The following is excerpted from Manifesto: Maximalist Expressionism, or “Shut/-/Up(!) Fiction”.
I find it hard to believe there are those who counsel aspiring writers to hold as suspect that which amazes or delights in its writing. And while, to be sure, a knee-jerk exultation in every word slapped on the page will most likely spell doom for any writer, should he not, at least, charged with the mission of forging into unknown territory, find delight in the discoveries he makes along the way? Who are these new Puritans who would deny such pleasure?
There have been times when, having shared my work with someone, that person will read back to me a passage I’d written of which he or she was particularly fond and I, having forgotten the passage, am treated to a sort of “double-dip” of amazement. “I wrote that?” I say, freshly struck by the mind’s ability to pick the locks of its most imposing doors of conception, and flush with satisfaction over how, in the execution of my prose, I handled my entree to the rooms those doors protect.
It wasn’t always this way for me and, despite the delight I took in the writing of the few writers I found whose prose could amaze, I would have to describe my earlier efforts as mechanical at best. I had, and continue to have, a fascination with structure, theory, form, etc. However, whereas now I find myself better able to flesh out structures with prose aspiring to my self-imposed challenges, as well as with the blood and guts of phenomena, my earlier efforts fell far short. I seem to have been trying to hard to achieve the structural complexity of the writers I admired. Reading over “The Print Within,” the story that was the germ of my novel Flicker in the Porthole Glass, I’m struck by two things: the complicated and not very well executed structure of the projectionist who casts himself into, and moves among, various “screens” (a structure ham-fistedly thumping the inelegant bongo of its self-reflexivity), and the spare, flimsy quality of the prose. Here’s a taste:
Sister Virginia steps around to the desk and chooses the largest book. Her bony fingers, nails chewed down to the moons, play over its leather binding. She squats down and her face fills the boy’s vision. “Read it,” she says. “From A to Z.” Hot spit flies from the nun’s mouth with the letter Z. The boy’s right hand jerks up to wipe it from his face and lips and out of his eyes. He can’t tell spit from tears. Sister slaps the boy’s hand away from his face. “Never mind that. Just read the book.” The boy feels her heavy breasts pressing against his lap and begins to squirm in his seat. The sound of the organ grows so loud the boy can feel it in his chest. He senses something strange taking place, an uneasy feeling of nausea that shakes him from the inside out.
So much of the prose in this story lapses into this kind of lazy, pallid style: the amateurish string of simple declaratives. Reading the passage above today, I find it clunky, brittle, monotonous; a tedious etude composed with only one note of the scale.
In my novel, I’ve managed to resurrect Sister Virginia in a dream passage that gives her, it seems to me, her due:
Sister Virginia hunches over my shoulder in this memory. In this dream she whispers, “Read.” Large tomes bound with leather are arranged on the desk in front of me, their spines crafted to turn on rusty hinges. Covered in dust, the books give off a musty odor, like stale mushrooms and sour beer…. From outside the darkened room a low continuous chord rises off the bass pedals of an electronic organ trembling with synthetic vibrato. For a moment, Sister Virginia sings a quiet, incomprehensible, monotonous prayer in harmony with the chord, her face so close to mine I can smell the bitter dolor on her breath. It’s like a peanut butter-and-banana sandwich, furry with the psychedelia of exotic molds….Her lips curl back baring stained, yellow teeth on which an artisan has carved a relief, dental scrimshaw: eight of the fourteen Stations of the Cross. Through the gaps in her teeth filters the somber glow of a Good Friday Mass, and I can only imagine the parishioners in that fetid cathedral.
And it goes on. It’s clear to me, seeing these two samples juxtaposed, that I allowed my writing to take on a richness I’d previously denied it. In the later version of the passage I’ve cited, I think I’ve made a much better effort at drawing the reader into that fusty concrete room. One way in which I believe I achieve this is by bringing much more phenomena to bear on the passage, phenomena rendered with a much higher degree of specificity. For instance, whereas in the earlier version I present a book bound in leather, in the revised version the books’ spines are “crafted” to “turn on rusted hinges.” I’ve elevated the books from the realm of the general to that of the specific. They even have a smell, and not just a musty smell, but a musty odor “like stale mushrooms and beer.” There I’m telling the reader: “O.K., there you have it. Give it a try. This is the smell I want you to experience.” Certainly the reader is more likely to bring some experience to bear on the notion of stale mushrooms and beer than on merely a vague “musty.” Perhaps she’ll go to the recycling bin and start sniffing at the spent beer bottles therein. Not a bad thing.