Thursday, March 29, 2012

to observe her there in her pale green blouse

St Patrick's Day on the Strip: I walked there past the hotels and the rosemary bushes. Half of everybody was wearing green t-shirts and the other half was wearing green hats, an overlap wore both; there were also green shorts, green socks, green bow ties, green straight ties, green wigs, green coats, green headbands with green globes on them or top hats on them or shamrocks on them, everything shone green, everything fluttered green, green face-paint, green necklaces, green tattoos, green capes, a single pair of green soft sequinned gloves waving above a crowd of hats, fur hats with frog eyes, white shirts with green slogans that read Kiss Me I'm Irish, other slogans that read Check Out These Shamrocks (with a shamrock on either side of the chest; no man wore them), green ribbons, green beads, skin-tight bodysuits striped like Irish flags -- and one man dressed in Catholic robes and being Saint Patrick with a mitre on his hair -- the Nine Fine Irishmen pub at the New York New York had a band playing I'll Tell My Ma when I walked past, and the casino had coloured its moat as green as jelly; at night the Venetian and the Palazzo made their white signs ripple green, people were drinking green beer out of foot-long green plastic mugs shaped like simple trumpets, the MacDonalds had a Shamrock Shake, the Rock House was serving five-dollar Car Bombs outside the Imperial Palace or Eye Pea as it's known; the pavement there was so wet that people were skating on it and a man fell over. Outside Margaritaville the tiles were so sticky that my soles wouldn't move without going Platch. Platch plotch I went toward O'Shea's, where they were holding a swansong St Patrick's Day block party before the establishment, with its plaque by the bar remembering a dead patron named Joey Burr "whose favorite Vegas casino was O'Shea's," is shunted away and replaced with a shopping plaza and a ferris wheel. At twelve o'clock the regional manager of Caesars Entertainment played beer pong with a leprechaun.

The Irish pub at Caesars' Palace put corned beef and cabbage on the menu; the British pub at the back of the Crystal modified its patriotic allegiance. A woman came through the crowd holding a swivelling pint in each hand with her elbows out, saying, "I'm sorry, they only had Guinness." Three days later I saw Alexander Waugh, great-grandson of his obvious forebear, and he told us a funny story about a "lunatic" from Ireland who had phoned one morning and invited himself to Alexander Waugh's house because, said the lunatic, my family lived in your house some two or three hundred years ago and I want to look at it. You don't know me but I'll be on the railway platform at half past four wearing a white suit with a small bag in my hand.

Once I was home after the talk I realised that Alexander Waugh's lunatic was Desmond Guinness, son of the brewery. He has written books about old houses and possibly that's how he made his way to the house of Alexander Waugh.

Is there any relationship between St Patrick's day on the Strip and the events in Amy's Children by Olga Masters, an Australian book published in 1987? There is not. There is no relationship. Amy, who lives in the 1920s and '30s, wishes she could afford a blue hair ribbon and finally after some struggle she affords this new hair ribbon, and it meant so much to her when she was first aspiring, that the author bothers to point out that she is wearing it, to let us know that she has climbed and conquered a certain mountain in her life. But the acquired ribbon is mentioned only briefly and perhaps (the reader thinks, or at least I did) it doesn't mean so much to her now, she is moving on, she has moved to Sydney, she has her eyes on larger treasures, for example, a dressing table made of cane.

The human mind absorbs its former self, the old nourishment is not enough, it goes and goes and the acquisition of a hair ribbon or hair band, which was at one time an active living desire that had an area to itself in the conscious thoughts of its host (and it is still there: turn back X pages and read a sentence and there it is, though now the reader's intelligence has moved on into a later phase of Amy's life, and this sentence will perhaps look like a theoretical fact, no longer a felt one, the timeline of the character's life also tied to ours -- I may be wrong here --) is a nod now to an acquaintance the person briefly knew and doesn't regret leaving -- cruel person, thinks Old Amy about New Amy, I don't shrug off my friends like that, and Toddler Amy's craving for whole meals of ice cream goes unfulfilled forever.

A blue hair ribbon would not invigorate the heart of the St Patrick's Day crowd, this thing so tiny, so simple, so cheap, a scrap you could throw away tomorrow and never remember that you had it, lost to you physically and memorably; the ethos of the crowd was waste; the green plastic balls as fat as skulls will be in the bin by next week, the Irish flag suits might have been purchased just for that afternoon because when else would you wear an Irish flag, and they were not meant to be used frequently or every day. Meanwhile the people in Amy's Children need to make the most of everything, they are housed and they have clothes and so they are not totally poor, but the idea of buying a bodysuit just for one event or even a pair of green plastic eyeglasses would be beyond them; it would seem incredible. When we were in a rented small house once, an old house by the sea, we found in the kitchen a 1930s cookbook that told us how to saw a calf's head in half, but today where would I find the head of a calf detached from the calf? They were richer in calf's heads back then. Now we are richer in plastic sunglasses and also Irish flag costumes. Goods come in cycles, one thing is in great supply, another thing is in small supply, then the one thing goes out of fashion and the condition for the other thing become right and it rises, automatically, naturally, goods swim like salmon, goods signal flux, the community breathes in and out, tallow candles are invented in Europe and for once even the middle class can afford light, Rembrandt taking advantage of this, and other painters as well, so we have first tallow candles and then The Night Watch.

Miss MacIntosh in Marguerite Young's Miss MacIntosh, My Darling, argues against electric light because it encourages people to look at one another at bedtime when decency should be in darkness; and in former ages, she says, men married men and women married women and none of them knew because they couldn't see the other person undress. One of the secrets of Young's style is this: go to the point of reasonable logic and then add the touch that goes past reasonable logic. Never don't go too far. There is no too. She, like the St Patrick's Day crowd, is alien to the spirit of Olga Masters' people, who, in their brink-of-poverty state, worry that even the reasonable limit is too far and a small set of furniture will summon, like a talisman, bankruptcy.

Loss in Olga Masters is ferrety and desperate, loss in Marguerite Young is a grandiose wash and roar but how can this be any other way when her characters raft around on such a massive pad of words? They lose their wigs or their homes and words pour out of the loss, masses of words, it's impossible to be poor in Miss MacIntosh because you're always rich in prose. But Olga Masters is not lush,* she doesn't give her people much to live on, she gives them a poverty of words to eat and they react by feasting on the spectacle of caneware bedroom furniture. The revellers are out on the Strip while these people scrimp. As I was reading Masters it was difficult or impossible not to be aware that other books were proceeding in a more extravagant fashion.

* She's shortwinded, she likes to collapse a physical description of a character into someone else's thoughts about the character, and she often uses the psychologies of the characters to tie them irresistibly to some action that helps her shift the descriptions along, for example, the "compelled," here: "Her uneasy feeling about Amy increased minute by minute, compelled as she was to observe her there in her pale green blouse, cream jumper and navy skirt. She knew the jumper was one from Lincolns and began to think Lance might have allowed her to take it without paying."

She was a journalist for decades before she began to publish fiction. I wonder if she picked up that shortwindedness from her journalism.


  1. You have made me think again about my assumption that lack of extravagance in prose is a thing to be admired whereas extravagance is that appalling thing callled prolixity. Why have I accepted the idea that a writer should make things short and snappy because people have limited time these days, given that some of my favourite novelists rattle on extensively? I think I have thought, oh well but that was all right in earlier times, but for our times you need the wry clipped approach of Penelope Fitzgerald. Meanwhile, on planes and trains and everywhere I go readers are devouriing great torrents of lush words via George RR Martin etc.

  2. Extravagance is magic if the writer can make it work, and terrible if they can't, and the same goes vice versa for shortwindedness -- and for anything else, as far as I can see, wryness, lushness, humour -- there's no quality that's a virtue in itself; all the virtue lies in what the writer makes of it, or what they let it make of them. Martin Amis, writing "against cliche," criticised J.M. Coetzee by saying that his prose was boring, which, sentence by sentence, it absolutely is, but the art of the interesting sentence is not Coetzee's art. He's doing something else. Fitzgerald is brief but she's graceful, and her language never feels forced. Masters' shortwindedness makes me twitch, not because it's shortwinded per se, but because I think she's got a habit of making a single word like "compelled" do too much work.

  3. You are so right. There is also the famous line of someone or other (Churhcill?) at the end of a letter : 'sorry this is so long; I didn't have time to write a short one.' Also, after trying things like Lord of the Rings, I got into the habit of equating longwindedness with lack of humour. As to Masters, I admire your persistence - when I've tried her, I have been unexcited.

    1. Tolkien was not a funny man. I wasn't excited by Masters, but I admired her dedication to the discipline of unexcitingness -- story-unexcitingness -- the fact that she keeps herself to such a small scale, her people aren't rich, they're not clever, and when they're poor she doesn't ask the reader to pity them or dwell in them, and at this small scale she finds touches that give them just enough flesh to make them seem present. She makes them unsympathetic; she dries them out. She often gives the reader a glimpse into their minds, and their thoughts are almost always suspicious and selfish (e.g., that woman looking at Amy and deciding that she must have smoodged her clothes out of Lance). She maintains herself at a low, dry register. So she seems to be forging a tone of her own, which is something I enjoy watching, even when I'm not sold on the finished article.