Sunday, February 14, 2010

of this sort of speed

Madeleine St. John's The Essence of the Thing moves quickly. Why? How? Reading it felt almost effortless. It was like eating gelati. Annie Dillard's Teaching a Stone to Talk felt weightier. It seemed to take longer, even though it was fifty pages shorter than the Essence. Gelati versus cake. My copy of St. John's book ends at page two hundred and thirty-four. The Dillard ends at page one hundred and seventy-seven, like this:

The gust crosses the river and blackens the water where it passes, like a finger closing slats.

This impression of calm temporariness is a constant feature of Dillard's writing. As an essayist she's like that finger or that gust of wind, moving directly across a shifting surface, opening a slat of speculation, then flowing on. "What's the difference between a cathedral and a physics lab?" she wonders, "Are they not both saying Hello?", and then she continues at her usual even pace, without answering.

St. John ends with water too, come to think of it. Her leading lady leans over the railing of a bridge and stares down, feeling "an all-engulfing, and quite unutterable, sadness." If the other author had written that sentence I think she would have left out the commas. St. John uses commas, colons, and semi-colons to make her sentences hop along urgently. She's always promising to fling off into tangents and half-thoughts. Dillard goes in smooth sweeps. She writes like a woman with a destination in mind. St. John writes like a woman who might be diverted into another thought at any moment, or to whom new ideas keep occurring. So as she's writing "He drove her to Notting Hill" it comes to her that he was driving in a certain way.

He drove her, pretty fast, to Notting Hill and they chatted a little on the way; they discovered each other's occupations, but very little more.

But Dillard cruises straight ahead. She goes where she's going.

It was before dawn when we found a highway out of town and drove into the unfamiliar countryside. By the growing light we could see a band of cirrostratus clouds in the sky. Later the rising sun would clear those clouds before the eclipse came. We drove at random until we came to a range of unfenced hills. We pulled off the highway, bundled up, and climbed one of those hills.

So that's one answer. St. John lightens herself with that non-cruising breathlessness. (Also with the hesitant shrug of her non-committals: "pretty fast," not "fast," as if to say, "Well, not that it's utterly important, but sort of like this.") She's doesn't let you sit on the page. She likes to make you pop. Here's another answer: she writes long exchanges between characters who prefer to say as little as possible at any given time. Pages and half-pages go by like this:

"Are you doing anything tonight?"

"Not particularly."

"Can I come round after work?"

"Just you?"

"Yes. Just me."

"Is anything wrong?"


Of course this is faster to read than whole lines of description, which is what the reader finds in Dillard. There's something else too, though: there's the way St. John uses familiarity. Her people all come close to caricature. She assumes that her readers are so familiar with character types that all she needs to do is draw a light sketch and they'll be able to supply the rest. For instance she'll give the male lead's father a speech --

[O]f course you have better things to do of a Saturday than play cricket, why the hell should you? Let the village team go to the devil, who cares these days? I suppose you'd rather be pumping iron, isn't that what they call it, in some foul gymnasium, with a lot of blacks, and women wearing silver leotards.

-- and let us flesh him out: yes, an older man, stout -- I see him stout -- broad-faced, maybe a meaty neck, with a short haircut of course, because he thinks long hair is effeminate. St. John doesn't tell us this, but I know. I've seen this insular British bad-tempered father before in other books. He wears a shirt and trousers, never t-shirt and jeans, and he rattles the newspaper irritably at the breakfast table. If he picks up a book it will be non-fiction, not fiction, and probably a book about war.

In other words she builds the characters by accumulating conventions, as classical Chinese or Japanese artists make the established marks that mean reeds or mountains, trusting the audience to supply the rest for themselves. The question to ask of the artist is not, can you invent new marks, but, how well do you deploy those conventions? How well, how vividly, do you use them? If I were writing a review of the Essence of the Thing, this is the question I would ask.

St. John is not creating a character so much as she's reminding us that we've already created him. He's wandering around inside us and she lets him out. We've already done half the work. And so she pounces along rapidly.

Dillard spends her book witnessing astonishing events. She meditates on these events, she describes them to us, she juxtaposes them with other events, and then she wonders over them. Her description of an eclipse goes on for pages and incorporates a quote from Theodore Roethke. We learn how fast the moon's shadow moves as it crosses the earth

I have since read that this wave of shadow moves 18, 000 miles an hour. Language can give no sense of this sort of speed

The cold shadow hits her "like a slug of anaesthetic." "It was as though an enormous-loping god in the sky had reached down and slapped the earth's face." Dillard is constantly roused to awe like this. A weasel looks at her and she is "stunned into stillness." Searching for words that will describe the weasel, she finds an unusual comparison: it is "brown as fruitwood." St. John is never roused to awe. She never asks us to be roused to awe either. Dillard asserts new ideas; St. John reasserts old ones, and so we spring ahead with her, keeping pace easily and quickly, while Dillard asks us to stop with her, and think, and meditate, and witness. Most things, she says, are unknowable.

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