Friday, February 24, 2006

Hillary Frey's review of The Best People in the World, by Justin Tussing

I have not actually read Justin Tussing's book. I did, however, read Hillary Frey's review of this book in Salon, and would like to quote a part of it, just to demonstrate the kind of writing that seems to impress reviewers nowadays. In a gushing review, Frey declares that the real reason to read this book is its prose:
It is very rare to find a novel so lovingly, deliberately and perfectly written that you want to read passages out loud to anyone who will listen, but this is that book. A raging fire "was like a beautiful television." As Thomas and Alice waste away, with little food, sex between them is "a collision of bones. The horns of our pelvises rasped." Describing Sonya, Thomas says, "her gaze was all boudoir, as if she believed that she would be forced to gift those minor fortunes of youth and prettiness to hungry, inexpressive men, for them to squander." On a cloudless day, "the sun was like a photograph of the sun." Even a grocery list is gorgeous: "A flour sack as big as a pillow ... A bucket of shortening ... Ricotta cheese. Cottage cheese. Cheddar from up the lake in Shelbourne."

There you have it. This is apparently prose that "glows." I would dismiss this as the work of an individual reviewer with bizarre taste, but there is just too much praise of this sort to be ignored.

These appear to be the rules for writing reviewer-friendly prose:

a) throw in figurative language when none is necessary (like a painter heaping layers of paint on a canvas, anxious to create depth)

b) compare things that have rarely, if ever, been compared

c) pile bold, dark, soft, rasping adjectives on top of each other until a lyrical effect is achieved

d) try to make some of these adjectives really surprising, and remember: don't worry about accuracy! A reader (or, at least, a reviewer) will be impressed that you even came up with such an off-the-wall word to use.

Let's look at some of these rules at work in Tussing's work. I am not sure how a fire looks like a beautiful television, but then again I am not sure which televisions are especially beautiful -- does he mean like a plasma screen? Maybe he's talking about beautiful images on a television. But usually those are just smaller versions of things in the real world. He also might be talking about those premium channels that are scrambled, like the porn channel that I could sort of decipher when I was in middle school. Scrambled channels sort of look like a fire, if there's a lot of yellow on the screen. That's the best I can do with that one.

Next: unusual words. "Collision of bones" is fine - it tells me everything I need to know about two really skinny, hungry people having sex. This isn't enough, though; Tussing wants to get the horns of their pelvises to rasp. Now, I am pretty skinny -- my pelvis horns jut right out there -- but I have never succeeded in getting them to rasp with anyone, no matter how hard I've tried. Have I just been with the wrong women? Maybe Tussing can tell me how it's done, but I doubt it.

Next: the borderline baffling. I know what "bedroom eyes" are -- but apparently that's too commonplace a phrase: her gaze has to be all boudoir, and this must be a very special kind of boudoir, because it's like "she believed that she would be forced to gift those minor fortunes of youth and prettiness to hungry, inexpressive men, for them to squander." Man, and I just thought she wanted to have sex! Now, much of this barely makes sense -- I'm really not sure why this girl believes that she is forced to gift something, since gifts are usually voluntary -- but I can appreciate "minor fortunes of youth and prettiness." The men are hungry -- which sounds fairly expressive to me -- but also inexpressive. And they're going to squander what she's giving them. This is some pair of eyes. Does anybody really believe that a human being can look into someone's eyes and see this? Just try to imagine that boudoir look for yourself. Maybe the narrator is a serial bullshitter, and Tussing is creating character, but Frey's certainly not presenting it that way.

Now, the actually good: "The sun was like a photograph of the sun." This does it for me. Everyone has seen pictures with the rays of a bright sun whiting out part of a picture, and it makes the idea of a sun on a cloudless day much more alive -- while also capturing the sense of nostalgia that the review made it seem was central to the story.

And finally, the completely mundane. This is more about Hillary Frey than all reviewers, but the inclusion of the "gorgeous" grocery list is truly bizarre. "A flour sack as big as a pillow ... A bucket of shortening ... Ricotta cheese. Cottage cheese. Cheddar from up the lake in Shelbourne." It is true that shortening does come in a bucket (sometimes in smaller "tubs" as well). Those are indeed two different kinds of cheese (I've actually eaten both!). And, yes, cheese does come from various places.

Let me try my hand at some gorgeous writing: "A sausage link as big as a baseball bat ... two cans of tuna ... a box of cereal ... fresh rye bread from a bakery down the street."

Is Tussing's book good? Maybe. Frey might have picked out the overwritten bits, because they are the only ones that can be quoted independently to impress an easily convinced reader. And there are great books that are badly written: Sister Carrie, for example. The difference is that I get the sense that Dreiser is caught up in his story, and can't be bothered with making his sentences pretty. So there are examples of incompetence in every paragraph, but the scenes still spring to life, and the whole book works.

Tussing, on the other hand, seems to be trying very hard to write well -- he probably spent ages on some of these sentences -- and with every strange comparison and contorted bit of syntax, he gets farther away from his story and whatever truth might be in it. If the book works, it will be in spite of this kind of writing, not because of it. And Frey says that the prose is the novel's "greatest draw" just before she starts quoting! God help a writer if lovely sentences are the main reason to read her book.

Anyway, it would not be worth going into this if the praise of bullshit was not so widespread, as B.R. Myers demonstrated pretty conclusively in "A Reader's Manifesto." This is the reason that even people who love to read will buy mediocre CDs and spend ten dollars on movies that they know in advance will be terrible before they will take a chance on a work of modern literary fiction. Well done, reviewers.

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