Tuesday, July 10, 2007

A glazed frenzy

James Wood on Don DeLillo's latest novel in the New Republic via Powell's. (Thanks to Other Ed for the link.) This is a very perceptive one, and he isolates the thing about DeLillo's prose that makes me helplessly and contemptuously laugh in horror (hear how irritable Wood sounds here--it's finely controlled, in a way that makes the point all the more effective--and yes, DeLillo at his best is quite extraordinary, it's just that he has a lot more best-worst oscillation than some other writers I can think of...):

For every elegant, compact sentence closing around its meaning as if delicately preying on it, there are passages that bear the other DeLillo mark, which could best be called a kind of fastidious vagueness. These are passages in which fancy words are deployed with a cool, technical confidence, in a spirit of precision, as if they have actual referents, but in which meaning is smeared and obscured. Consider this description of poker, a game that Keith had played every week with three other men, before "the day":

They played each hand in a glazed frenzy. All the action was somewhere behind the eyes, in naïve expectation and calculated deceit. Each man tried to entrap the other and fix limits to his own false dreams, the bond trader, the lawyer, the other lawyer, and these games were the funneled essence, the clear and intimate extract of their daytime initiatives. The cards skimmed across the green baize surface of the round table. They used intuition and cold-war risk analysis. They used cunning and blind luck. They waited for the prescient moment, the time to make the bet based on the card they knew was coming. Felt the queen and there it was. They tossed in the chips and watched the eyes across the table. They regressed to preliterate folkways, petitioning the dead. There were elements of healthy challenge and outright mockery. There were elements of one's intent to shred the other's gauzy manhood.

If I were given this passage in a blind test and asked for provenance, I would first murmur: "American, not English," for this could only be contemporary American prose, and then, more than likely, I would say: "Don DeLillo." What is most striking is the way the prose lifts itself up into a lyricism that is not quite lyrical: "glazed frenzy ... funneled essence ... preliterate folkways ... gauzy manhood" (whatever that is). The effect, very common in post-White Noise DeLillo, is an uneasy sense that the author is perhaps trying to be a bit funny, but not half as funny as he is unwittingly being. The passage is unwittingly funny because it is so awfully earnest, in an adolescent writer's kind of way. The earnestness makes itself felt in the peculiar shifts into solemn pseudo-scientific registers: "They regressed to preliterate folkways, petitioning the dead." In other words, DeLillo means, the players muttered every so often: "Mother, help me!" It is no good to claim that this is free indirect style -- DeLillo deliberately mimicking the earnestness of his poker players -- because this is how DeLillo always sounds, and because there is no reason to assume that his poker players think like DeLillo. But what, except a kind of pomposity, is gained by the quasi-profound diction, with its bogus air of massive anthropological expertise? After all, this is just a poker game. And why "preliterate"? Pre-literacy was a very, very long time ago: has no one called on the dead for the last literate four millennia?


  1. I don't think Wood has quite nailed it, not really. You could claim quite cheerfully that all metaphor smears and obscures meaning.

    As to Wood's point about 'preliterate folkways'- though I also don't think much of the phrase in its context - I believe it's a mistake to assume that 'petitioning the dead' is a subset of those folkways; it can equally be read as a parallel construction, i.e. [to] petitioning the dead.

    And talk about imprecise prose! Just what does Wood mean by 'a lyrcism that is not quite lyrical'? It's becoming increasingly apparent to me that many critics accuse other writers of something like their own flaws. In this phrase I fear Wood sacrifices clarity to effect, precision to wordplay.

    Similarly, Wood has a certain fondness for pomposity himself: 'But what, except a kind of pomposity, is gained by the quasi-profound diction, with its bogus air of massive anthropological expertise?'

  2. Interesting post — and interesting comment! For what it's worth — and having not yet read FALLING MAN — I rather *liked* that quoted passage...

  3. Its bush league to quote a passage that doesn't quite work and then hack it to pieces. This confirms my belief that Wood is a shithead.

  4. Interesting trend in the comments--I am clearly the only person who's at all sympathetic to Wood's critique! Hmm--I certainly see what you're all objecting to, I suppose part of the problem arises from the authority Wood himself as gained as a critic. I like criticism that makes its case based on visceral personal response to the language of the work at hand (you know, the line of criticism that goes back through Orwell all the way to Hazlitt), but I guess I can see that perhaps it's more appealing when it's done by someone who doesn't have such a powerful platform, more voice-in-the-wilderness-ish! Will mull this one over.

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  6. (Sorry, my usual typos!)

    No, that's not my objection to Wood here, Jenny. In fact, DeLillo can make me irate as well. It's rather that in this piece Wood reveals a set of prejudices about the nature of the novel and particularly about the criteria used to judge prose which I don't necessarily share. There's nothing wrong with visceral personal response, and for most readers that's all there is anyway. However, everyone's viscera are a little bit different, and I'm able to digest - and enjoy - both dark ryebread and brioche, potatoes and truffles.

  7. Something also to consider is whether the '9/11 novel' raises the critical stakes, so to speak; or at least changes them. The question then is, In which ways? Something I'm hesitant to mention is of course that Messud has written just such a novel. I'm not suggesting favouritism on Wood's part, only that I imagine he and his wife have spent a good deal of time discussing what such a novel ought and ought not be.