Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Phantom Booth

There are moments in your current revision where you have pause to consider the way your writing style has evolved from, charitably, a step or two beyond the mere linking of declarative sentences, driven by pauses, pacing, and other timing devices to its present state, just beyond rococo, this sentence being a prime example.  You do enjoy the long, languorous sentence, swirling about like a barista's display of ingenious design floating atop your morning latte.  When such a sentence appears between the bookends of shorter, ten- or twelve-word sentences, the effect comprises for you an orchestrated paragraph, one that gets at the intent and movement of your characters, suggesting a vivid pattern of story, setting, and individuals caught up in these media.

This discovery becomes disturbing in its way because you are currently setting aside an hour a day in preparation for your comparative literature class, which begins in two weeks, wherein you will compare and contrast The Ambassadors by Henry James with Foreign Bodies by Cynthia Ozick.  It is not that you have anything against Henry James as it is that you do not have much going for him, while you have much going in favor of Cynthia Ozick.  Not the least of the things you admire about her is the way her characters seem so edgy, jostling one another to get off the page or occupy the window seat or get the waiter's attention by some subtle glance or gesture as opposed to James, whose every sentence seems to you as though it were extracted from conversation at dinner with an individual he had just met and whose social pulse he was attempting to take through that individual's sleeve.

You were not sufficiently drawn into James by your instructors at UCLA, nor were your independent readings of him much help in building the fires of enthusiasm for him as, for apt comparison, Booth Tarkington, 1869-1946.  He and James were near contemporaries.  Both were prolific, trying their hands at various formats.  The difference for you, particularly with The Magnificent Ambersons, but also the Penrod stories and the delightful Mary's Neck, was that you were drawn into the Tarkington because of some sinews of connection to feelings and concern for the effects of the characters.  You were more or less marched into reading James because his works were assigned.  You read them because of the certainty that you would be missing something if you did not read them, and even then, you read them because it was unacceptable for you as an English major to believe that you were not able to see what so many of your peers and instructors got from him.  You still have lingering concerns that had you been more able to see nuance and exquisite moral and psychological layers and concerns in his work, your career would have taken on greater challenges, leading you to become the more polished critical thinker you wished to be.  But you could not "get" James, in large measure because you did not care.  You did "get"Tarkington.  Of course, James is still resting firmly on the plinth of esteem; Tarkington is all but forgotten.  Except for some vague memory that he wrote the novel from which came Orson Welles' finest film of all, Tarkington is not studied nor discussed.  You are in fact reading Colm Toibin's All a Novelist Needs, which is more or less scholarly in intent and more rather than less about Henry James.  Toibin has even written a novel in which James is the protagonist.

What this augurs for you,beyond your sense of concern about your sentence length, is the hope that when this revision of yours is done, and your publisher chooses from the list of things you'd like to do next, she chooses your proposal for writing what will in effect become Volume Two of D. H. Lawrence's Volume One, Studies in Classic American Literature.  Are you listening, Lynne?  Because one of the chapters will surely be on Booth Tarkington.

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