Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Joanna Skibsrud's The Sentimentalists

Unlike many other reviewers and critics, I don't automatically dump on authors who attempt difficult sentence constructions. Convoluted? Self-important? Abstract? Diffuse? Turgid? Nonsensical? Higgledy-piggledy slop? It's a case-by-case investigation, not an all-offboard damnation. Here are six examples, three each by two authors, of serpentine clauses and shifting insertions:

A) "She watched the final light condense into the clock face, and the dial change from a round orifice in the darkness to a disc suspended in nothingness, the original chaos, and change in turn to a crystal ball holding in its still and cryptic depths the ordered chaos of the intricate and shadowy world upon whose scarred flanks the old wounds whirl onward at dizzy speed into darkness lurking with new disasters."

B) "The way that he , scattered into a thousand, inchoate, diffusive directions ... he, a singular thing, a particle -- a part-icular -- body, still hurtling itself objectively through space and time, has yet, by accident, come to rest somehow, briefly, now."

C) "He stood there while on both sides of him they passed in a steady stream of little colored dresses, bare-armed, with close bright heads, with that identical cool, innocent, unabashed expression which he knew well in their eyes, above the savage identical paint upon their mouths; like music moving, like honey poured in sunlight, pagan and evanescent and serene, thinly evocative of all lost days and outpaced delights, in the sun."

D) "Shot through with an affection so fierce that it mingled in us with an equivalent sense of terror: at the amount that we had already taken from her, and also from the world, which we feared that we would never be able, or even willing, to return."

E) "Which leads me finally to believe that the small estuaries to which I have been blown are just as true as the rest, and that the deep and open and still untried waters have been left uncharted because they do not in fact exist at all; except, that is, in the magic lantern pictures of my mind where they are just a simple shadow-play of death, which someday, and far too soon, will have us all freely sailing there."

F) "She sat limp in the corner of the seat, watching the steady backward rush of the land -- pines in opening vistas splashed with fading dogwood; sedge; fields green with new cotton and empty of any movement, peaceful, as though Sunday were a quality of atmosphere, of light and shade -- sitting with her legs close together, listening to the hot minute seeping of her blood, saying dully to herself, I'm still bleeding."

(A), (C), and (F) are from William Faulkner's Sanctuary while (B), (D), and (E) are from Joanna Skibsrud's The Sentimentalists, published in 2009 (though I guess the initial run from Gaspereau was in 2008).

First off, I can anticipate the rushed furor of "well, how many can stack up against Faulkner? That's blatantly unfair!" Fair enough, but using extreme contrasts is a great exercise in just how wide is the chasm between great lit and prate lit.

After reading the above (preferably aloud, if you have the opportunity and inclination), notice that Faulkner breaks the same rules as Skibsrud, the rules that knuckle-rappers often warn against. Faulkner's (A), especially, is rife with abstraction, but of course it's unfair, in the case of both authors, to use these examples in isolation. (I don't have the time, inclination, or legal means to print out chapters, though I encourage those with any follow-up interest to look backward and forward from these quotations.) The point I want to emphasize in example (A), though, is that Faulkner occasionally makes these oracular highlights as a rhetorical buttress to the surrounding action or mirrored psychological state of the featured (at the time) character. The contrast is shocking in its aptness, emotionally stark in its prophetic conclusion, eerie in its quick metaphorical sweep.

In turn, note Skibsrud's (B). Also stuffed with incorporeal words, the rhythm is haphazard, jerky. There is no momentum, no force. The tone is non-existent. The sentence is riddled with delayed cliches. The diction is uniformly dull. But, again, we have to look at the sentence in the context of what comes before and after it. Well, that's the clincher. Because most of the book is of a similar hue. The above three Skibsrudianisms are put forth because of their especial stop-in-your-tracks effectiveness (or ineffectiveness).

As for the other four examples, look at how Faulkner's rhythm gathers and shifts in pace, uses repetition to increase the discomfort (balls, again, to those idiotic puritans who promote "elegant variation" as an automatic reaction against "lazy" repeaters: I suppose D H Lawrence and Shakespeare also lacked imagination, wut?), alters the length of clauses to capture conflicting moods (F), and even manages to evoke humour in syntactical units! (The monumental delay, that is, in the first and last three words, in C. Though some may link "in the sun" to the girls, and they would be technically correct in so doing, I much prefer to go with the alternate spirit, irony, and character-teasing link to the sentence's subject.)

Skibsrud's other two sentences? More cliches. Also note the grand statement. This is pretentious in two ways since there is no action or detail to pin any weight on in the first place, and there is nothing added to any universal stock of knowledge (in E). We're all gonna die, and all too soon, at that? Well, I never ... Note, also, the meaningless, inexact phrases: "equivalent sense of terror", for one. What does this mean? It sounds profound at first pass. But by this point in the book, any leftover readers are already running on fumes, so alert parsing is probably rare. How can any terror be "equivalent? Terror is alarming, obviously unique in contour and force. When Faulkner invoked the universal "chaos", he's doing what most critics, in our postmodern madness, abhor and fear: using the big, abstract words, here and elsewhere: sin, morals, endurance, honour. The difference between Skibsrud's "terror" and Faulkner's "chaos", though, is that Faulkner creates, through sound and sight and touch, a world in which those judgements are not only invited, but inevitable. Terror in The Sentimentalists? No. Boredom, yes. Which leads into a more focussed discussion of her novel.

Yeah, the book under review shouldn't ultimately be compared to Sanctuary, or even to Pylon. But it won the Giller, and a lot of people read it. They've responded with good sense. Despite my sentence-by-sentence excoriation, the biggest fault with The Sentimentalists isn't its writing, but its structure and content. Troubled narrator moves in with her father Napoleon, and Henry, father of Napoleon's murdered Vietnam confrere, Owen. Part one deals with the difficult communication between daughter and father. Part two deals with Vietnam reminiscences, ending with a historical transcript of a particular incident that went to trial (Napoleon on the stand as moral fink). That's it. So how to fill up two hundred eighteen pages? Why, with internal philosophising, and sadness, of course.

Anis Shivani, in a review of American poet Jorie Graham's career, wrote: "Part of the project of leading American poets today is to purge public memory of all excitement. If and when the external world does impinge on the poet's private thought processes, it is only to illumine some internal dilemma of the worrying poet, to strengthen or invigorate some pitiful struggle of his." Such is the cross-linked appropriateness, the ubiquitous and sad exactness of this insight, that it can and does describe the procedure and desire in a book from another country, in another genre, and decades after Graham wrote the volumes which inspired the above quoted critique. To recap: Skibsrud's outward "hook" is Vietnam, and its effects on one man, her father. But the father, despite his drinking and occasional shouting, suffers a subdued form of shell shock (I don't used the euphemistic post-traumatic stress syndrome -- so much language has had its rough edges, its onomatopeia neutered and sterilized); he's a lovable dude, with his harebrained stock-buying excursions, Bogart-mimicry, and shoulder-rubbing (of his daughter). Oh, he breaks a few bones, gets cancer, goes senile, and finally expires. But the relations between he and daughter-narrator are subdued, even when at their most strained. The theme is the impossibility of communication and of accurate memory. Daughter mopes and tries to make sense of it all. Ad nauseum. Meanwhile, there's a good story bursting to get out. What really happened in Vietnam with Owen and Napoleon, and how does it tie in to the latter's haunting post-war life? What's more, (and what the novel never takes into account), how much of who Napoleon became was due instead to who he was before the war. Much of our personality, and indeed our capacity for qualities like equanimity and courage, is formed in the first six years. Vietnam obviously complicated this, but none of us are blank slates until a traumatic event transpires.

But none of that matters. In fact, though some have said part two is more engaging, narrative-driven, interesting, I found it to be even worse. Because the experience itself was filtered (first) through Napoleon's confused memory, then through the daughter's understanding, and especially through the author's non-changing internal reordering. The transcription that effectively concludes the novel is puzzling within the novel's overall puzzling arc. The whole point of the "I think so", "I believe so", "I'm not sure" is to reinforce, as if it needed reinforcing, the theme of uncertainty, of memory's unreliability, and of the danger in reaching impatient conclusions. But here's the upshot: that, in a damning irony, is also untrue. "Truth" with a capital T doesn't have to be mounted like Everest. There are a lot of near truths, a lot of subjective, but strong truths, which many of us can find not only plausible but probable. The entire scientific procedure is built upon a series of truths which are themselves superseded. Does that mean everything is false because it's dated or always evolving? Of course not.

One reason I've gone into such detail about Skibsrud's cowardly sidestepping of anything notable to say about Vietnam is that I've known a few Vietnam vets myself. Not to the extent of the author's own relationship with her father, but enough to know some emotional truths about that war, about specific political hypocrisy, about detailed stratification among soldier classes, about torture procedures, about the grim post-war relationships these men (unsurprisingly) went through, about the nature of the daily grind without constant philosophical rumination. That brings me to the only scene in the novel that resonated. During Napoleon's only lucid telling of the war incident to his daughter, he brings her up short by saying women always want to know things in order to rework and figure them out, as if that will somehow reduce the sadness. Men are guilty of that, too. Perhaps all artists. But this gets back to the core problem with the novel. It's not about Napoleon Haskell. It's not about Vietnam. It's not about her half-page confession of marital break-up after she caught her husband in bed with another woman (that's all we get of her "story"). It's about the narrator's own wayward thoughts about life's difficulties in communicating, about her own existential sadness and "growth".

The premise of the novel had great promise. Too bad it was just an excuse for a smothering postmodern shrug.

1 comment:

Verna said...

That's what I thought!