Saturday, August 19, 2006

The NYTBR reviewer

thinks that Irvine Welsh's latest--'The Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chef'--is "extraordinarily bad":

Although it fails at every imaginable level — metaphysical, ethical, technical, thematic — it is at the stylistic level, the level of the sentence, that Welsh’s novel is most wanting. The prose throughout is lazy, cliché-ridden and exhaustingly repetitive. In the novel’s first 80 pages, for instance, we are introduced to characters who have, variously, “sensitive, even womanly” eyes, “penetrating dark brown eyes,” “intense blue eyes,” “busy, big brown eyes,” “bloodshot eyes,” “hard, penetrating eyes,” “big, camel eyes,” “dead, sunken eyes” and “sharp, clear eyes.” By this point, the reader is rubbing his astonished, appalled eyes in disbelief, convinced that some meta-joke must be occurring — that this must surely be bad writing with a higher purpose.

It is not. Even when he is writing about physical sensation, one of his specialities, the clichés multiply and the repetitions repeat themselves. Humiliation “twisted like a knife” in the chest of a character named Kay; 50 pages later, a dagger “seemed to twist deep inside” an anxious Skinner. Early in the novel, Kibby feels a “bolt of fear.” Fifty pages later a realization strikes Kibby’s father like a “stark, bitter bolt.” Nine pages after that, panic strikes Skinner like — what else? — “a bolt of lightning.” Welsh also has an unfortunate fondness for adverbs, such that each verb is consummated by its cliché-making qualifier: a report is “meticulously prepared,” a lover “dozed blissfully,” a person “took his cue gratefully,” someone else “doggedly persevered.”

None of this, it should be made clear, is evidence of the free indirect style at work. Nor is this flattened and hopeless prose mimetic of the flattened and hopeless characters it is describing. Nor is this what George Orwell fondly called good bad writing. This is bad bad writing. There are tautologies (offices that are “unobtrusively tucked away”). There are mixed metaphors (the “bull of a man” whose frame was “going to seed”). There are mistakes — the use of the word “diligently” where “carefully” is meant. And there are unfortunate ambiguities, as when Welsh describes Kibby’s erection as “poking through the material of his trousers.” We must assume either that Welsh means “showing through,” or that Kibby has an unusually sharp phallus.

Now I really am curious, I must read this one! Can it really be that bad? (Perversely nice, at any rate, to see a really vituperative review like this, it cannot hurt Welsh's career and too often the Times errs on the side of blandness. The reviewer is Robert Macfarlane, a fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge--hmmm, it is true it would have been surprising if this scathing treatment had come from the hands of an American....)

1 comment:

  1. Actually, I'm curious as well. And I quite like a good fresh mixed metaphor - particularly with a liberal serving of oil and vinegar.