Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Where's that Book?

Attention much divided lately: writing projects coming due, a set of student papers waiting in my bag to be marked, lots of things I want to read (as usual). Ploughing my way thru Philip K. Dick’s VALIS trilogy. I suppose I got over my bad reaction to the prose by about halfway thru VALIS, when the main characters attend the film and the whole novel shifts into this kind of paranoiac mode that always appeals to me – Crying of Lot 49, Foucault’s Pendulum. The comments on my first Dick post several days ago were instructive: I can’t help quoting Ben Friedlander’s at length:
Dick's style is not a matter of beautiful sentences but concentration and speed. [Yes, but isn’t that true of Hemingway or James M. Cain?] With other writers, there are whole novels one could summarize in a single paragraph; in Dick, there are single paragraphs one could use an entire novel to explain. This is part of the rhetoric of science fiction: the story is situated in a fully realized world, though that world is never entirely explored or explained. But Dick was one of the first writers to deploy this rhetoric for purely aesthetic ends--and he did so by taking one of the most disparaged writers in the field as his muse, A. E. Van Vogt. It's no surprise, then, that Dick's stylistic originality often looks like "bad" writing; nor that his particular innovation would appeal to Jameson. (In Marxism and Form Jameson says that style is what replaces rhetoric in middle-class culture.) To be sure, Dick's books often bear the scars of their commercial origin, but the best among them--my own favorite of the ten or so I've read is Dr. Bloodmoney--have a stylistic appeal perfectly suited to their origin. Quotation gets at some of this appeal, but description often gets at more. So I don't believe that Jameson is merely slumming when he draws on Dick's "outrageous" scenarios and premises for his own "beautifully convoluted theorization," though it may be true that Dick serves for him as A. E. Van Vogt served for Dick himself.

Well, I never said that Jameson was “slumming” when he reads Dick; but I think Ben and I might be talking past each other when we talk about "style." I’m perfectly willing to allow PKD his innovations – and now that I’m thru The Divine Invasion and itching to read the whole corpus, I think I may well be hooked as I haven’t been with a SF writer for a long time – but when I say “style,” I mean no more or less than “prose style.” And even in the matter of “concentration and speed,” I can think of a half-dozen writers who do it less sloppily than Dick.
Kenneth Cox, many of whose sentences I would trade for most critics' whole books: "One of the few to have possessed the secret of melodious English Joyce is of all writers the most Mozartian. He made the life that originally filled him with such horror appear in verbal recollection lovely and such fun. The difficulty with his writing is simply the limit set by human nature to the accumulation of aesthetic pleasure."
I took a pass on the Scorcese Dylan documentary that has so many folks so exercised lately; I’ll probably rent it sometime. I confess that I’ve never felt any real adulation for Dylan, tho I probably have twenty or so of his CDs, and a few of the songs pretty much imprinted on my mind. I guess I just don’t find him that compelling. As a songwriter, he’s “on” only about 30% of the time, and there’s hardly a song out there that doesn’t have some awkward spot that could have been brilliant with a bit more revision. As a poet – well, everything I’ve read about BD as a poet (and that includes the big book by the current Oxford Chair in Poetry, Christopher Ricks) reads like special pleading. So shoot me. For the nonce I’m watching Richard Thompson Live from Austin, TX: now there’s a songwriter whose work would reward some close readings.
Josh Corey sends a quote from Andreas Huyssens’s After the Great Divide as a birthday offering. I go to reread the essay & look for the book, only to find it near the bottom on the “handy” stack next to the back door, near the table on the porch where I do most of heavy reading. It’s there on the bottom left, between Terry Eagleton’s Heathcliff and the Great Hunger and the second volume of Tim Hilton’s life of Ruskin. I gotta get more shelves, and soon.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

No, you didn't say that Jameson was slumming, only that he switches off a section of his sensibility when he reads Philip K. Dick!

Anyway, I think I know what you mean by "prose style." I just happen to believe that a writer's prose style includes much more than the melodiousness, or whatever, of his or her sentences. How to talk about that? Well, the post-feminist literature on Uncle Tom's Cabin provides a few hints. Or forget that; here's Edmund Wilson on the novel in 1962:

"To expose oneself in maturity to Uncle Tom may...prove a startling experience. It is a much more impressive work than one has ever been allowed to suspect. The first thing that strikes one about it is a certain eruptive force.... Out of a background of undistinguished narrative, inelegantly and carelessly written, the characters leap into being with a vitality that is all the more striking for the ineptitude of the prose that presents them.... [Moreover], the farther one reads in Uncle Tom, the more one becomes aware that a critical mind is at work, which has the complex situation in a very firm grip and which, no matter how vehement the characters become, is controlling and coordinating their interrelations."

That, to my mind, is a pretty good description of Stowe's style: eruptive force, vital action set against a background of undistinguished narration ("inept" is unfair), complex arguments presented in carefully controlled situations. It's not a bad description of Dick's style either.

OK, I must sound like a crank at this point, carrying on about this even after your reasonable explanation of what you meant--not to mention your happy admission of pleasure in Dick's novels, however construed. It's just that some folks like to use "the aesthetic" as a club for beating back "cultural studies." In such a context, it's important (important for me) to put forward an alternative definition of aesthetic categories.

Anyway, I promise to shut up now.

Oh, and belated happy birthday!