Sunday, March 2, 2008

Some Letters to the Editor Eclipse Reviews

This letter to the editor is from today's New York Times Sunday Book Review. I love to see someone deconstruct a sentence like this, and the one he includes from Atonement is one of my favorites by McEwan.

To the Editor:

Never have I finished an outright rave — and a front-page one at that — less convinced of a novel’s merits than I was at the end of Liesl Schillinger’s review of Charles Bock’s “Beautiful Children” (Feb. 3). It is only the latest example in a worrisome trend of slathering praise upon the prose of a certain genus of writer — Marisha Pessl comes to mind — who operates in a constant, hysterical pitch, at the expense of precision, lucidity and memorable elegance.

Schillinger approvingly quotes a sentence of Bock’s: “Electricity lit up Ponyboy’s skeletal structure as if it were a pinball machine on a multi-ball extravaganza, and the mingling odors of brimstone and sulfur and sweat and burning skin filled Ponyboy’s nostrils.” This describes, we are told, the administration of Ponyboy’s newest tattoo. It is easy to see why, in the current literary climate, this sentence attracts admiration: it loudly conflates the human body and the book’s setting, Las Vegas; it declares the obsolescence of the comma as it pounds out a list of nouns; its zeal for gaudy metaphor nearly splits it at the seams; and it turns up the biblical volume with the sinister “brimstone.”

But the sentence suffers from several conspicuous flaws. For one, it lurks at the edge of tenability when it describes the electricity illuminating Ponyboy’s “skeletal structure.” It then attempts to shoehorn in the metaphor of a pinball machine, whose vividness further divorces the sentence’s central idea from a credible reality, and then finally, in order, I imagine, to deploy four nouns rather than three, it falls irritatingly into redundancy: brimstone and sulfur, as a quick trip to the dictionary will confirm, are synonyms.

This is only one sentence of many. (Bock’s novel clocks in at 417 pages.) But it is telling that Schillinger chooses to cite it — her admiration for this particular species of sentence is symptomatic of what American critics have lately been letting pass as good prose, just as her admiration for the novel as a whole represents a troubling tendency to confuse page count with ambition and rambling, undercooked writing with originality. A day after reading that sentence, and many others that have been similarly praised in recent years, one is left not with a cogent, gripping image, but only the residual odor of sulfur and brimstone, and a wish for more writing that, like Ian McEwan’s, lodges firmly, even painfully in the mind. It is difficult to forget a sentence like this, from “Atonement”: “The world, the social world, was unbearably complicated, with two billion voices, and everyone’s thoughts striving in equal importance and everyone’s claim on life as intense, and everyone thinking they were unique, when no one was.”

Ian MacKenzie

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