Saturday, December 08, 2007

The mire of words

As I haven't read the book, I can't say for sure whether BR Myers' hatchet-job on Denis Johnson's Tree of Smoke is fair, but I had a similar response to The Name of the World, which I had picked up because of the intriguing title and impressive encomia. I found the writing awkward and indistinct; like so much of US fiction in fact: an apparently thoughtless mix of the literary and colloquial, with each undermining the other. Of course this is an unforgivably impressionistic description. In mitigation, I don't have a copy and Myers' review does rather confirm it. (Terry Pitts' review of Marianne Wiggins' The Shadow Catcher seems to identify something similar.)

Myers reduces the issue to the rotting of the "application of word to thing". Literary prose "becomes slushy and inexact, or excessive or bloated, the whole machinery of social and of individual thought and order goes to pot." However wrong he is in his identification of a cure, I think he's identified the central problem. It's been addressed from a different angle recently, and the crisis that led to Modernism can, in crude terms, be traced to a felt disintegration in the relation between representation and the thing it represents. Kafka expressed it when Gustav Janouch asked his opinion of the drawings of Oscar Kokoschka:
I do not understand them. Drawing derives from to draw, to describe, to show. All they show me is the painter's internal confusion and disorder. [...] In that picture the roofs are flying away. The cupolas are umbrellas in the wind. The whole city is flying in all directions. Yet Prague still stands - despite all internal conflicts. That is the miracle.
Expressionism then is Establishment Literary Fiction now; both rely on an embedded confidence in its chosen medium; producing culture as in mould. Kafka's words help me to understand what's missing from most of the fiction I feel obliged to sample: the hard-won voice.


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