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Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The 2100-Word Paragraph

And so, having just spent 850 words (see previous post) discussing the need for, or at least the usefulness of, verticality in writing (most particularly, screenwriting), I thought I might trot out an example of horizontality: writing that forces the reader to parse word by word by word (never paragraph by paragraph or stanza by stanza) through an extended piece of descriptive text.

The following 2,107-word paragraph (which you can also find here) occurs in Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, a book that won the 1974 National Book Award for Fiction (and would have won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction that year, except for a passage that was deemed coprophilic). Widely considered a postmodern classic, Pynchon's idiosyncratic tribute to wartime paranoia has found a place on more than one list of 100 all-time greatest novels.

The setup: Two characters, Roger and Jessica, have come upon a church in the countryside outside Kent, England on a Sunday evening. World War II is in its final year. During a hymn, Jessica lapses into a dreamlike fugue state. 
Advent blows from the sea, which at sunset tonight shone green and smooth as iron-rich glass: blows daily upon us, all the sky above pregnant with saints and slender heralds' trumpets. Another year of wedding dresses abandoned in the heart of winter, never called for, hanging in quiet satin ranks now, their white-crumpled veils begun to yellow, rippling slightly only at your passing, spectator . . . visitor to the city at all the dead ends . . . Glimpsing in the gowns your own reflection once or twice, halfway from shadow, only blurred flesh-colors across the peau de soie, urging you in to where you can smell the mildew's first horrible touch, which was really the idea—covering all trace of her own smell, middleclass bride-to-be perspiring, genteel soap and powder. But virgin in her heart, in her hopes. None of your bright-Swiss or crystalline sea son here, but darkly billowed in the day with cloud and the snow falling like gowns in the country, gowns of the winter, gentle at night, a nearly windless breathing around you. In the stations of the city the prisoners are back from Indo-China, wandering their poor visible bones, light as dreamers or men on the moon, among chrome-sprung prams of black hide resonant as drumheads, blonde wood high-chairs pink and blue with scraped and mush-spattered floral decals, folding-cots and bears with red felt tongues, baby-blankets making bright pastel clouds in the coal and steam smells, the metal spaces, among the queued, the drifting, the warily asleep, come by their hundreds in for the holidays, despite the warnings, the gravity of Mr. Morrison, the tube under the river a German rocket may pierce now, even now as the words are set down, the absences that may be waiting them, the city addresses that surely can no longer exist. The eyes from Burma, from Tonkin, watch these women at their hundred perseverances—stare out of blued orbits, through headaches no Alasils can ease. Italian P/Ws curse underneath the mail sacks that are puffing, echo-clanking in now each hour, in seasonal swell, clogging the snowy trainloads like mushrooms, as if the trains have been all night underground, passing through the country of the dead. If these Eyeties sing now and then you can bet it's not "Giovinezza" but something probably from Rigoletto or La Boheme—indeed the Post Office is considering issuing a list of Nonacceptable Songs, with ukulele chords as an aid to ready identification. Their cheer and songfulness, this lot, is genuine up to a point—but as the days pile up, as this orgy of Christmas greeting grows daily beyond healthy limits, with no containment in sight before Boxing Day, they settle, themselves, for being more professionally Italian, rolling the odd eye at the lady evacuees, finding techniques of balancing the sack with one hand whilst the other goes playing "dead"—cioé, conditionally alive—where the crowds thicken most feminine, directionless . . . well, most promising. Life has to go on. Both kinds of prisoner recognize that, but there's no mano morto for the Englishmen back from CBI, no leap from dead to living at mere permission from a likely haunch or thigh—no play, for God's sake, about life-and-death! They want no more adventures: only the old dutch fussing over the old stove or warming the old bed, cricketers in the wintertime, they want the semi-detached Sunday dead-leaf somnolence of a dried garden. If the brave new world should also come about, a kind of windfall, why there'll be time to adjust certainly to that . . . But they want the nearly postwar luxury this week of buying an electric train set for the kid, trying that way each to light his own set of sleek little faces here, calibrating his strangeness, well-known photographs all, brought to life now, oohs and aahs but not yet, not here in the station, any of the moves most necessary: the War has shunted them, earthed them, those heedless destroying signalings of love. The children have unfolded last year's toys and found reincarnated Spam tins, they're hep this may be the other and, who knows, unavoidable side to the Christmas game. In the months between—country springs and summers—they played with real Spam tins—tanks, tank-destroyers, pillboxes, dreadnoughts deploying meat-pink, yellow and blue about the dusty floors of lumber-rooms or butteries, under the cots or couches of their exile. Now it's time again. The plaster baby, the oxen frosted with gold leaf and the human-eyed sheep are turning real again, paint quickens to flesh. To believe is not a price they pay—it happens all by itself. He is the New Baby. On the magic night before, the animals will talk, and the sky will be milk. The grandparents, who've waited each week for the Radio Doctor asking, What Are Piles? What Is Emphysema? What Is A Heart Attack? will wait up beyond insomnia, watching again for the yearly impossible not to occur, but with some mean residue—this is the hillside, the sky can show us a light—like a thrill, a good time you wanted too much, not a complete loss but still too far short of a miracle . . . keeping their sweatered and shawled vigils, theatrically bitter, but with the residue inside going through a new winter fermentation every year, each time a bit less, but always good for a revival at this season. . . . All but naked now, the shiny suits and gowns of their pubcrawling primes long torn to strips for lagging the hot-water pipes and heaters of landlords, strangers, for holding the houses' identities against the winter. The War needs coal. They have taken the next-to-last steps, attended the Radio Doctor's certifications of what they knew in their bodies, and at Christmas they are naked as geese under this woolen, murky, cheap old-people's swaddling. Their electric clocks run fast, even Big Ben will be fast now until the new spring's run in, all fast, and no one else seems to understand or to care. The War needs electricity. It's a lively game, Electric Monopoly, among the power companies, the Central Electricity Board, and other War agencies, to keep Grid Time synchronized with Greenwich Mean Time. In the night, the deepest concrete wells of night, dynamos whose locations are classified spin faster, and so, responding, the clock-hands next to all the old, sleepless eyes—gathering in their minutes whining, pitching higher toward the vertigo of a siren. It is the Night's Mad Carnival. There is merriment under the shadows of the minute-hands. Hysteria in the pale faces between the numerals. The power companies speak of loads, war-drains so vast the clocks will slow again unless this nighttime march is stolen, but the loads expected daily do not occur, and the Grid runs inching ever faster, and the old faces turn to the clock faces, thinking plot, and the numbers go whirling toward the Nativity, a violence, a nova of heart that will turn us all, change us forever to the very forgotten roots of who we are. But over the sea the fog tonight still is quietly scalloped pearl. Up in the city the arc-lamps crackle, furious, in smothered blaze up the center-lines of the streets, too ice-colored for candles, too chill-dropleted for holocaust . . . the tall red busses sway, all the headlamps by regulation newly unmasked now parry, cross, traverse and blind, torn great fistfuls of wetness blow by, desolate as the beaches beneath the nacre fog, whose barbed wire that never knew the inward sting of current, that only lay passive, oxidizing in the night, now weaves like underwater grass, looped, bitter cold, sharp as the scorpion, all the printless sand miles past cruisers abandoned in the last summers of peacetime that once holidayed the old world away, wine and olive-grove and pipe-smoke evenings away the other side of the War, stripped now to rust axles and brackets and smelling inside of the same brine as this beach you cannot really walk, because of the War. Up across the downs, past the spotlights where the migrant birds in autumn choked the beams night after night, fatally held till they dropped exhausted out of the sky, a shower of dead birds, the compline worshipers sit in the unheated church, shivering, voiceless as the choir asks: where are the joys? Where else but there where the Angels sing new songs and the bells ring out in the court of the King. Eia—strange thousand-year sigh—eia, warn wir da! were we but there . . . The tired men and their black bellwether reaching as far as they can, as far from their sheeps' clothing as the year will let them stray. Come then. Leave your war awhile, paper or iron war, petrol or flesh, come in with your love, your fear of losing, your exhaustion with it. All day it's been at you, coercing, jiving, claiming your belief in so much that isn't true. Is that who you are, that vaguely criminal face on your ID card, its soul snatched by the government camera as the guillotine shutter fell—or maybe just left behind with your heart, at the Stage Door Canteen, where they're counting the night's take, the NAAFI girls, the girls named Eileen, carefully sorting into refrigerated compartments the rubbery maroon organs with their yellow garnishes of fat—oh Linda come here feel this one, put your finger down in the ventricle here, isn't it swoony, it's still going . . . Everybody you don't suspect is in on this, everybody but you: the chaplain, the doctor, your mother hoping to hang that Gold Star, the vapid soprano last night on the Home Service programme, let's not forget Mr. Noel Coward so stylish and cute about death and the afterlife, packing them into the Duchess for the fourth year running, the lads in Hollywood telling us how grand it all is over here, how much fun, Walt Disney causing Dumbo the elephant to clutch to that feather like how many carcasses under the snow tonight among the white-painted tanks, how many hands each frozen around a Miraculous Medal, lucky piece of worn bone, half-dollar with the grinning sun peering up under Liberty's wispy gown, clutching, dumb, when the 88 fell—what do you think, it's a children's story? There aren't any. The children are away dreaming, but the Empire has no place for dreams and it's Adults Only in here tonight, here in this refuge with the lamps burning deep, in pre-Cambrian exhalation, savory as food cooking, heavy as soot. And 60 miles up the rockets hanging the measureless instant over the black North Sea before the fall, ever faster, to orange heat, Christmas star, in helpless plunge to Earth. Lower in the sky the flying bombs are out too, roaring like the Adversary, seeking whom they may devour. It's a long walk home tonight. Listen to this mock-angel singing, let your communion be at least in listening, even if they are not spokesmen for your exact hopes, your exact, darkest terror, listen. There must have been evensong here long before the news of Christ. Surely for as long as there have been nights bad as this one—something to raise the possibility of another night that could actually, with love and cockcrows, light the path home, banish the Adversary, destroy the boundaries between our lands, our bodies, our stories, all false, about who we are: for the one night, leaving only the clear way home and the memory of the infant you saw, almost too frail, there's too much shit in these streets, camels and other beasts stir heavily outside, each hoof a chance to wipe him out, make him only another Messiah, and sure somebody's around already taking bets on that one, while here in this town the Jewish collaborators are selling useful gossip to Imperial Intelligence, and the local hookers are keeping the foreskinned invaders happy, charging whatever the traffic will bear, just like the innkeepers who're naturally delighted with this registration thing, and up in the capital they're wondering should they, maybe, give everybody a number, yeah, something to help SPQR Record-keeping . . . and Herod or Hitler, fellas (the chaplains out in the Bulge are manly, haggard, hard drinkers), what kind of a world is it ("You forgot Roosevelt, padre," come the voices from the back, the good father can never see them, they harass him, these tempters, even into his dreams: "Wendell Willkie!" "How about Churchill?" "'Arry Pollitt!") for a baby to come in tippin' those Toledos at 7 pounds 8 ounces thinkin' he's gonna redeem it, why, he oughta have his head examined . . .
It's hard to know what a modern-day literary agent (or one of their interns) would make of such a passage, so "wordy" by modern standards, so unapologetically given to the use of acronyms, obscure references, bits of Italian. (Note: Unless you're Italian, you probably didn't spot the rare Pynchon slip-up: He said cioé —immediately before "conditionally alive"when he meant cioè, which in Italian means "that is to say," akin to the Latin neologism videlicet, usually shortened to viz.) And the book itself: so steadfastly storyless, interspersed with obtuse bits of half-dialog and soliloquy, characters wandering lazily in and out of flashbacks and reality, no discernible plot per se (other than the implied one of WWII itself), much less any "reversals," twists, or last-minute reveals . . . 300,000 words of meanderingand mostly horizontalprose.

In any case. Not all verticality is good; not all horizontality is bad. Prose can and should go in whichever direction(s) it needs to go. Only, have a regard for the reader. If the road is bumpy, be sure the reader is strapped in tight. Make it impossible for him or her to be left behind. 

Then let it rip.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous3:12 PM

    That was pure torture.


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