Thursday, December 3, 2009

Style vs. Content

This being the week to review a work that was published sometime in past years, preferably before 2000, yu are already in a tingle of excitement at the possibility that this has given you yet another book project in the works to the point where you've even worked out a provisional draft of a proposal to help you guide the proper pieces into place.  For the year or so you have been alternating your reviews of newly published works with works published in the past, you hit upon the term Golden Oldies, which is unfortunate because Golden Oldies suggests radio disc jockeys playing hits from the past.  

You want a better title now, something to suggest books that were read and treasured, say, The Wind in the Willows or The Lord of the Flies, or reviled as, say, Atlas Shrugged or Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?, a term that will attract rather than put off a potential reader.  Okay, start thinking.

The no-longer-Golden-Oldie you've chosen this week is a work much favored by you and a group of friends dating back to your late teens and early twenties to the point where you usurped the name of a convivial organization featured in the book and adapted it to your late-teen, emerging-twenties Southern California life style, even to the point of having chosen a beach just north of Sunset Blvd. and the Pacific Coast Highway, once known as Castle Rock, as a site for gatherings, picnics, and late-night bonfires.  In your then sensitivities, the beach had morphed from Castle Rock to Kiarian Beach.

Thus do these notes become even more a metaphor for the movement you have made from the Camel-smoking, Courvoissier-sipping emerging writer you sought to discover to the non-smoking Sierra Nevada pale ale-sipping individual you are generally recognized to be.  Reason?  The book in question is Thorne Smith's Rain in the Doorway, which is still quite wonderful to the point of having inspired a particular essay for the new book project.  The trampoline for discovery herein is the style, Smith's use of language.  If memory serves, he was an Ivy Leaguer, likely Dartmouth.  His constructions remind you of pastiches of Elizabethan (Liz I) conversation.  It is at its roots authorial point of view, Smith generously attributing thoughts, ideas, and notions to his characters, each of whom, by the way, is generously provided with an attitude if not an agenda.  In your earlier readings of this work, you thought nothing of the style, were perhaps (you are even now trying to remember) entranced with this style, certainly in admiration of it and as a consequence, probably trying to sound like it in you written and spoken speech.

Some few months ago, another friend from those days called you on the telephone after an absence of enough years that his voice was no longer familiar to you.  After a brief exchange of dialogue, he hung up on you with the announcement that you were still, repeat still an arrogant son of a bitch.  From his point of view and a postmodernist take on the conversation, he had every right to think of you as an arrogant son of a bitch because of your own response to the lines of dialogue he presented you with, the very first one being "This is a voice from the past, bearing tidings and omens."  Even now, at this writing, you can understand why such a greeting would cause your attitude switch to turn on.

We are, you believe, effected by verbal and written speech.  Now that you have spent some considerable time fuming, fussing, agonizing over style, somewhat the way you might at a notable restaurant with an intriguing menu, wondering which particular dish and which combination of offerings would best suit you, you were sent into extended reevaluation about what has become your writing style du jour and the ways by which you arrived at it, and indeed, the very way you define what style is (the way you write without thinking about it).

You had been on your way to where you are now when Virginia came into your life and she began making you aware of her own dramatic studies as a stage actor, even to the point of giving you one of her own texts, An Actor Prepares by Constantin Stanislavsky.

Whether the work is fiction or nonfiction, you "prepare" for it by becoming one or more attitudes, goals, personality types, from which point you remind yourself of books on opening-game chess strategy.  Moves, gambits, ambits, defenses.  Part of your response to the Smith text you are reading is to see yourself as you were when you first read him.  Often Smith "prepared" for writing by an injudicious intake of spiritus fermenti.  Although you have on occasions, written things while drunk, they so often proved illegible or unuseful that you moved further along the bell curve to the point of merely writing about drinking and, like Smith, persons who drank a good deal.  When you reached a point where your own drink-related behavior no longer amused you, it was time to move on to other discoveries.

There may be an entire thesis in the work of Thorne Smith; there may be only enough material for an essay or two.  In either case, if in real life he were a mean drunk or a bitter or cynical one, what emerges from his work is an archetype every bit as remarkable as the likes of Capt. Ahab or Wile E. Coyote, and it is this archetype you will pursue in your review and in the as-yet untitled book project.  Smith was an insightful, gentle man who provided a legion of readers with happiness and an imaginative inner life at a time when this country was greatly in need of happiness and an imaginative inner life.  It is a pleasure to wade through the intricacies of his style, parting the curtains as it were, to allow the unabashed good humor and inspiration to move forth and greet us with the courtly bow of a chorus acting as preface to an Elizabethan play.

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