But justifying is a full-time job for excess-lovers. Defensive is the tone presiding over Steven Moore’s introduction to The Novel: An Alternative History, a unique guide of its kind because it vows to persuade the reader that excess has in fact been the norm and that only recently did fiction degenerate into a plain, accessible, journalistic homunculus. Alexander Theroux was prompted to write his delightful manifesto “Theroux Metaphrastes” after a sentence in Three Wogs “exasperated to her very sesamoid bones a reviewer in a major newspaper” into grumbling about a style he’s defined as “amplificatio”, a technical term straight out of ancient rhetoric textbooks. Laurent Pernot, in his Epideictic Rhetoric, explains that “amplification does not mean ‘development,’ even less ‘padding out.’ It involves not lengthening the speech but increasing the size of the subject, by emphasizing its importance, its beauty, its noblesse.” C. S. Lewis once lamented that “rhetoric is the greatest barrier between us and our ancestors.” Sadly, it also keeps us away from admiring our contemporaries who haven’t kowtowed to our age’s taste, which the masses think is and has been the only taste since humans learned to do things with words.
Ben Masters’ Novel Style: Ethics and Excess in English Fiction since the 1960s (2017) adds to this anti-aphasic literature of resistance. Masters, besides being a rising British novelist, author of Noughties (2012), has also written good literary criticism for The Times Literary Suplement. He also shares some of my worries regarding contemporary fiction:
We live in a time of linguistic plainness. This is the age of the tweet and the internet meme; the soundbite, the status, the slogan. Everything reduced to its most basic components. Stripped back. Pared down. Even in the world of literature, where we might hope to find some linguistic luxury, we are flirting with a recessionary mood. Big books abound, but rhetorical largesse at the level of the sentence is a shrinking economy.
Such unpopular attitude merits support because altars to austerity don’t stop multiplying. Masters decided to affront the current gods by writing a panegyric to stylists of yore. However, the first problem of the book starts with the selection under celebration: Burgess’s and Angela Carter’s presence is as inevitable as alliteration in Euphues; Martin Amis also kind of makes sense; but the roster goes erratic when he adds Zadie Smith, Nicola Barker and David Mitchell.
The overall selection, and its omissions, demanded an explanation. I understand that The Alexandria Quartet doesn’t illustrate as poignantly as A Clockwork Orange a rhetorical renaissance in British letters, but both did come out in 1962, and Lawrence Durrell deserves better than a nod since he was to my knowledge the first post-war novelist to rebel against plainness when a bunch of “angry young men” were busy foisting “sincere” plainness on readers. George Steiner, who I don't particularly revere, aptly called him “baroque” (1960) and made him an exception to what he called the “retreat of the word” afflicting the fiction of his time.
Masters also missed a good opportunity to bring attention to Paul West, a Derbyshire lad who shared similarities with Amis: both set their first novels in England, but moved to America and switched to novels with a wider geographical and historical scope that engage with the horrors of the 20th century. If Amis can get a whole chapter, why can’t West get even a tiny mention, especially considering that from what I’ve read by Amis he’s several rhetorical longitude lines from reaching West? West’s “In Defense of Purple Prose” probably stemmed from impatience with a the same type of reviewer who couldn't stomach Theroux's novel.
Thomas LeClair, in a similarly-themed book, The Art of Excess (1989), at least justified the omission of books like Theroux’s Darconville’s Cat and Gilbert Sorrentino’s Mulligan Stew on theoretical grounds, “because they are more essentially literary games of the Nabokovian kind than responses to the master systems of the contemporary world.” LeClair, in typically American fashion, salivates over bulk and quantity, data and structures, networks and technological analogies, instead of good old-fashioned rhetorical prowess. He’s the equivalent of the US army’s PR department, beating the drum for the “greatest military machine in history” that has lost every war it’s begun since 1945, while China spreads its power through diplomacy, economics and the long-term, totalizing vision of the aesthetes LeClair sniffs at. A Masters remarks, whereas LeClair conceives of “excess as a theoretical entity,” informed by science and Critical Theory, he favors “excess as a rhetorical component,” which is my kind of excess too! That’s why the selection strikes me as desultory and harmful to his intentions.
So it begins with Burgess, in a chapter of exemplary textual analysis, except it actually begins with Nabokov. Masters shows many fascinating connections, from glowing reviews of Nabokov’s books to similarities between novels; it was insightful to learn how alike Alex and Humbert Humbert are, two rapist murderers with a penchant for overblown eloquence. I certainly believe Burgess when he claims to have read Lolita more than ten times. And have you noticed that Pale Fire (1962) is narrated by a mad literary critic and Nothing Like The Sun (1964) by a drunken literary critic? And that a poet plays a major role in both? And that both titles contain references to Shakespeare? Indeed, everything seems to begin with Nabokov. Undoubtedly the rhetorical renaissance, in the English-speaking world anyway (similar renaissances were co-occurring in Portugal, Brazil, Spain, Italy, Germany and all over Latin America), owes a lot to his amply disseminated vision of fiction as a self-contained verbal game and not a slice of real life. Thanks to Masters I began to reflect on the important role he played in reviving an English-language literature of rhetorical excess, which was moribund in Great Britain and had practically never existed in the USA with the exception of Herman Melville: whatever qualities Twain, Hawthorne, Wharton, Fitzgerald, Hemingway (Burgess: “we’ve been bemused into forgetting that plain English is too often emasculated English (ironical that this should be the medium preferred by the most vauntedly masculine of writers).”), Caldwell, Steinbeck, Saroyan, Salinger, Stein, Nathanael West, and the venerable James Branch Cabell possessed, US literature shied away from excess, bombast, lingual curlicues until Nabokov arrived on American shores. There was perhaps Tom Wolfe. And the shunned Poe, more esteemed by Europeans than Americans, like his Southern kin, Faulkner. Henry James was arabesque but his mind was English. But come the ‘60s and my memory starts dishing out kudos to Nabokov: three young Johns speak in thrall of him: Updike was a fan; Barth teamed him up with Borges and Beckett in “The Literature of Exhaustion”; “A writer who truly and greatly sustains us is Nabokov”, stated Hawkes. “And I have come to think of his novels as clocks, each marking and making its own sweet time,” William H. Gass joined the celebration. “Ada, for instance. Wit-wit-wit, they go when they go round. Slowly I saw what was artistically right: how they were themselves, not imitations; they were constructions to delight the heart and stir the mind. They were not stuffed, like geese, with journalistic observations, determining and moralizing milieus, intensely instructional entanglements, those shifty banalities that do credit to their authors and also to mankind, details like so many jawless clothespins, or sentiments that bless the belly of the reader for whom they are prescribed like soothing syrups and bready pudding.” A grumpy Theroux remembered a few years ago that his younger self sent him an admiring letter to Switzerland, only to have it returned by a very imperative Véra ordering him to leave them alone.
It's not exaggerated to say that Nabokov helped create the circumstances in which their anti-realist fictions could develop and even thrive, for a while anyway. When it comes to Burgess, what’s extraordinary is that the English novel was in such bad shape at the time that it took a Russian to remind it of its autochthonous tradition of excess dating back to John Lyly (Amis is quoted by Masters using the word “euphuism”). When Burgess showed up the literary milieu was not enamored with extravagance; in my copy of The Alexandria Quartet Jan Morris writes in the introduction that Angus Wilson found it “floridly vulgar”. Burgess wrote even nastier things, but whereas vulgarity was what he mainly faulted Durrell for, Wilson was surely more upset at floridness. Durrell dwindled and Burgess became a tutelary figure for Carter and Amis, another Nabokov fan.
It is when Novel Style moves to writers born after WWII that it becomes in fact a history of the disintegration of excess in the span of 60 years. You can assess that by yourself if you compare the first and last excerpts in the book. I mean, when you start with this:
“What’s it going to be then, eh?”
There was me, that is Alex, and my three droogs, that is Pete, Georgie, and Dim, Dim being really dim, and we sat in the Korova Milkbar making up our rassoodocks what to do with the evening, a flip dark chill winter bastard though dry. The Korova Milkbar was a milk-plus mesto, and you may, O my brothers, have forgotten what these mestos were like, things changing so skorry these and everybody very quick to forget, newspapers not being much read either. Well, what they sold there was milk plus something else. They ad no licence for selling liquor, but there was no law yet against prodding some of the new veshches which they used to put in to the old moloko, so you could peet it with vellocet or synthemesc or drencrom or one or two other veshches which would give you a nice quiet horrorshow fifteen minutes admiring Bog And All His Holy Angels And Saints in your left shoe with lights bursting all over your mozg. Or you could peet milk with knives in it, as we used to say, and this would sharpen you up and make you ready for a bit of dirty twenty-to-one, and that was what we were peeting this evening I’m starting off the story with. (A Clockwork Orange)
and end with this:
With what was left of clarity she offered her friend a selection of aphorisms, axioms and proverbs the truth content of which she could only assume from their common circulation, the way one puts one’s faith in the face value of paper money. Honesty is always the best policy. Love conquers all. Each to her own. (Zadie Smith, NW.)
it’s incontestable that excess has gone from punny to puny.
As Masters approaches the 21st century he acts oblivious to the fact that from Burgess to Carter, from Carter to Amis, and from Amis to Smith, Barker and Mitchell there’s a perceptibly gradual abandonment of language. To use a pictorial analogy, Burgess is like a fusion of Michelangelo and Raphael, precision of contours with the most brilliant colors; Carter is like the Romantics, still luxurious but already a bit muted, a darker, more restrained palette; in Amis you find the Impressionist’s haziness, loss of crispness, and a loosening of the figure that points towards abstraction; and by Smith’s time we’re being sold Malevichs fetching the exorbitant prices of Tracey Emins.
Part of my current explanation for this is that the excess post-Burgess novelists suffer from is excess of Theory. Burgess, a good lapsed catholic conservative, couldn’t care less about Marxist-driven Critical Theory and continental philosophy, but Carter has already entangled herself in the politics of feminism and socialism and she’s up to date on Foucault and whoever else was cool during her college years, and so was probably too busy protesting against Pinochet and whatnot to study Euphues and John Donne's sermons. Amis is also quite political and worldly, he tackles the biggies, the Holocaust, the Soviet Union, 9/11, the fashionable farrago that fosters fame, which demands his being constantly responsive to current affairs. Novelists who feel obliged to serve causes and to keep up with the world in order to report on it sociologically won’t be dedicating a lot of time to the classics, to philology, to the study of foreign languages, won’t waste afternoons building palindromes that readers wouldn’t notice anyway; success is the goal and you achieve it by putting in front of the reader’s eyes familiar things, a checklist of serious things to care and worry about handed down by the news. Their ethical reputation soars with each new platitude about that week’s global tragedy live on television, but rhetoric suffers: wanting to report on the world inevitably forces them to become reporters.
This is clearer in the younger novelists Masters has selected, who’ve not only lapped up the Theory but the theory on the Theory, plus had the infelicity of starting out at a time when it’s becoming obvious that the 2030s are going to be spitting image – one to spit on like in a satanic ritual – of the 1930s, with the Gorkis and Zhdanovs coming out of the I Soviet Writers Congress announcing writers worldwide that you must accept your role as the engineers the souls, your duty to the revolution is to build a better world, oh and by the way fuck style! Someone needs to study why it is that several of the finest English-language stylists have been either apolitical, catholic, conservative or downright right-wingers like Joyce, Burgess, Gass, Nabokov, Chesterton, Fr. Rolfe, Theroux, and why so many lived secluded in their hermetic worlds of nostalgia, elitism, pedantry and private obsessions, one of them being polishing phrases to perfection.
Although Masters thinks otherwise, his approach doesn’t differ a lot from LeClair’s; he too subordinates rhetoric to theory. The “ethics” in the subtitle was not reassuring. Novel Style is in fact a worthwhile contribution to what is known in Academe as the Ethical Turn. And what a DeLorean that was! I hadn’t thought about it in over a decade. The Ethical Turn is a school of theory derived from Wayne C. Booth’s The Company We Keep (1988). Booth, tired of the semiotic suzerainty in literary studies during the ‘60s and ‘70s, made a plea to studying fiction once again as a way of presenting and discussing ethical situations and how it affects the reader, specifically whether it can move him into positive action in the world, which is a very Zhdanov thing. When I was a student I sympathized with Booth, my natural tendency to root for the underdog made me wish him success because the dominant trends, Structuralism and Post-Structuralism, had made it look reactionary that literature should also deal with ethical dilemmas and be about the stuff of life. He seemed sensate in wanting to escape from 20 years of French morosophes abusing books as nothing more than autonomous linguistic structures that rendered author, reader, and the world outside the text irrelevant.
However, when fiction leans towards ethics it leads to a thinning of language, it makes itself vulnerable to becoming philosophy’s decorative appendix once more. For instance, when Masters states that Burgess’ and Carter’s novels “illustrate” the ideas of Martha Nussbaum and Dorothy Hale, the correct retort is, “No, they don’t,” they were published long before those philosophers began their intellectual activity. This is a perfect example of what Milan Kundera warned about in The Art of the Novel, the tendency to turn novels into mere ancillary tools to other fields of knowledge, when the novel is itself a mode of inquiry into knowledge with its own methods and outcomes. Applying this treatment to existing novels is not problematic, Nadsat has been already invented; but I worry about the many students reared on this subjection of language to ideas who many feel discouraged to create their own Nadsats. A cursory census at contemporary British fiction shows that verbal invention has nearly halted.
Masters’ explanation of how style and ethics go hand in hand allows in principle to salvage both, a union that Burgess and Carter never lost sight of. I agree with him that excess presents “morality as a nurturing of sensibility rather than the promulgation of precepts and lessons.” Richly rhetorical fictions “position and prompt the reader” to think about “the kinds of emotive and cerebral work that might be carried out by style.” Sure, why not? Instead of being didactic or moralizing, it reveals and revels in the complexity of existence, or to use Burgess’ words, it “can make clearer the whole business of moral choice by showing what the nature of life’s problems is.” Excess, thus, is more apt to suggest than command since it’s omnimodous like the world itself, it’s messy, ambiguous, difficult, it represents our human experience of reality more truthfully, it improves our chances against the “challenging opacity of truth”. Let's agree again. Masters has many good insights about this, for instance when he analyses A Clockwork Orange: “Alex’s colorful language forms a vital index to the types of creativity and freedom of choice that the state tries to rob him of. Language therefore becomes a mode of resistance, deconstructing the black-and-white inviolability of moral and societal convention through its own ambiguousness and adaptability.” The theme of determinism versus freedom has ingrained itself in the style, at the sentence level. The chapter on Carter is lucid in showing how her use of buts, ifs and maybes submerges the world in constant uncertainty and change via imagination, as an example of how the reader can herself transform the world through creativity. And this is as good a description of how excess operates on the reader’s conscience as I’ve ever found:
Generally speaking, I believe that dynamics like digression, extrapolation, discursiveness, elaboration, maneuverability, proliferation, and inclusiveness – dynamics that the novel as a form is especially conducive to – are more fully realized by an elaborate prose style. The strongest works of the stylists of excess find their ethical force in expansive thought, by which I mean their ability to elaborate and, indeed, to luxuriate; to think critically and associatively. Their authors are interested in how these effects not only embody and encourage methods of attentiveness, but in how they convey substantive kinds of transformation. These are hypotactical thinkers, concerned with the ways many things interconnect and mutually affect one another, rather than how things merely accumulate. Their best books value inquisitiveness over acquisitiveness, and therefore promote the qualitative and evaluative over the quantitative and neutral.
However, he fails to explain how and why this precludes minimalist novels from producing similar effects. Minimalism is not necessarily synonymous with preachiness and straightforwardness. The ambiguity of Camus’ The Stranger lies precisely in its anodyne language. The entire nouveau roman group produced ambiguous novels with scarce linguistic resources. When Meursault says, “My mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don't know,” and pages later he’s laughing at the movies, the text doesn’t instruct the reader on how to think about him. Is his behavior condemnable? Is he immoral or amoral because of his seeming emotional detachment? Evidently excess doesn’t have a monopoly on this strategy of insinuation and ambiguity. The minimalist Beckett, I think it was Gass who wrote it somewhere, never employed the word “absurd”; we assume that the world is absurd from his characters’ oblique and opaque enactments, not from direct statements. Camus and Beckett worked with juxtaposition and neutral language to suggest rather than tell. We should refrain from seeing excess and sobriety as incompatible modalities: Beckett was admired by lovers of excess like Gass, West, and Theroux, who wrote his college dissertation on him. If it's true that “stylistic excess is key to the kinds of ethical interaction between author, character, and reader that I have been describing,” Master's vaunted purpose of showing its uniqueness in opposition to minimalism in the domain of ethics fails to persuade.
It seems that excess has always needed an ethical defense. When Amis senior shot down Lolita, Martin replied that “style is morality: morality detailed, configured, intensified.” I don’t think Nabokov ever needed to resort to morality to justify his style, although he was more concerned with ethics than the public persona he invented admitted; but if you had fled from Soviet Russia where nutjob criticasters like Plekhanov, Belinsky, Chernyshevsky, Dobrolyubov, Ivanov-Razumnik, Bogdanov, Alexinski were revered for their “art-at-the-service-of-the-revolution” spiel that made the once great Russian fiction complicit in one of the greatest crimes of the 20th century, you’d probably be a bit wary of sounding like them in a USA whose intelligentsia was busy wolfing down mouthfuls of such twaddle. “Ethics are the aesthetics of the future” is a sentence often attributed to Lenin; I’ve never been able to confirm the source, but it’s sinister enough to belong to him. These people thought masters like Gogol, Pushkin, Biely, Joyce, Proust were petit-bourgeois reactionaries, decadent, useless, obstacles to the Revolution. Nabokov sensibly distanced himself from such inanity. His revenge were minutely-crafted fictions that depended solely on aesthetics for appreciation and sought nothing but aesthetic bliss.
Now the neo-Stalinistic 2030s are upon us and excess needs more than ever an ethical defense. There’s no longer a Plekhanov, but James Wood’s opinions make things happen. His protean presence haunts Novel Style: he’s quoted, explained, disputed, deferred to, and it goes without saying that when a negative review of Carter or Amis is quoted, more often than not it’s by him. Masters understands that excess can’t be defended unless he deals with Wood’s two famous essays, “Human, All Too Inhuman” and “Tell me how does it feel?” However, unlike others in the past who’ve contended with Wood, ethics seriously bothers Masters too. Making fiction ancillary to a nobler purpose is his way of abating the risk of its frivolity. “Style is morality”, Amis junior defensively replied to his dad; for what else could he have said? “Fuck you, old man, Nabokov writes circles around you”? Factual but not filial. Style must always justify itself. So Burgess, Carter and Amis “are marred by moments of waywardness that are difficult to justify,” Masters concedes, too often their language exists for its own sake, it illustrates no ethical complexities. This reminds me of Roland Barthes’ Writing Degree Zero, the popular post-war apologia of plain prose. I happen to live in a country where Barthes held so much maleficial influence during the 1960s that book reviewers policed novels for their imagery and pulled out the cuffs on misfits who dared to use “metaphors without justification,” verbatim. That’s probably as good a reason as to why Portugal never had a Burgess and a Carter. Masters is clueless about how blessed he is for his access to those moments of waywardness; the alternative I tend to purchase in secondhand bookstores, pitifully lonely underpriced copies of books no one’s read since their first and only edition some time in the ‘60s and ‘70s, books so awful and so thankfully forgotten not even experts on Portuguese literature remember to name them, unaware than once they were hailed as the masterpieces we’d be fawning over in 2018. I giggle so much when I go over the newspaper clippings of this collective delusion.
Rhetorical excess for me is justified first and foremost because it’s fun and enjoyable to indulge in it, because it’s personally challenging, because the author’s nature bends that way. What purpose could Christian Bök have had in writing the lipogram Eunoia other than to prove to himself that he could do it? Why can’t the writer be treated like Olympic athletes, who aren’t expected to end world hunger with their record breaks and gold medals? Alas, this sounds unthinkable, if not sinful. So he must put up the ethical game to assuage his interlocutors’ fears that he’s frivolous. They’ll hound him until, as if under torture, he says what they want to hear. But if he remains obstinate, they can always chalk the excess up to the epoch’s particularities. Masters wants the reader to entertain the likelihood that these writers go for excess because they are “conscious of writing out of excessive times”, and then juxtaposes that assertion with Eric Hobsbawm’s Age of Extremes (hello, Theory!). If such a connection exists, does that mean that the other thousands of writers are unaware of the age's extremeness? Do they suffer from a peculiar type of brain death that allows them to compose novels for months and years on end but not to notice that the world outside their window is going to the dogs? Did the more restrained Kundera, who knows a thing or two about totalitarian regimes, miss Hobsbawm’s memo? But once history is introduced as a scapegoat the amateur lover of history starts asking questions which Masters avoids answering: What was extreme about 5th century BC Greece when “poetic prose” was invented by Gorgias, the spiritual father of rhetorical excess? The 11th-century Islamic world that gave us al-Hariri and his maqama in rhymed prose? The 16th century of Rabelais and Lyly? The 17th century of Baroque preachers? The early 19th century of Moby Dick? Ever since mankind has learned to write writers have been elasticating and magnifying language, the debate on excess versus moderation is as old as the Greek orators who pitted the Attic style against the Asian style: its longevity indicates that mankind is constantly being swooned by the thrills of one extremity and the other and that we likely can't cant live without them.
Even Masters’ arguments have a familiar history; Donne also measured up to his era's highest ethical standard when his preaching came under attack: “Religion is a serious thing, but not a sullen; religious preaching is a grave exercise, but not a sordid, not a barbarous, not a negligent.” So how should a Christian preacher preach, and why? “There are not so eloquent books in the world, as the Scriptures: except those names of tropes and figures, which the grammarians and rhetoricians put upon us, and we may be bold to say, that in all their authors, Greek and Latin, we cannot find so high, and so lively examples, of those tropes, and those figures, as we may in the Scriptures: whatsoever hath justly delighted any man in any man's writings, is exceeded in the Scriptures.” You wrote well and, more importantly, enunciated well because your role model was none other than the Holy Ghost. “So the Holy Ghost hath spoken in those instruments, whom he chose for the penning of the Scriptures, and so he would in those whom he sends for the preaching thereof: he would put in them a care of delivering God messages, with consideration, with meditation, with preparation; and not barbarously, not suddenly, not occasionally, not extemporarily, which might derogate from the dignity of so great a service.”
Given the direction Masters takes, I was surprised at the shrug Robert Scholes’ The Fabulators received. In 1967, by the time US literature was rife with excess after decades of moving Hemingward in circles, Scholes figured it needed a defense too. He called “fabulators” those who we nowadays call, although the terminology didn’t exist back then, postmodernists. (Burgess: “I think postmodernism, as it’s called, which is a ridiculous phrase, is contained in modernism.”) Scholes noticed that novelists, namely Nabokov, Durrell, Burgess, Barth, and Hawkes, had been showing up since the 1950s who repelled crude realism and plain prose and instead rehabilitated form, structure and storytelling. Predictably, they were chided by critics for emphasizing aesthetics in detriment of ethics. Scholes sought to prove that, no, they were not cold, inhumane, emotionless, too cerebral. His bifurcated apologia focused as much on the need for artistry and artifice in our lives as on the complex ethical situations their fiction explored. When Masters notices that his chosen authors “regard writerly style as a form of commitment – whether it be a commitment to particularity, complexity, curiosity, free-play, individuality, or simply to seeing things anew” in order to suggest to the reader “new ways of existing in and thinking through the difficulties and paradoxes of contemporary reality,” he’s arriving at similar conclusions Scholes did: “The fabulator is important to the extent that he can rejoice and refresh us. And his ability to produce joy and peace depends on the skill with which he fabulates. Delight in design, and its concurrent emphasis on the art of the designer, will serve in part to distinguish the art of the fabulator from the work of the novelist or the satirist. Of all narrative forms, fabulation puts the highest premium on art and joy.” The fabulator “must move away from the pseudo-objectivity of realism toward a romance or an irony which will exploit language’s distinctively human perspective on life. In competition with the cold and lidless eye of cinema the sightless book must turn to the dark world of the imagination, illuminating it by the uniquely human vision to be found in words.” Fabulation, then, “means a return to a more verbal king of fiction. It also means a return to a more fictional kind. By this I mean a less realistic and more artistic king of narrative: more shapely, more evocative; more concerned with ideas and ideals, less concerned with things.” (The “things” bit dates it: at the time there was coming from France serious thought about abolishing character, killing metaphor, and turning the novel into an inventory of objects, things, choses; The Fabulators’s Devil was called Alain Robbe-Grillet.)
Sadly, perhaps lured away by the word “excess” on the cover, Masters preferred to side with LeClair, who as we’ve seen is openly contemptuous of the rhetorical excess Masters is attempting to extoll, naming Scholes only in passing, thus denying himself his accumulated experience in defending rhetoric as aesthetics and not as sociology, the way LeClair likes it.
In the fabulators “we do not find the rhetoric of moral certainty,” assured Scholes, for they “do not seek the superior position of traditional moralists. Nor do they point to other times and customs as repositories of moral values, or to any traditional system as The Law.” Instead, they “nourish our consciences without requiring reduction to a formula,” using formal play. As such, they do not propose “fixed ethical positions which we can complacently assume, but such thoughts as exercise our consciences and help us keep our humanity in shape, ready to respond to the humanity of others.” This idea regarding empathy is crucial to Masters when he outlines 21st-century excesstylists, who supposedly differ from the brainier, more callous, more formalist Burgess, Carter and Amis in that their novels seek to “realize human consciousness and to investigate what it is to know another human being.” He doesn’t hesitate to undersign the simplistic but growing unexamined bias that the stylists of yore wrote novels filled with impressive technical fireworks that nevertheless exploded too high in the sky to warm the cold, lifeless characters abandoned down below. There’s nothing new about that, step back long enough and you’ll find one Edmond Duranty complaining about Madame Bovary in 1857: “There is neither emotion nor sentiment, nor life in the novel, but an arithmetician’s great force”. “This book is a literary application of the probability calculus.” Identical poppycock was hurled at Melville and Joyce. Unusual novels are fated to be accused of dehumanization before they become safe examples of humanist fiction to vex the next generation of offenders with.
Strangely the primordial postmodernists haven't been yet rehabilitated like their dehumanized forebears. Current popular and academic opinion is that Barth, Hawkes, Sorrentino, Gass were human icebergs who encased their brilliant but deadened talents in blocks of ice to be admired only be the dwindling population of polar bears. Even Nabokov’s novels continue to be judged by what he said and not by the lucid ethical situations they conjure. Sadly, it wasn’t in Masters plans to pioneer a new perspective; it’s telling that his plea for modern fiction to “investigate what it is to know another human being” echoes David Foster Wallace’s claim that “fiction's about what it is to be a fucking human being.” I lack the energy to invade this peninsula of a platitude with a joke, every inch of its landmass is so tightly occupied with the agreement of every novelist of the past 500 years that it’d die asphyxiated. That makes Wood’s attack on “hysterical realism” one of the funniest equivocations of modern literature; he and Wallace were on the same page regarding the true, hallowed purpose of fiction. Although Wallace is considered an heir of sorts of the original postmodernists, he’s also connected to the rise of the New Sincerity, a trend in fiction concomitant with the Ethical Turn; both overlap in their goals of pulling fiction away from cynicism, emotional emptiness and the self-consciousness that allegedly crippled postmodernist fiction, towards a fiction that deals with “plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction. Who eschew self-consciousness and hip fatigue.” No wonder Wallace targeted Barth for parody. I don’t know if Wallace and his contemporaries were that different (I never read Wallace’s fiction, only some interviews and non-fiction), but they sure made a point of popularizing the myth of emotional deficiency often attributed to their predecessors. Wallace was a hardly alone or a pioneer.
Going retroactively about it, let’s start with Jonathan Franzen’s “Mr. Difficult” essay against William Gaddis (2002), which opens with an understandable complaint about difficulty and obscurity (Gaddis is difficult and obscure), but soon these are revealed to be codewords for what really bothers him, namely the fact that as he plodded through The Recognitions the “emotional temperature of the novel started cold and got colder”, and that the author’s “satiric judgments and intellectual obsessions discouraged intimacy.” With whom? The author? The characters? Why speculate, impatient reader? This is Franzen, read on, he won’t keep you in the dark for long, he’s not an asshole like Gaddis: “But postmodern fiction wasn't supposed to be about sympathetic characters.” (Aha!) “Characters, properly speaking, weren’t even supposed to exist.” (False.) His pal David had written already the famous “E Unibus Pluram” essay (1993), quoted so many times that we can skip it. Before that, William T. Vollmann had already written for Conjunction magazine (1990) “American Writing Today: A Diagnosis of the Disease”, which contained a set of guidelines for the New Novelist which Wallace would have enthusiastically subscribed:
1. We should never write without feeling.
2. Unless we are much more interesting than we imagine we are, we should strive to feel not only about Self, but also about Other. Not the vacuum so often between Self and Other. Not the unworthiness of Other. Not the Other as a negation or eclipse of Self. Not even about the Other exclusive of Self, because that is but a trickster-egoist’s way of worshiping Self secretly. We must treat Self and Other as equal partners. (Of course I am suggesting nothing new. I do not mean to suggest anything new. Health is more important than novelty.)
3. We should portray important human problems.
4. We should seek for solutions to those problems. Whether or not we find them, the seeking will deepen the portrait.
5. We should know our subject, treating it with the respect with which Self must treat Other. We should know it in all senses, until our eyes are bleary from seeing it, our ears ring from listening to it, our muscles ache from embracing it, our gonads are raw from making love to it. (If this sounds pompous, it is perhaps because I wear thick spectacles.)
6. We should believe that truth exists.
7. We should aim to benefit others in addition to ourselves.
“We should aim to benefit others in addition to ourselves.” Is my memory playing tricks on me or is that advice in “This Is Water”?
Here’s my theory: in the late 1980s rising young novelists, still weaned on postmodernism but likely tired of comparisons to their predecessors, did what the sociology of literature textbook tells us Young Turks tend to do to make room for themselves: they drew a caricature of the Old Turks and sold it to the public at large as the real thing while from the top of their high horses this wild bunch galloped at holier-than-thou speed stamping on the imaginary flaws that were standing in the way of their achieving status in the literary milieu without which they couldn’t save decrepit literature from impurity, cliché, triteness, exhaustion, repetition, hollowness, frivolity, inhumanity. Hey, it worked when the Realists crapped all over the Romantics! After the posse parted ways some took to the 19th-century realist novel whereas others engineered a softer, gentler version of po-mo, injected it with some buzz words about sincerity and authenticity, added emotional warmth and quasi-Dostoyevskian no-nonsense discussions centered on ethics, and fused formal innovations with the old business of illuminating the human condition, because apparently mediocre novels like The Sot-Weed Factor, Pale Fire, J R, The Tunnel had done a lousy job at that.
Next Wallace exerted tremendous influence on British fiction, which as we’ve seen has been under the influence of the USA since Burgess. “The project is to become an American novelist,” Amis once stated. Zadie was certainly thinking along similar lines when apropos of Wallace she gushed, “these are guys who know a great deal about the world. They understand macro-microeconomics, the way the Internet works, math, philosophy, but . . . they’re still people who know something about the street, about family, love, sex, whatever.” Unfortunately they didn’t know much about palindromes, lipograms, anagrams, acrostics and paronomasias, which is the sole reason I’ve been giving Wallace and Franzen a pass for more than a decade and regret the time I wasted on two banally-written Vollmann novels.
But contemporary excess, you see, is not of the rhetorical type, it has nothing to do with al-Hariri’s ability to write a whole novel in rhymed prose; it’s excess of the LeClairian type, the excess of shoptalk about technological gizmos, literally rocket science, the manufacture of thermo bottles and the physics of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, Information Theory, media, a medley of trivia that has rigorously nothing to do with verbal artistry. For Zadie it was irresistible: “That is an incredibly fruitful combination. If you can get the balance right.” She thought she could, until aterrorist attack and a Wood essay made her have a change of art.
It was news for me that Smith was once considered a stylist of excess, or a stylist; until now I didn't need to beef “stylist” up with modifiers, the bare noun bodied forth the opposite of barrenness, it conglobed extravagance, flamboyance, cornucopia. Smith struck me rather as a loyal militant of social realism, albeit one who fleetingly flirted with a fad, for she's too fickle in her infatuations. She craves too much to be with the hip crowd, whatever that may be at a particular moment. She needs to be instructed, to follow, to belong. She finds no solace in the solitude of self-assertiveness. So once upon a time she wanted to be like Wallace. But wait!, Wood has just written a damning essay and look at her rushing to agree with him on the importance of otherness in fiction. But wait!, meanwhile she’s read Remainder and now she’s predicting the future of the novel and discarding the Woodian Joseph O’Neill in favor of the wooden Tom McCarthy, a minimalist who's resurrected Robbe-Grillet’s project to annihilate character and hence not only otherness but actually humanity from novels, leaving in its place nothing but tedious descriptions of objects. Alterity, here we go! But wait!, actually she’s just read Karl Ove Knausgård’s My Struggle and “It’s unbelievable… It’s completely blown my mind,” even though its focus on passé interiority, memory and the description of emotions places it in a pre-historic position regarding the future she envisioned for the novel when she tuned in to Monsieur McCarthy's radio wave. Anyone doubts that in a few years we’ll be getting her autofiction, the next big trend? I wouldn’t be surprised because she can’t settle on anything; she follows, she emulates whatever has recently excited her. After all, and although Masters tries to argue otherwise, it’s no coincidence that the minimalist NW was her next novel after she praised the equally minimalist Remainder. And although he never brings this up, as he should have, I need only compare one novel:
About the accident itself I can say very little. Almost nothing. It involved something falling from the sky. Technology. Parts, bits. That’s it, really: all I can divulge. Not much, I know.
It’s not that I’m being shy. It’s just that – well, for one, I don’t even remember the event. It’s a blank: a white slate, a black hole. (Remainder)
with the other:
The fat sun stalls by the phone masts. Anti-climb paint turns sulphurous on school gates and lamp posts. In Willesden people go barefoot, the streets turn European, there is a mania for eating outside. She keeps to the shade. Redhead. On the radio. I am the sole author of the dictionary that defines me. A good line – write it out on the back of a magazine. In a hammock, in the garden of a basement flat. Fenced in, on all sides. (NW)
to notice the same ordinary vocabulary, the same short, choppy sentences. Few verbs. The same straightforward SVO syntax. The avoidance of subordinate clauses. Sentences always moving forward, nauseated by the indecency of lingering on details. Nothing is worth a prolonged look because the drab, ugly, joyless, burdensome world in the minds of McCarthy and Smith is unworthy of celebration. If excess is a style not yet dead, as Masters argues, he’s rallied an unlikely team to prove it.
Smith, instead of proving that the concept of excess has evolved and mutated, proves that minimalism is making a comeback under new guises, including, and this is astonishing, the guise of excess. Of course comeback is too misleading a word, it never went away; around the same time she was starting her career a British anthology was coming out called All Hail the New Puritan composed of writers who publicly and proudly declared themselves minimalists. Let’s consider one of its verbal pearls: “For dinner, Mark's mum has Chunky Monkey ice-cream. Me and Mark's dad have egg and chips, sitting in the lounge watching Neighbours From Hell.” Doesn’t this sound like something that could naturally show up in NW? So that’s Zadie and Tom, and a bunch of writers who since this anthology have ascended to prominent positions in British fiction; if we add Eimear McBride, whose style is identical, I’d say, contra Masters, that minimalism is alive in kicking in Albion.
Masters is aware of this contradiction; after quoting from NW he concedes: “On these sentences alone, NW might seem a strange book to call upon as evidence in a defense of stylistic excess. The reader could easily believe that he or she is stepping into a minimalist world.” You better bet on it, Ben! Actually, it is worrying the amount of times that, cornered by evidence, he admits the obvious. Of course he noticed the “minimalist style” in the Somni section in Cloud Atlas, of course he knows that in chunks of NW “we find only unadorned dialogue”, and yet he stubbornly skirts the conclusion.
Cloud Atlas isn’t even allowed a single large quote that the reader may judge Mitchell’s rhetorical skills by himself. That strategic lacuna is at the heart of the most important phenomenon Masters inadvertently reveals: the redefinition of excess away from rhetoric to sheer bulk. You too have probably noticed that a new buzzword is slowly entering the mainstream; it used to be passed along mainly by a handful of readers with unusual tastes until a few years ago, but lately you’ve surely come across the word “maximalism” on some website, blog, Reddit, Good Reads. Maximalist novels are also called mega-novels and sort of overlap with Wood’s “hysterical realism”. I think my introduction to it was in Moore’s The Novel: An Alternative History, c. 2015. Mind you, his book is from 2009. Since then there have been proper studies about maximalist fiction, in 2014 Stefano Ercolino published The Maximalist Novel: From Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow to Roberto Bolaño's 2666, a book so expensive I’ll probably never read it, although I’d love to.
As far as I can tell, Ercolino also has adhered to the LeClair school of excess, his maximalism has nothing to do with maximizing language per se, but with commonplace features like “length”, “intersemioticity”, “chorality”, “polyphony”, aka the stale bread and curled butter of ordinary novels since Miguel de Cervantes, but whatever. Ercolino also thinks a distinctive feature of the maximalist novel is the presence of “paranoia”, which sounds like an arbitrary pet concept he tacked on to his very private definition. Anyway, I don’t want to be too harsh since I didn’t read it, maybe it all makes sense. What I've gleaned from third parties is that for Ercolino maximalism has less to do with language than with structure: non-linear plots, multiple plots, multiple narrators, multiple points of view. I find that quite underwhelming, either at 1000 pages or at 100 that’s so common in the novelistic tradition that I don’t see why you need to call it maximalism, Nathalie Sarraute could tell in 200 pages a single event from multiple perspectives, but whatever again. I bring Ercolino up because Masters identifies Cloud Atlas as excessive – curiously Mitchell has described himself as an “innate maximalist” – in this non-rhetorical sense of giving importance to structure, length, overplotting, and mixing concerns about science and technology. When Masters shifts to Cloud Atlas, it’s all about “the inherent excesses of novelistic form” (i.e. pastiches), “variability”, “stylistic eclecticism” (i.e. more pastiches), “ideas of infinite regression and Russian dolls.” That’s why he can’t take a decent quote from it, the “excess” is no longer at the sentence, word or even letter level the way it was when Burgess wrote “Then, instead of expensive mouthwash, he had breathed on Hogg-Enderby, bafflingly (for no banquet would serve, because of the known redolence of onions, onions) onions. ‘Onions,’ said Hogg.”, but diluted in a thousand recursive, resonant, patterning, mirroring details throughout the whole, all of them unimpressive in isolation but accreting into an awe-inspiring totality. That’s the theory anyway; in practice Cloud Atlas is a monument to blandness.
It’s precisely because I’m getting nervous about the rising popularity of this R&D type of excess that I read Masters, hoping to find contemporary writers who still personify the old excess, stylists who have been out of my radar's reach but who carry on the torch lit by Burgess, but I fear that somewhere along the way the torch fell into an open manhole and there’s not even a hiss of diaphanous smoke rising from the sewage. Whatever made Nabokov, Burgess, Carter, Theroux, West, Gass, Stanley Elkin write the way they did no longer meets any sympathy from younger novelists, undoubtedly brilliant, diligent people, who prefer to spend afternoons researching the physics of paper toilet rather than trying out palindromic combinations.
If I had to hazard why this happened I’d say it’s because Theory has indoctrinated us into discarding beauty. Comrade Lenin or whoever was right, ethics will be the aesthetics of the future, although I don’t see the point of assuring a future devoid of beauty. Masters failed completely to defend that we need novels not because they engage ethically with us but because they produce much-needed beauty. But Theory taught us long ago that we can do without it; beauty has been mocked by Hermann Broch (“the goddess of beauty in art is the goddess of Kitsch”), Adorno (ironically, in Portuguese “adorno” means ornament, as in Adolf Loos’ “Ornament and Crime”), Marcuse, Barthes, Foucault, Derrida, it has had no place in serious academic discussion in over 70 years. In the writings of these thinkers, beauty shows up as a soporific that numbs its victims into inactivity, dissipating energy in contemplation of transcendence which should be channeled into the anti-bourgeois Revolution. Beauty consoles and makes us feel at home in the world, and the thinkers of Critical Theory wanted people feeling miserable all the time so they could give their lives to the Revolution. Beauty ultimately draws us closer into believing in the Absolute, and that's ideologically dangerous since we should looking downwards at the material conditions that need changing so badly.
For a long time now it's been the convention to depict the modernists as the last stronghold of art aiming at transcendence, and the postmodernists as cynical nihilists who think this is all just a big joke, that there are values, that nothing ultimately matters. That's ridiculous, the last writers to believe in a sort of transcendence, in some absolute, whether they were Christian, agnostic or atheistic, were postmodernists because they tried to get to beauty through language. One of the landmarks of postmodernism, The Recognitions, concerns an artist who tries to find the absolute through painting. In 1974 Burgess could still write in earnest: "That so many writers have been prepared to accept a kind of martyrdom is the best tribute that flesh can pay to the living spirit of man as expressed in his literature. One cannot doubt that the martyrdom will continue to be gladly embraced. To some of us, the wresting of beauty out of language is the only thing in the world that matters." Nowadays such attitude begs almost forgivingness, as John Banville shows when he stated in 2003:“I am old-fashioned enough to use the word “beauty” without blushing, or giggling.” The key-word is “old-fashioned”. A novelist like Smith, always riding fads, would never want to be unfashionable. You need to quote the post-postmodernists, those actively writing against them, to find the cynical attitude at wooly ideals like beauty and anything else that transcends the tawdry, material world. Smith, in an essay titled "Fail Better", explained that style should not be understood as "fanciful syntax, or as the flamboyant icing atop a plain literary cake, nor as the uncontrollable result of some mysterous velocity coiled within language itself." How different than Carter: "I mean, I'm an arty person. OK, I write overblown, purple, self-indulgent prose. So fucking what?" So fucking what, Angela, you should instead engage with the real world. "Literary success or failure," says Smith, "depends not only on the refinement of words on a page, but in the refinement of a consciousness, what Aristotle called the education of emotions." Contrast her yearning to be a socially relevant writer committed with the issues of her time with Gass's more spiritual ambition: "My particular aim is that it be loved because it is so beautiful in itself, something that exists simply to be experienced. So the beauty has to come first."
In her novel On Beauty Smith creates Howard Balsey, a ridiculous figure of a professor who hates beauty since it's ideologically charged and wants to denounce it. If the treatment gives the impression Balsey is a figure to loathe for his ideas, the fact is that a while later Smith penned "Two Paths for the Novel", one of our age’s most incisive manifestos against rhetoric, style and excess. This was an expected development since writers who start believing too much in the priority of authenticity usually end up attacking beauty as silly, affected, false, politically useless and reactionary. Historically, whenever writers vied for authenticity they abandoned the artistry of language; it's one of the Greeks' most harmful legacies that we think of authenticity and simplicity are correlates: plain talkers instead of silk-smooth talkers, jut the facts ma'am, the truth and nothing but the truth so help me God.
I kept waiting for Masters to deal with her essays, but he ignored them not unlike he ignored Amis's recent grievances with Nabokov. In 2009, apropos of reviewing The Original of Laura, Amis made some catty remarks about his style. Ada or Ardor, the apex of excess, took the worst beating: “This interminable book is written in dense, erudite, alliterative, punsome, pore-clogging prose; and every character, without exception, sounds like late Henry James.” For me, the only flaw in Ada is that it’s not 2000 pages longer; if Nabokov had kept the same high-temperature heat going for that duration, I mean, wow! Aesthetic bliss indeed!
But after demolishing some aspects of his style, Amis launched an attack on the ethics of the author himself. Did you know that "Nabokov wrote about the Holocaust at paragraph length only once"? Well, you do now because Amis thinks it's very, very pertinent that you do. To my knowledge Amis has written twice about the Holocaust, which on his retirement entitles him to gold watch with the inscription "A Fucking Human Being!" on it. Nabokov's homosexual brother, Sergey, died in a Nazi concentration camp and that tidbit is meant to enrage us at the cool detachment from such a crime in his novels. Amis was nothing but visionary, for this type of mentality is nowadays common. We now hold writers to high standards and expect from them outward signs that they conform to our expectations of what a civic-minded writer is, if we hear them it's usually handing out opinions on current affairs. Silence is anti-social, patrician, a symptom of aloofness. At the same time this is as old as the zdhanovism: once upon a time the outward sign was membership in a Communist Party, nowadays it's tweeting a certain hashtag.
So half of Masters’ peahen to excess is filled with people who openly loathe excess. I’m beginning to wonder if Novel Style wasn’t an inside job, a ruse to further discredit old stylists, to finish what Vollmann, Wallace and Franzen started. I must be maximalist too because I’m getting paranoid!
Nevertheless, his book excels at showing the Americanization of British excess. To my mind, there are two types of excess. I don’t want to get too schematic about this, it’s a tentative theory after all, but I do believe there’s an ancient type and a modern type. The ancient type leads us to Shakespeare and Lyly. As William Blake wrote, “excess is beauty”. In this modality excess and beauty are interconnected. Nothing is more excessive than the universe itself, or cosmos, from which we derive “cosmetics”, no doubt an etymological red flag that got Broch’s alarm ringing. But cosmos, for the Greeks, meant concepts in the periphery of and leading to beauty: elegance, orderliness, harmony, smoothness, completion. Excess is not just ornamentation, it’s the byproduct of an attempt at organizing content into a form, something that Adorno taught us is no longer the task of art: "The task of art today is to bring chaos into order." Cosmos, for the Greeks, was not just the sum of the material universe, it implied order, shape, arrangement, its orderly arrangement, as opposed to chaos, formlessness. To my mind, that’s what Blake was getting at. Verbal excess, in trying to live up to the universe, produces that kind of orderliness that we find in nature, in its laws, in the orbits of planets and fractal patterns, in the mysterious reoccurrence of the golden ratio in nature, in the clockwork design that makes the universe look like it was tailor-made to house us, so adequate a small change in its proportions would have made the emergence of life impossible. This isn’t a Creationist tract, my point is that the only human-made type of perfection I know that rivals the universe’s elegance is to be found, for instance, in the novels of Nabokov, wherein the displacement of a single word augurs chaos. I speak of the minutia that produces such delicate wordplay: “Lucette, in passing, stopped to pick up her sister’s cap and sunglasses – the sunglasses of much-sung lasses, a shame to throw them away!” The minutia that passed the whole of language in review and stopped to delight in the arbitrariness that “sunglasses” and “sung lasses” are merely a few dislocated letters apart, and decided to share that harmonious insight with us, like a scientist revealing to us the mysteries of the universe.
Let Amis hate such craftsmanship, he never surpassed it. This, to me, is beauty, a rare, specific type of beauty I can get nowhere else in the world except from the minds of a handful of individuals in the last 2500 years of history. This is the kind of verbal beauty, call if excess if you want, that has existed since Gorgias’ time and ruled in Europe for two millennia. Alas, it cannot spring from Smith, who mocked and sneered at metaphor, florid language, lyricism, beauty.
Her early novels belong instead to the modern excess mostly associated with the American novel. The USA is a country founded by Puritans, a Protestant sect which destroyed churches because of their ornamentation and preached a plain, austere style in opposition to the glorious sermons of John Donne and Jeremy Taylor. Melville’s Moby Dick embodies it: its gorgeous excess has little to do with alliteration, metaphors, wordplay, assonance, although he’s no slouch at that. But what immediately impresses us is its accumulative learning. There’s a fear of idleness in Moby Dick, much like the Protestant who thinks his soul will be saved by hard work. Melville fills it up with material, as if worried that his peers would think he hadn’t worked hard enough on his cetacean compendium. You can smell the sweet library sweat off its sentences. It betrays a puritan busy-ness, as if the novel could be saved by diligence. Research, toil, hoard, prosper, that’s how you achieve salvation. How to justify a novel to people who thought the only book worth reading was the Bible anyway? I guess one solution is to compose it as if it were a holy book.
Puritanism has long provided a useful nemesis to British novelists of excess, it works them into a rage. When Amis alluded to euphuism he linked himself to a pre-Puritan novelist whose style employed the exorbitant messiness that led Bishop Sprat to “reject all amplifications, digressions, and swellings of style” and to transform the Royal Academy in a bulwark of “primitive purity and shortness” pining for an idyllic time “when men delivered so many things almost in an equal number of words.” Burgess was anathematizing himself when he remarked that his “temperament” was “closer to that of the baroque writers than that of the stark toughies. To hell with cheeseparing and verbal meanness: it all reeks of Banbury puritanism.” As we’ve seen, the wild card in the United States was a foreigner called Vladimir Nabokov who introduced a euphuistic approach to style and enthused a few novices into writing like him. It is ominous that 1955 marks the year both types of excess flourished in modern English-language literature: Lolita and The Recognitions came out, one would influence Burgess and Amis, Gass and Theroux (who’s also deeply Melvillian); the other Pynchon, Wallace, Vollmann, you name it. This variety was positive, both types provide their particular pleasures and while they co-existed it was a grand time for the novel.
The current problem lies in the excess of one type of excess. Everything now is beginning to reek of Banbury puritanism. The tendency, as Masters makes it clear, is for rhetorical excess to go extinct because it no longer seduces young novelists. As we move in time the novels under study grow wider spinies. American excess, less rhetorical, more encyclopedic, has taken over their imaginations. The type of excess he thinks he’s defending, the rhetorical kind, is dying. If Amis could still look up to Nabokov, Smith’s model is Infinite Jest. Wood wasn’t wrong about hysterical realism: what this type of excess excels at is storytelling, too much in fact. Burgess, Carter and Amis turned their elitist, late-modernist noses at plot. But plot, nothing but the plot, is all you get in Smith’s early novels and in Cloud Atlas. Episodes, subplots, detours, surprises, twists, little stories within stories, self-contained novellas nestled in nooks, the kind of thing you get in Pynchon and Barth. That’s why Cloud Atlas did so well in cinema, it’s just narrative, just movement. Likewise, Sergio De La Pava’s A Naked Singularity is an excellent novel, not only because of its electrifying colloquialism, but because its plot is as gripping as the Elmore Leonard novel it’s pretending not to be, and because Casi is a likeable and sincere and unironic protagonist, and because from it emanates an antiquated aura of gravitas that seems audacious in our blasé times. So modern excess is the fusion of puritanism and populism, plainness and plot, the hatred of beauty and rhetoric allied to the craving for stories. Those who grew up with cinema and movies have no interest in rhetoric, beauty is a depreciated value, but plot and instant self-gratification sell. Modern novelists are consumers of TV shows and now write novels like serials; the so-called “literary novels” are bound to become more like them and less like artistic braids of words. So as the novelists Nabokov enthused continue to die one by one, nobody replaces them. Style is doomed to go extinct, crushed between the recrudescence of minimalism and the popularity of big novels, big on facts but too thin on topoi and their skeletal figures of speech.
Masters argues that “excess functions in a variety of ways”, of which I remain unconvinced. To him, the new excess also resorts to parenthetical asides, abrupt ends of sentences, thoughts overlapping to mimic modern-day cacophony. Here’s an example from Nicola Barker’s Darkmans:
Riding on the tiny wave he’d created were a series of small, black boars – little, dark canoes, vying with each other to win the race to the bathroom wall. He blinked –
-not canoes but feathers. Black feathers. He peered down at his feet again –
-and discovered that the plughole in the shower cubicle had actually become blocked by them…
He made an idle scratching motion in the air with his hand –
-He smiled –
-he shook his head again, dissatisfied. He idly prodded at the feathers with his toe, then he bent over, stiffly, and grabbed at them with his fingers.
Someone may enjoy reading this, people once enjoyed reading the stupefying Michel Butor and Claude Mauriac who this verbal abomination reminds me of, but besides showing that the dash is a major constituent of modern excess, to me it proves only that there’s no such thing as modern excess. What I find curious about these techniques is how cinematic they are. Polyphony exists in Scorsese movies with their multiple narrators. Parenthetical asides, a misguided attempt to bring a sense of simultaneity to the novel that it can never have (you don’t know that!) because we read words one by one (well, try reading faster…), are similar to voice narrating over action. The abrupt cuts employed by Barker can be likened to jump-cut editing and the camera changing perspectives. And the weaving of multiple narratives, like in Cloud Atlas, is a product of editing. Now, all of this may be put to good use, but it’s not rhetorically exhilarating. Masters recognizes that the Somni section in Cloud Atlas is minimalist. Why, the others aren’t?
Thursday, 7th November
Beyond the Indian hamlet, upon a forlorn strand, I happened on a trail of recent footprints. Through rotting kelp, sea cocoa nuts & bamboo, the tracks led me to their maker, a White man, his trowzers & Pea-jacket rolled up, sporting a kempt beard & an outsized Beaver, shoveling and sifting the cindery sand with a teaspoon so intently that he noticed me only after I had hailed him from ten years away. Thus it was, I made the acquaintance of Dr. Henry Goose, surgeon to the London nobility. His nationality was no surprise. If there be any eyrie so desolate, or isle so remote, that one may there resort unchallenged by an Englishman, ‘tis not down on any map I ever saw.
This is the novel’s opening. It deploys information quickly, it’s orientating, it avoids too many details. It’s a chummy, helpful novel. Sure, it tries to fool you: perhaps you’ve noticed the little tics, the “&” and the uncommon spelling to give it a faux 19th-century make-up, but overall it’s verbally subdued. It guides you, it soothes you: you know this part is going to be piece of cake. Then another part starts and the cake keeps getting smaller. Mitchell, like Melville, knows lots of things: he knows about 19th-century slave trade, early 20th-century music, corporate espionage, the book industry, science. Like a nice novelist brought up on American excess, he knows lots of things. Like many American maximalists, he’s also ungainly at the sentence level. I’m trying to understand what makes his novel more excessive than any average novel. It’s restrained, it hands out the visual information you need, no more, no less. I bet the costume designer loved to know that Tom Hanks was supposed to be dressed in trousers and a Pea-jacket. And yet, nothing’s going on with the language. It’s a dull, inert, lifeless scroll of text. We no longer have stylists, just plotters prone to pun-pruning.
Style is elitist. Style builds walls. Excess is an exigent exercise. Plot, on the other hand, is democratic, otherwise you wouldn’t get it on TV in one hundred different flavors a week. Everyone loves plot. Excess doesn’t belong in our time; it screams meritocracy, and that troubles the reader. So the concept of excess slowly changes; Masters may be convinced that he’s interested in rhetorical excess of the euphuistic kind, but by the end of the book he’s already rebuffing “literary games” like LeClair. According to him, 21st century excess thrives on “polyphony” and different registers: his vocabulary is so similar to Ercolino I’m beginning to think he read him. Polyphony is nice, but if you use 10 different points of view in a novel, and they all share the same background and education, they’re going to sound the same, and there won’t be much opportunity for rhetorical creativity at the sentence level. You can have 10 different people narrating a novel, but if those 10 people write like semiliterate drop-outs, so what? You can juggle 6 different narratives in different time places and continents and planets, but if they’re all written in a straightforward, journalistic way, so what? You may have many registers, pastiche is the plague and poison of contemporary novels, you know, now a section in tweets, now a section in emails, now post-its left on the fridge’s door, now a chapter like an IRS form (how exciting!), and how about a chapter mimicking a job interview, or a CV, etc., oh, how we love those little pastiches, but if each different register springs from the mundane speech we’re naturally dexterous at, isn’t that just miserliness masquerading as Midas’ touch? Look, I write tweets once in a while; I send emails every day. Once I even had to make a CV. Why am I supposed to be impressed by writers whose verbal dexterity doesn’t reach beyond the skillsets society currently constrains functional individuals to have fully mastered by the age of 12? Thanks, but I’ll take Burgess’ ethically unjustified but jovial and elaborate waywardness instead. He didn’t need to show off a desperate ability to pastiche 10 different mediocre styles; he showed off one inimitable style, his own.
Novel Style has at least helped me tidy up a few ideas. First of all, the old postmodernists could do with a reassessment. Masters doesn’t doubt for a second that they were deficient in ethics and emotionally cold. It’s alright that Franzen, Wallace and Vollmann thought so; every new generation finds the previous one to be stupid. It’s forgivable for novelists to believe that; building up targets is useful stimulus; nothing makes you want to push on like having to demolish a wall in front of you. They wanted to escape from under the shadow of their gigantic ancestors. This is Literary History 101. But academics are expected to examine and tear down biases, not to reinforce them with steel concrete. Maybe it’s time to give a good look at The Fabulators, Scholes was busy defending the ethics of postmodernism half a century ago and is full of excellent insight. I’ve gotten joy, consolation and serious thinking from their novels. Alex’s ultra-violent nature has made me think about the origin of evil. I’ve found humanity in The Tunnel and J R. I see no lack of tenderness in Darconville’s Cat. I find Van’s love for Ada one of the most touching love stories of the last century. I’m sorry for being a contrarian, but Wallace’s gibberish about self-irony marring the primitive postmodernists can only convince imbeciles who never read them in the first place. These are perceptive novels that enact complex situations about what used to be called the human condition. Masters, in a bout of originality, thinks that it’s possible to bridge to apparent opposites: excess and ethics, Burgess and Wood at the same time. He’s idealistic enough to judge that possible. So am I. Where we part ways is that I lack no plethora of examples of how that was already achieved a long time ago.
It’s also clearer to me now how right Tim Parks was a few years ago when he warned about the rise of the “dull global novel”. I wonder if novelists like Burgess could get international recognition nowadays. Style as I defined it doesn’t translate well, I’m not sure it translates at all. I don’t doubt that out in the wide world novelists are still fascinated by syntactic convolution and minute effects at the letter level, but I fear they’ll never be more than regional curiosities trapped within the specificities of their own idioms. How do you translate a lipogram like Eunoia? The modern world is made for Mitchell and Smith to triumph with their international language tailormade for quick translations. More and more translating will be akin to flushing a toilet. Masters’ excess is “excess” for global consumption, which means it’s not excess at all or it wouldn’t be consumed globally.
Masters and LeClair want a justification for excess that goes beyond its rhetorical dexterity. I, on the other hand, want an apologia based on style. But perhaps that’s impossible; perhaps excess can’t be written about, only savored. And now I realize why I prefer short essays like West’s and Theroux’s, they don’t feel obliged to put up an ethical defense, they are themselves examples of their peculiar styles, are themselves objects of excess. In the end, only excess justifies excess. When West extolled “purple prose”, he shared with Burgess and Amis a pre-Puritan era mentality: “Elizabethan or Jacobean: fine language, all the way from articulate frenzy to garish excess.” He didn’t bothered with ethics, even if his novels are ethically engaged. No, for him purple
is the world written up, intensified and made pleasurably palpable, not only to suggest the impetuous abundance of Creation, but also to add to it by showing - showing off - the expansive power of the mind itself, its unique knack for making itself at home among trees, dawns, viruses, and then turning them into something else: a word, a daub, a sonata. The impulse here is to make everything larger than life, almost to overrespond, maybe because, habituated to life written down, in both senses, we become inured and have to be awakened with something almost intolerably vivid. When the deep purple blooms, you are looking at a dimension, not a posy.
This brings us back us to Blake: excess as beauty, excess as a representation of the universe itself. For West, purple is how we, the microcosmos, interact with the macrocosmos, how we make ourselves at home in this threatening universe. It’s a way of giving order to things and of being more honest with our condition, since the “plain, the homespun, the banal, is itself a form of betrayal, a refusal to look honestly at a complex universe.” Purple, instead, causes “exhilaration” and a “sense of metaphysical fear.” The part about exhilaration is a very Scholes thing. He was concerned with “what makes our experience of fiction a good experience,” that is, the pleasure in reading, the defense of which was also part of his intentions. That’s one of the aspects so often overlooked by those who despise excess. People never mention that rhetorical excess is pleasurable. Perhaps that’s why the pleasure-hating Puritans hounded eloquence, form and beauty. Theroux, in his essay, evokes Saint Augustine’s eruditam voluptam, the pleasure of knowledge. I think critics, moralists in disguise, too often want the novel to teach us what to do for others, but ignore what the novel should do for us. Rather than helping, perhaps it should start by giving us pleasure, consoling us, showing us beauty. I think we suffer not from a lack of empathy, but from a lack of beauty. Why should anyone care about others when fiction portrays everything as dysphemic? Most novels I read are intent on terrifying me with how awful the world is, as if TV weren’t doing a great job at that already. Mental health, learning to adjust to the world, has to do with experiencing beauty. I’m not advocating nice feelings, good-hearted messages, I mean formal beauty, beauty contained in style, shown through rhetorical eloquence, the bliss we can only get from admiring the music of a sentence or its elegant shape, even if it's describing gigantic horrors.
It's now common to lament that we humans have been dehumanized, that’s why we’re so violent, nasty, selfish, so incapable of thinking about others; but let’s consider the opposite: we’re like that because we're too human still. We could benefit from being dehumanized a bit more and treated more like words. You want exercises to help you become a better person? You want to learn how to treat others nicely? Here’s how fiction teaches you to become a better person: treat others the way Nabokov treated his words and in no time you’ll be more empathic than Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Mother Theresa and Nelson Mandela combined. You want ethical lessons from fiction? That’s the only one it can give you: strive in your daily for the excellence that stylists strove for when they combined words. Imagine that Eden! Imagine if a politico spent as much time worrying other people's problems as Alexander Theroux evidently does with the dictionary; if he listened to others with the patience it took him to amass all the archaic and arcane verbs for a ten-page chapter of Darconville’s Cat. Imagine if your boss valued you the way Burgess valued language; imagine parents raising a child with the loving patience Joyce raised an aural pun: "They shall come to know good". Imagine yourself wanting to improve your town the way Nabokov wanted to improve his metaphors; imagine a president making global decisions as carefully as Gass when he chose the exact vowel to make a sentence sound better. Just imagine being demanded the level of excellence stylists demand of themselves when crafting a paragraph. Such a world would be far more ethical, smart, generous, playful, joyful. Put in everything you do the effort Burgess put in creating Nadsat; don’t rush things, Gass didn’t take shortcuts to finish the 35-years-in-the-making The Tunnel. Don’t listen to characters, they're fictions, they can't help you; don’t listen to writers when they’re pontificating for the Nobel Prize; study not what they say but what they actually do when the cameras and microphones are off, when they’re alone in a room with a screen in front of them waiting for words. Understand what it takes to turn that screen into the object in your hands. Excess teaches by being what it is, by providing an instance of excellence in a society too anxious to settle for shabbiness, by offering a glimpse into a more refined order, a fuller relationship between us and the universe which also includes others. That’s the lesson.
Updated in September 2021.