Sunday, March 29, 2009
Draw, ya varmint!
I was reading Science and Steepleflower by Forrest Gander yesterday (who, by the way, has a podcast), and was enjoying the extravagance of the diction immensely. In fact, I can’t remember the last book of poetry I’ve read that gave me such pleasure in confoundatory language. This led me to an unprovable thought about the avant-garde: the more specific the language becomes, the more radical the poem becomes. To whit:
I am sure this particular strain of performativity was etched in carbonite in my medulla oblongata when I watched that scene from Say Anything where Lloyd flips through Diane’s dictionary and notices that she had highlighted multiple words on every page), but it actually started much much earlier, when I read a series that gave me these to chew on:
Crazy, right? I honestly can’t think of another author who has so thoroughly slapped around my sense of linguistic self-possession. It’s an author whom some people think that J.K. Rowling has stolen from, yet also one who views Faulkner, James, and Conrad as major influences (and let me tell you how unlikely I thought those four would ever end up in a sentence together). Why, Stephen R. Donaldson, of course. The author of the Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever series, starring the titular leper anti-hero in a fantastical land. I’ve read other fantasy series, but not one that so systematically assaulted common diction. (Reading the series is arduous for other reasons, mostly because the protagonists suffer so intensely for hundreds of pages at a time with relentlessly insistent descriptions of their anguish. Yet this results in plots that deliver an immense amount of catharsis, which seems to take the reader by surprise somehow.)
I don’t know what this says about genre and literariness exactly, though really it does make me intensely curious as to what his process is--how many of you have actually heard someone say any of the preceding words out loud?--and, to a lesser extent, just what sort of editor they gave him. (My undergrad fiction professor used to say that every word you choose over another loses you a reader, and Donaldson clearly has nerves of steel in that regard.) So I’ve been wondering if there are other authors out there working in the margins or in marginalized genres (in the eyes of the literary world) who seem to have an obscure but unmistakable linguistic agenda.