Friday, February 25, 2011

These Mountains, These Words: Part 2

In Pancake's short story, “Trilobites,” the main character, Colley, is struggling to come to terms with the fact that he will not be able to take care of dead father’s farm. The land and his inability to work it weighs heavily on the young character, trapping him and intriguing him at the same time, and comes to the forefront through vivid descriptions of that confining landscape. Fittingly, the story opens with one of Pancake’s favorite characters – West Virginia.

"I open the truck’s door, step on to the brick side street. I look at Company Hill again, all sort of worn down and round. A long time ago it was real craggy and stood like an island in the Teays River. It took over a million years to make that smooth little hill, and I’ve looked all over it for trilobites. I think how it has always been there and always will be, at least east for as long as it matters. The air is smoky with summertime. A bunch of starlings swim over me. I was born in this country and have never much wanted to leave."

Like the mountains he worked so hard to portray in his work, Pancake’s approach in style is simple, but his message is vital, vital enough that he felt it important to make room for it and his language and remove what might be referred to as lyrical language or, the less distinguished term, purple prose, from his efforts altogether. This is a style often criticized and rarely used properly or with much success. Often, the result is the too clear image for the reader of the writer poised at the keyboard working words into sentences to make paragraphs, the tangible product of that diligent and talented writer at work that many authors hope to show to the world to redeem themselves, the effort and their profession. Most of the time this can be as disruptive to the reader as a mechanic at their elbows, clanging and scraping away at a hateful transmission or dented fender. Much of what is considered good or even great writing employs this ornate style. Two good examples can be found in the works of Michael Ondaajte and Tom Robbins. This approach is one of metafiction at its best -- language for language’s sake. However, and particularly in Ondaatje’s case, this style is central to the theme, as in his novel, Coming Through Slaughter, about the life and death of jazz innovator Buddy Bolden. The book chronicles his genius, his breakdown and the complex world of his music. The language and structure of the book is pitch-perfect in telling this story, its rambling and wild images and lyrical strangeness and shifts in point of view, all of which are reflections of techniques used in creating the improvised jazz sound Bolden helped create and which led to his untimely death. Likewise, as in the following passage, this style also works to establish the split lives of those who suffer from depression, as did Bolden:

"He’s mixing them up. He’s playing the blues and the hymn sadder than the blues and then the blues sadder than the hymn. That is the first time I ever heard hymns and blues cooked up together…It sounded like a battle between the Good Lord and the Devil. Something tells me to listen and see who wins. If Bolden stops on the hymn, the Good Lord wins. If he stops on the blues, the Devil wins."

In this passage, we have less ornate language as are predominate in earlier passages, but we have the highest level of imagery at play and the even the plain language of the old black man watching and listening to Bolden playing the cornet from across the street has a certain poetic quality. In this case, it works for the purposes of the overall theme of the novel. But in most cases, lofty imagery and flowery writing is hardly put to such hard work.

The urge to create something on the page that reflects back on the talents of the writer and his ability is not only overwhelming, for many young writers, it can be hard to understand any other reason for sitting down to work. The beginning writer might hear from friends who have just read the latest work questions about the language. For the casual reader, this is the most important point, the words used, the arrangement of sentences, even if the reader is not clear on how often they place importance on this single aspect of literature. But then, isn’t the whole point to impress the reader, to render them speechless with amazing works of literature? Maybe so, but the true writer, as Pancake may have felt, seeks to bury deep within the reader’s heart, not just with language, but with that which is being shared, the underlying meaning that hopes to find a home in the hearts of kindred spirits. Perhaps astounding the reader with vivid and amazing language is the widely held view on the subject, but the argument stands -- what does the writer risk in sticking to this idea? In the case of Tom Robbins, an indisputable master of the craft, the risk could be the loss of the very subject of the work itself in the amazing wake of his own words and expertise. Take for instance this imaginative and impressive description of Leonard Cohen from Robbins’ liner notes for the 1995 release of Cohen’s tribute album, Tower of Song:

"It is a voice raked by the claws of Cupid, a voice rubbed raw by the philosopher’s stone. A voice marinated in kirshwasser, sulfur, deer musk, and snow; bandaged with sackcloth from a ruined monastery; warmed by the embers left down near the river after the gypsies have gone."

Beautiful, there’s no doubt. Enviable, to say the least. The beginning writer, any writer worth his weight in copy paper for that matter, cannot help but stop after reading this description and envy Robbins’ skill, his turn of phrase and command. Robbins himself likely stood up from his desk after finishing this sentence and took a deep breath, realizing he had captured that most desired of game for the working author, that magic moment when everything in his chest of tools worked in perfect harmony. But does this passage and the rest of the notes included in this 1995 tribute album, which are no less brilliantly written, really pay specific and focused tribute to Leonard Cohen? It is Robbins’ mastery of language we think of after reading, most likely, and Cohen as hardly more than the scruffy canvas on which it was expertly played out. Losing focus of his subject or subjects is something Breece Pancake could never be accused of, and this itself is an achievement in literature found in few other places. Perhaps one of the most notable of places this can be seen is in the works of Ernest Hemingway. Joyce Carol Oates wrote that she was “tempted” to compare Pancake to Hemingway in her New York Times review of his posthumous 1983 collection.

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