Friday, June 16, 2006


Alas, the usual hop-skip-jump, to clear my otherwise crystalline mind of clutter. I just finished and greatly admired Chuck Palahniuk's collection of straight reportage Stranger Than Fiction. Much to enjoy therein, particularly his ability to convey constellations of moral outrage without recourse to adjectives or adverbs or actual narration. I guess that'll be style, then.

Ah, Style, my man in the moon. Raymond Chandler called it the best investment a writer can make, and he spoke as a former oil man. Flicking through Stranger Than Fiction, even at its most Subject-Verb-Object Peter-loves-Jane stripped down, the prose seemed very quickly fingerable as Palahniuk, although I can't guess why. The clauses are so short and terse, there doesn't seem time for them to develop a characteristic rhythm. And why should it seem distinct from any other example of what might be unkindly deemed post-Hemingwayese?

Without answering that, in a similar but probably unrelated vein, Clive James starts his esay ‘The All Of Orwell’ thus:

“Who wrote this? ‘Political language - and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists - is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.’ But you guessed straight away; George Orwell. The subject stated up front, the sudden acceleration from the scope-widening parenthesis into the piercing argument that follows, the way the obvious opposition between ‘lies’ and ‘truthful’ leads into the shockingly abrupt coupling of ‘murder’ and ‘respectable’, the elegant, reverse-written coda clinched with a dirt-common epithet, the whole easy-seeming pose and compact drive of it, a world view compressed to the size of a motto from a fortune cookie, demanding to be read out and sayable in a single breath - it’s the Orwell style."
James' gloss seems sort of undeniable. I like that passage particularly because it's one of those bits of Orwell one can disagree with, and thus feel all big and clever and thinky. That saw about Political Language has endured in several guises and I still find it hard to get worked up about it in any guise. Suspecting the worst of non-literary language is one of the easier rides for literary people. I remember the otherwise estimable Steven Poole schilling for his book Unspeak on the radio, pointing out that “ethnic cleansing” sounds like it's a good thing but actually it isn't. Heavens, does Her Majesty know? I'm never clear who's supposed to be or have been gulled by such euphemism. Isn't this just rhetoric, and hasn't it been going on forever? Maybe I'm just narked that I found Poole's Trigger Happy impressively unreadable. Every time I see it on a shelf I quiz the owner and every man Jack and Jill of them admit its Vestal inviolability. Them Edge colums weren't no picnic neither, but the fiction reviews in The Guardian and the Crooked Timber posts are often boffo.

Military idiom (WMD, Peace-Keeping, Surgical Strike, Smart Munitions, Less Than Lethal weaponry etc) in particular seems to keep coming in for a shoeing from writers as if its euphemism was a deliberate almost neuro-linguistic programming-ese attempt at moral fraud. But how much sinister intent is there? Who was the original intended audience? Isn't professional slang always divorced from the moral universe - it's there to make usuful trade distinctions, not justify God's way to man.

I was going to tie these limp threads to games somehow, and game design terminology, but as usual my muse has pulled up, puffing, groaning and clutching at the stitch in her ribs. Just can't get the staff these days.

1 comment:

Steven Poole said...

I love the idea of TH's "Vestal inviolability".
To answer your questions about Orwell/rhetoric etc, you might find this from the book useful.