelist to which DFW would have enthusiastically subscribed:
1. We should never write without feeling.
2. Unless we are much more interesting than we imagine we are, we should strive to feel not only about Self, but also about Other. Not the vacuum so often between Self and Other. Not the unworthiness of Other. Not the Other as a negation or eclipse of Self. Not even about the Other exclusive of Self, because that is but a trickster-egoist’s way of worshiping Self secretly. We must treat Self and Other as equal partners. (Of course I am suggesting nothing new. I do not mean to suggest anything new. Health is more important than novelty.)
3. We should portray important human problems.
4. We should seek for solutions to those problems. Whether or not we find them, the seeking will deepen the portrait.
5. We should know our subject, treating it with the respect with which Self must treat Other. We should know it in all senses, until our eyes are bleary from seeing it, our ears ring from listening to it, our muscles ache from embracing it, our gonads are raw from making love to it. (If this sounds pompous, it is perhaps because I wear thick spectacles.)
6. We should believe that truth exists.
7. We should aim to benefit others in addition to ourselves.
Basically, in the late 1980s rising young novelists, still weaned on post-modernism but tired of its alleged hollowness, tried to create a softer, gentler version, to inject in fiction sincerity, warmth, no-nonsense discussion of ethics, to fuse its formal innovations with the old business of illuminating the human condition, because apparently mediocre novels like Lolita, J R and The Sot-Weed Factor had done a lousy job at that. They, especially DFW, in turn exerted tremendous influence on British fiction, which as we’ve seen had been under the influence of the USA since Burgess. “The project is to become an American novelist,” Amis once stated. Zadie was certainly thinking along similar lines when apropos of Foster Wallace she gushed, “these are guys who know a great deal about the world. They understand macro-microeconomics, the way the Internet works, math, philosophy, but . . . they’re still people who know something about the street, about family, love, sex, whatever. That is an incredibly fruitful combination. If you can get the balance right.” She thought she could, until a terrorist attack and a Wood essay made her have a change of art.
I never saw Smith as a stylist of excess, or even as a stylist; to my mind, “stylist” doesn’t need modifiers, the word itself contains the idea of excess. No, she’s always struck me as a dependable and disposable dispenser of middlebrow fiction with tame, easy-to-follow sentences. But if she ever was such a thing, she hasn’t been so in a long, long time. She strikes me as too unstable in her infatuations. She also craves too much to be with the right crowd, whatever that may be at a particular moment. She needs to be instructed, to follow, to belong. She finds no solace in the solitude of self-assertiveness. So once upon a time she wanted to be a maximalist like DFW. But wait!, Wood has just written a damning essay and look at her rushing to agree with him on the importance of otherness in fiction. But wait!, meanwhile she’s read Remainder and now she’s predicting the future of the novel and choosing the wooden Tom McCarthy over the Woodian Joseph O’Neill, a minimalist clearly plastered on Robbe-Grillet’s project to annihilate character and hence not only otherness but actually humanity from novels, leaving in its place nothing but tedious descriptions of objects. Alterity, here we go! But wait!, actually she’s just read Karl Ove Knausgård’s My Struggle and “It’s unbelievable… It’s completely blown my mind,” even though its focus on old-fashioned interiority, memory and the description of emotions places it in a pre-historic position to the future she envisioned for the novel as hand-led by Monsieur McCarthy. Anyone doubts that in a few years we’ll be seeing her attempt at autofiction? I wouldn’t be surprised because she can’t settle on anything; that’s what she does, she follows, she emulates whatever has recently excited her. After all, and although Masters tries to argue otherwise, it’s not a coincidence that the minimalist NW was her next novel after she praised the equally minimalist Remainder. And although Masters never brings this up, as he should have, I need only compare one novel:
About the accident itself I can say very little. Almost nothing. It involved something falling from the sky. Technology. Parts, bits. That’s it, really: all I can divulge. Not much, I know.
It’s not that I’m being shy. It’s just that – well, for one, I don’t even remember the event. It’s a blank: a white slate, a black hole. (Remainder)
with the other:
The fat sun stalls by the phone masts. Anti-climb paint turns sulphurous on school gates and lamp posts. In Willesden people go barefoot, the streets turn European, there is a mania for eating outside. She keeps to the shade. Redhead. On the radio. I am the sole author of the dictionary that defines me. A good line – write it out on the back of a magazine. In a hammock, in the garden of a basement flat. Fenced in, on all sides. (NW)
to find the same ordinary vocabulary, the same short, choppy sentences. Few verbs. The same straightforward SVO syntax. The avoidance of subordinate clauses. The sentences always moving forward, nauseated by the indecency of lingering on details. Nothing is worth a prolonged look because the drab, ugly, joyless, burdensome world in the minds of McCarthy and Smith is unworthy of celebration. Thanks, but I’ll take Burgess’ unjustified but jovial and elaborate waywardness instead.
If Smith proves anything, it’s not that the concept of excess has evolved and mutated, it’s that minimalism is making a comeback, if it ever left in the first place. Around the same time she was starting her career, a British anthology was coming out called All Hail the New Puritan composed of writers who publicly and proudly declared themselves minimalists. Let’s consider one of its verbal pearls: "For dinner, Mark's mum has Chunky Monkey ice-cream. Me and Mark's dad have egg and chips, sitting in the lounge watching Neighbours From Hell." Doesn’t this sound like something that could naturally show up in NW? So that’s Zadie and Tom, and a bunch of writers who since this anthology have ascended to prominent positions in British fiction; if we add Eimear McBride, whose style is identical, I’d say, contra Masters, that minimalism is alive in kicking in Albion.
He’s aware of this, of course. After quoting from NW he concedes: “On these sentences alone, NW might seem a strange book to call upon as evidence in a defense of stylistic excess. The reader could easily believe that he or she is stepping into a minimalist world.” You better bet on it, Ben! Actually, it is worrying that, confronted by the evidence, he often admits the obvious. Of course he notices the “minimalist style” in the Somni section in Cloud Atlas, of course he knows that in chunks of NW “we find only unadorned dialogue”, and yet he stubbornly skirts the conclusion. And why is it that Cloud Atlas is never allowed a single large quote in order for the reader to judge Mitchell’s rhetorical skills for himself? If you’ve seen the movie adaptation, which is pretty good, you’ll know why; it’s well-made, the 6 narratives are gripping, satisfying and very cinematic, which is a sure sign that the novel doesn’t depend a lot on language, that nothing crucial was lost from one medium to another.
If Masters’ book shows anything, it’s the Americanization of British excess. To my mind, there are two types of excess. I don’t want to get too schematic about this, it’s just a tentative theory, but I do believe there’s a British type and an American type. The British type has its roots in Shakespeare’s wordplay but especially John Lyly’s euphuism. As William Blake wrote, “excess is beauty”. Excess generates beauty, they’re interconnected. Nothing is more excessive than the universe itself, or cosmos, from which we derive cosmetics. Excess is not just ornamentation, excess is a type of orderliness, or harmony. Cosmos, for the Greeks, was not just the sum of the material universe, it implied order, shape, arrangement, the orderly universe, as opposed to chaos, formlessness. To my mind, that’s what Blake is getting at. Excess, in trying to live up to the universe, produces that kind of orderliness that we find in nature, in its laws, in the orbits of planets and fractal patterns, in the mysterious reoccurrence of the golden ration in nature, in the clockwork design that makes the universe look like it was tailor-made to house us, so perfect a small change in its proportions would have made the emergence of life impossible. This isn’t a creationist tract, my point is that the only human-made type of perfection I know that rivals the universe’s elegance is to be found, for instance, in the novels of Nabokov, wherein the displacement of a single word seems augur chaos. That, to me, is beauty. It exists in Fr. Rolfe, the Joyce of Finnegans Wake, Burgess, Carter. Does it exist, however, in the novels of a Zadie Smith, can the person who’s written “Two Paths for the Novel” and mocked and sneered at metaphor, florid language, lyricism, beauty, really belong in this tradition?
Then there’s American excess. The USA is a country founded by Puritans, a Protestant sect which destroyed churches because of their ornamentation and preached a plain, austere style in opposition to the glorious sermons of John Donne and Jeremy Taylor. American excess begins with Melville’s Moby Dick. Its excess has little to do with alliteration, metaphors, wordplay, assonance, although he’s no slouch at that. But what immediately impresses is its accumulative excess. There’s a fear of idleness in Moby Dick, much like the Protestant who thinks his soul will be saved by hard work. Melville fills it up with material, apparently worried that his peers would think he hadn’t worked hard enough on it. You can sniff the sweet smell of library sweat off its sentences. It betrays a puritan busy-ness, as if the novel could be saved by its diligence. Research, toil, hoard, prosper, that’s how you achieve salvation. How to justify a novel to people who thought the only book worth reading was the Bible anyway? I guess one solution is to compose it as if it were a holy book.
Puritanism has long provided a useful nemesis to British novelists of excess, it builds up their rage. When Amis alludes to euphuism, he’s talking about a pre-Puritan novelist whose style was exactly the exorbitant messiness that led Bishop Sprat to “reject all amplifications, digressions, and swellings of style” and to transform the Royal Academy in a bulwark of “primitive purity and shortness” pining for an idyllic time “when men delivered so many things almost in an equal number of words.” So was Burgess anathematizing himself when he remarked that his “temperament” was “closer to that of the baroque writers than that of the stark toughies. To hell with cheeseparing and verbal meanness: it all reeks of Banbury puritanism.” The wild card in the United States was a foreigner called Vladimir Nabokov who introduced a euphuistic approach to style and gulled a few into writing like him. And it is remarkable that 1955 marks the year both types of excess flourished in modern English-language literature: Lolita and The Recognitions came out, one would influence Burgess and Amis, Gass and Theroux (who also has something of Melville); the other would influence Pynchon, DFW, Vollmann, you name it. This variety was a good thing, both types are acceptable and while they co-existed it was a great time for the novel.
However, that’s in the past. The problem lies in the excess of one type of excess. Everything now is beginning to reek of Banbury puritanism. The tendency, as Masters makes it clear, is for rhetorical excess to go extinct because it no longer seduces young novelists. American excess, less rhetorical, more encyclopedic, has taken over their imaginations: David Mitchell is an example. That’s what Novel Style shows. The type of excess Masters thinks he’s defending, the rhetorical kind, is dying. If Amis could still look up to Nabokov, Smith’s model is Infinite Jest. Wood wasn’t wrong about hysterical realism: what this type of excess excels at is storytelling, too much in fact. Burgess, Carter and Amis turned their elitist noses at plot. But plot, nothing but the plot, is all you get in Smith’s early novels and in Cloud Atlas. Episodes, subplots, detours, surprises, twists, little stories within stories, self-contained narratives nestled in nooks, the kind of thing you get in Pynchon and Barth. That’s why Cloud Atlas did so well in cinema, it’s just narrative. Likewise, Sergio De La Pava’s A Naked Singularity is an excellent novel, not only because of the language, its electrifying colloquialism, but because its plot is as gripping as the crime novel it’s pretending not to be, and because Casi, the protagonist, is likeable and sincere and unironic, and because from it emanates an old-fashioned aura of gravitas that seems revolutionary in our blasé times. So modern excess is the fusion of puritanism and populism, plainness and plot, the hatred of beauty and rhetoric allied to the craving for stories. Those who grew up with cinema and movies have no interest in rhetoric, beauty is a depreciated value, but plot and instant self-gratification sell. As the popularity of TV shows grows, and since most novelists consume them, the so-called “literary novels” are bound to become more like them and less like artistic novels. So it’s no wonder that as the novelists Nabokov gulled continue to die one by one, nobody’s replacing them. Style is doomed to go extinct, crushed between the recrudescence of minimalism and the popularity of big novels, big on facts but too thin on tropes and figures of speech.
Style is elitist. Style builds walls. Excess is an exigent exercise. Plot, on the other hand, is democratic. Otherwise you wouldn’t get it on TV in one hundred different flavors a week. Everyone loves plot. Excess doesn’t belong to this time of mediocrity; it screams meritocracy, and that troubles the reader. So the concept of excess slowly changes; Masters may be convinced that he’s interested in rhetorical excess of the euphuistic kind, but by the end of the book he’s already rebuffing “literary games” like LeClair. According to him, 21st century excess thrives on polyphony and different registers. That’s nice, but if you use 10 different points of view in a novel, and they all share the same background and education, they’re going to sound the same, and there won’t be much opportunity for rhetorical showing off at the sentence level. And you may have many registers, as is common to find in contemporary novels, you know, now a section in tweets, now a section in emails, now a chapter like an IRS form (how exciting!), maybe a chapter structured like a job interview, or how about a CV, etc., oh, how we love those little pastiches, but if each different register springs from mundane speech, isn’t that just miserliness masquerading as Midas’ touch?
Masters also argues that “excess functions in a variety of ways”, although I’m not convinced. To him, this new excess resorts to parenthetical asides, abrupt ends of sentences, thoughts overlapping to mimic modern-day cacophony. Here’s an example from Nicola Barker’s Darkmans
Riding on the tiny wave he’d created were a series of small, black boars – little, dark canoes, vying with each other to win the race to the bathroom wall. He blinked –
-not canoes but feathers. Black feathers. He peered down at his feet again –
-and discovered that the plughole in the shower cubicle had actually become blocked by them…
He made an idle scratching motion in the air with his hand –
-He smiled –
-he shook his head again, dissatisfied. He idly prodded at the feathers with his toe, then he bent over, stiffly, and grabbed at them with his fingers.
Someone may enjoy reading this, but besides showing that the dash is a major constituent of modern excess, I guess it proves there’s no such thing as modern excess. What I find curious about these techniques is how they’re all cinematic. Polyphony exists in Scorsese movies with his multiple narrators. Parenthetical asides, a misguided attempt to bring a sense of simultaneity to the novel that it can never have (you don’t know that!) because we read words one by one (well, try reading faster…), are similar to voice narrating over action. The abrupt cuts employed by Barker can be likened to jump-cut editing and the camera changing perspectives. And the weaving of multiple narratives, like in Cloud Atlas, is again a product of editing. Now, all of this may be put to good use, but it’s not rhetorically exhilarating. You can have 10 different people narrating a novel, but if those 10 people write like semiliterate drop outs, so what? You can have 6 different narratives in different times and places and planets, but if they’re all written in a straightforward, journalistic way, so what? Masters recognizes that the Somni part in Cloud Atlas is minimalist. Is the rest any different?
Thursday, 7th November
Beyond the Indian hamlet, upon a forlorn strand, I happened on a trail of recent footprints. Through rotting kelp, sea cocoa nuts & bamboo, the tracks led me to their maker, a White man, his trowzers & Pea-jacket rolled up, sporting a kempt beard & an outsized Beaver, shoveling and sifting the cindery sand with a teaspoon so intently that he noticed me only after I had hailed him from ten years away. Thus it was, I made the acquaintance of Dr. Henry Goose, surgeon to the London nobility. His nationality was no surprise. If there be any eyrie so desolate, or isle so remote, that one may there resort unchallenged by an Englishman, ‘tis not down on any map I ever saw.
This is the novel’s opening. It’s informative, it’s helpful, it deploys information quickly, it avoid too many details. It’s a chummy, helpful novel. Sure, it tries to fool you: perhaps you’ve noticed the little tics, the “&” and the uncommon spelling to give it a faux 19th century make-up, but this is quite subdued. It guides you, it reassures you. You know this part is going to be an easy read. Then another part starts and it continues in this chummy fashion. Mitchell, like Melville, knows lots of things: he knows about 19th century slave trade, early 20th century music, corporate espionage, the book industry, science. Like a nice novelist brought up on American excess, he knows lots of things. Like many of them, he’s also banal at the sentence level. I’m trying to understand what makes his novel more excessive than any average novel. It’s restrained, it hands out the visual information you need, no more, no less. I bet the costume designer loved to know that Tom Hanks was supposed to be dressed in trousers and a Pea-jacket. And yet, nothing’s going on with the language. It’s a dull, inert, lifeless thing. We no longer have stylists, just plotters prone to pun-pruning.
Novel Style has helped me clarify a few ideas. First of all, the old postmodernists could do with a reassessment. Masters sets up his study as if they were deficient in ethics. Now it’s acceptable that Franzen, DFW and Vollmann thought so. Every new generation finds the previous one at fault. Sure, they were trying to escape from under the shadow of their gigantic ancestors. This is Literary History 101. It’s acceptable for novelists to believe that; building up targets is useful to go on; nothing makes you want to push on like having a wall in front of you to demolish. But critics should not partake in this bias. What we need now is to reassess them, maybe by giving a good look at Scholes’ The Fabulators. He was busy trying to defend the ethics of postmodernism half a century ago. Instead of insisting that the post-modernists were hollow, unemphatic, cold, we ought to rethink them without biases. I’ve found joy and consolation in their novels, Alex’s ultra-violence has given me insight into life. I’ve found humanity in The Tunnel and J R. I see no lack of tenderness in Darconville’s Cat. These are perceptive novels, they enact complex situations. Masters is original in trying to bridge two apparent opposites: excess and ethics; he wants Nabokov and Wood at the same time, and he’s idealistic enough to judge that possible. So do I. We just differ in that I think that has already been achieved in Nabokov’s best novels, whereas Masters remains in thrall of old prejudices.
It’s also clearer to me now how right Tim Parks was a few years ago when he warned about the rise of the “global novel”. I wonder if novelists like Burgess could get international recognition nowadays. Style doesn’t translate well. I don’t doubt that out there in the wide world novelists like him are hard at work, but I wonder if they’ll ever be more than regional curiosities. The modern world is made for Mitchell and Smith to triumph with their international language. More and more translating will be akin to flushing a toilet. If you want to get the good stuff, you better learn foreign languages. Masters’ excess is “excess” for global consumption, which means it’s not excess at all or it wouldn’t be consumed globally.
Masters and LeClair want a justification for excess that goes beyond its rhetorical dexterity. I, on the other hand, want an apology of it based on style. But perhaps that’s impossible; perhaps excess can’t be written about, only savored. And now I realize why I prefer short essays like West’s and Theroux’s, they don’t feel obliged to put up an ethical defense, and they are themselves examples of their their peculiar styles, are themselves objects of excess. In the end, only excess justifies excess. When West thought of excess, or “purple prose”, he thought like Burgess and Amis of a pre-Puritan era, “Elizabethan or Jacobean: fine language, all the way from articulate frenzy to garish excess.” He never bothered with ethics, even if his novels are ethically engaged. No, for him purple
is the world written up, intensified and made pleasurably palpable, not only to suggest the impetuous abundance of Creation, but also to add to it by showing - showing off - the expansive power of the mind itself, its unique knack for making itself at home among trees, dawns, viruses, and then turning them into something else: a word, a daub, a sonata. The impulse here is to make everything larger than life, almost to overrespond, maybe because, habituated to life written down, in both senses, we become inured and have to be awakened with something almost intolerably vivid. When the deep purple blooms, you are looking at a dimension, not a posy.
This brings us back us to Blake: excess as beauty, excess as a representation of the universe itself. For West, purple is how we, the microcosmos, interact with the macrocosmos, how we make ourselves at home in this threatening universe. It’s a way of giving order to things and of being more honest with our condition, since the “plain, the homespun, the banal, is itself a form of betrayal, a refusal to look honestly at a complex universe.” Purple, instead, causes “exhilaration” and a “sense of metaphysical fear.” I like the part of the exhilaration, that’s a very Scholes thing. He was concerned with “what makes our experience of fiction a good experience,” that is, the pleasure in reading, the defense of which was also part of his intentions. That’s one of the aspects so often overlooked by those who despise excess. Excess, you see, is pleasurable. Perhaps that’s why the pleasure-hating Puritans hounded eloquence, form and beauty. Theroux, in his essay, evokes Saint Augustine’s eruditam voluptam, the pleasure of knowledge. I think critics, moralists in disguise, too often want the novel to teach us what to do for others, but ignore what the novel should do for us. Rather than helping, perhaps it should start by giving us pleasure, consoling us, showing us beauty. I think we suffers not from a lack of empathy, but from a lack of beauty. Why should anyone care about others when fiction portrays everything as dysphemic? Most novels I read seem intent on terrifying me with how awful the world is, as if TV weren’t doing a great job at that already. Mental health, learning to adjust to the world, has to do with experiencing beauty. Not nice feelings, not good-hearted messages, but formal beauty, beauty contained in style, shown through rhetorical eloquence, in the bliss we can only get from admiring the music of a sentence or its elegant shape.
It's now common to lament that we humans have been dehumanized, that’s why we’re so violent, nasty, selfish, so incapable of thinking about others; maybe, but I think it’s the opposite: we’re like that because we're too human still. We could benefit from being dehumanized a bit more and treated more like words. We should treat others the way stylists treat words. Imagine that Eden! Imagine if a politico spent as much time with people as Alexander Theroux evidently does with the dictionary; imagine if your boss valued you the way Burgess valued language; imagine a parent raising a child with the loving patience Joyce raised a pun; imagine your friends wanting to improve you the way Nabokov wanted to improve his metaphors; imagine a president making the careful decisions Gass made when he chose a word to make a sentence sound better. Just imagine being demanded a level of excellence stylists demand for themselves when crafting a paragraph. Such a world would be ethical, smart, generous, playful, joyful. Masters thinks suggesting is better than telling. But suggesting is just circumlocutious telling. The best is being. For me excess teaches by example, by just being what it is, by providing an instance of excellence when we’re too often pressured to settle for the shabby, by offering a glimpse into a more refined order, a fuller relationship between us and the universe which also includes others.