March 30, 2005

Tortilla Curtain

I’ve started reading T. Coraghessan Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain. So far it seems like another Bonfire of the Vanities type novel. Rich man hits a poor man with his car, social commentary ensues. I once had a whole theory laid out that The Bonfire of the Vanities is a straight retelling of Richard Wright’s Native Son, down to every character. I wonder if this has been written about anywhere. Instead of a black man killing a rich white girl, a rich white man kills a poor black kid. Native Son begins with the indignity of rats in a project apartment. Bonfire begins with the indignity of a man walking a rich wife’s dog. It’s been a while since I’ve read either of them. I’m sure Tortilla Curtain is going to go in another direction.

I’m glad to see that it’s been making fun of liberals. These days, reading liberals makes me want to become a conservative and reading conservatives makes me want to become a liberal. Whining self-righteousness about politics is annoying no matter who’s doing it, including myself.

So I was reading the novel and I came across a sentence like this: "The windows cut holes in the fabric of the night, bright rectilinear slashes against the black backdrop of the mountain." I shouldn’t pick on T.C. Boyle because he’s hardly the most guilty of this kind of writing. And this sentence isn’t even the worst example, but it got me wanting to write about it. Never in my life would I write a sentence with a word like "rectilinear." This is what I think dicks me as a writer in the eyes of the literary gatekeepers. I don’t play the game of using heady words which people think makes good writing. To me it’s not at all how people think, or talk, or feel. Maybe there are people out there who look at something and describe it to themselves as rectilinear but I really doubt it. Perhaps fiction is supposed to transcend reality, but reading words like rectilinear takes me out of the prose, not deeper inside it.

17 comments:

Spiral Stairs said...

I don't even know what "rectilinear" means. Does it have something to do with the anus?

As I've mentioned to you before, I'm struggling with similar issues in my own writing. I guess it's all part of the process of finding one's "voice," whatever the hell that means.

One weird thing I have found is that, left to its own devices, my mind will spin out sentences with a lot of alliteration. I don't know why. It's not conscious. After I write one of those sentences, I look back and it reads like a children's book.

Henry Baum said...

Rectal in Ear: from a google search--Distance, paths, lines, etc. which are always parallel to axes at right angles. For example, a path along the streets of Salt Lake City or the moves of a rook in chess.

Cormac Mcarthy is really annoying about using thesaurus words. People love him somehow and I get tripped up every fourth word. Actually, I’m talking about more contemporary writing. Most new fiction reads to me like a fancy magazine article with an utter sameness to it. It's why I keep reading the same writers over and over again. All right, bitterness out.

Empty Drum said...

Ugh, Boyle's editor should be fired.

Throw the book away before it hurts you!

This is a good example of the stuff we were bitching about in our grumpy old men session on AIM -- I call it the "smartypants factor" and it's a real Art-killer.

Spiral, I'm not saying you are lazy, but the tendency to alliteration is a kind of laziness or laxity in the writing muscle...or maybe a tic...If you are Don Delillo, you can use alliteration and 100% predictable rhythms to almost the complete exclusion of other devices and be called a genius. The rest of us plebes must try to actually say something with economy and wit.

But I'm not bitter at all....

Empty Drum said...

Btw Henry, I forgot to tweak you on this:

'Never in my life would I write a sentence with a word like "rectilinear."'

Starting.......NOW!

Henry Baum said...

While we’re being bitter. I have no patience for the hyper non-reality of Don Delillo’s dialog. I have picked up Mao II, Libra, Great Jones Street, and haven’t gotten very far. The only one I’ve finished is White Noise.

I’m not going to put down the TC Boyle. It’s readable enough. If I’m able to read more than 20 pages I’m happy. There’s some good empathetic writing about the immigrants.

Spiral Stairs said...

MT Drum: If you knew me, you would know that I am, in fact, extremely lazy. I'm not just saying that. So it makes sense that my writing would exhibit a symptom of laziness.

I was reading something recently where a writer (whose name I don't recall) was describing the process of writing some particular short story. He said he spent three hours a day on the story for something like two months.

If that's what it takes, I guess I don't have it. I doubt I've devoted more than 20 or 30 hours total to any short story in my life.

Empty Drum said...

Larry Wall, the creator of the Perl programming language, likes to evoke the "three virtues" of Laziness, Impatience, and Hubris, which any great programmer must draw upon when at work. I like to keep these in mind when I sit down to bang out a page or two. So far everything has gone really quickly, and that's good because I have a phobia about plunging into a longer term project such as a novel. I've seen too many good minds completely ruined by the prolonged stress of the novel writing process. Take, for example, our host.

I have a lot of opinions about writing but have only written one short story and an instructional essay in the last 20 years. Songs don't count.....So my opinions are probably wrong...

Basically, though, you gotta be ruthless and just rip out anything that sounds wrong or doesn't add to the story. Especially if its an egregious example of alliterative excess included to exaggerate the authorial acumen.

Kill me now.

Henry Baum said...

Completely ruined? Severely damaged, maybe, but the process is not yet complete.

Empty Drum said...

Better keep writing then!

chess h said...

Boyle didn't just use it because it's a fifty-cent word... the scatological is a common theme with him, which you'll see in many of his stories (I haven't read him for some time, so the only one coming to mind is "bloodfall"). I'm not saying he thinks the word means anything scatlogical, but he does know that the "rect" sound will evoke scat for some.

What I like best about Boyle is that you can read him on several levels... easy and entertaining if that's your speed, or slow and meaty if you're in the mood. He's a very talented writer... I just wish he were a better storyteller sometimes.

chessh said...

Boyle didn't just use it because it's a fifty-cent word... the scatological is a common theme with him, which you'll see in many of his stories (I haven't read him for some time, so the only one coming to mind is "bloodfall"). I'm not saying he thinks the word means anything scatlogical, but he does know that the "rect" sound will evoke scat for some.

What I like best about Boyle is that you can read him on several levels... easy and entertaining if that's your speed, or slow and meaty if you're in the mood. He's a very talented writer... I just wish he were a better storyteller sometimes.

chessh said...

well, that always looks fun... threw an exception on me but ended up publishing the comment anyway.

Henry Baum said...

That’s a good point, Chess. I may have missed the point that he was going for: the people inside that building are anal retentive. I feel kind of stupid for missing that. But I still think using a word like that is alienating. It’s too clever without being felt.

Empty Drum said...

Henry - Boyle writes a horribly clunky sentence in order to say something in a roundabout and obscure way which could be said in an artful or direct way, and you feel stupid?
You're being too hard on yourself, I think!

No, I don't buy the Joycean explanation for 'rectilinear'. The whole passage is worthless as it stands - unless it's being put forth in a voice which is intentionally banal, in which case, feh anyhow....

Spiral Stairs said...

The Chess theory of Boyle's word usage makes the passage more interesting, if only from a technical standpoint. If true, it would mean that what I took to be a careless and purposeless invocation of an unnecessarily difficult word was really a carefully considered invocation of a symbolically loaded word. Whether it works or not from a literary standpoint is another question, but the writerly issue is interesting.

Now I really want to read some Boyle. I read one short story by him years ago, liked it, but now can't remember which one it was. Something about abortion protesters, I think.

Alcuin Bramerton said...

A traditional Norfolk koan may assist:



A man with a wooden leg
Sits down to read a book.
The book is not about men,
Or wooden legs,
Or sitting down.
Not all books are.

Some books are about women,
Fleshy legs,
Or gymnastics.
But not all books are.

This one isn't.
This book is about rocket science.
It has big friendly writing
And lots of pictures.
And there is an interactive section.

You can pretend that
You are an American,
And you can shoot
Laser-guided rockets
At unprotected Third World civilians,
In the war on terror.
It is good to interact.



More may be encountered:
http://alcuinbramerton.blogspot.com/2004/11/traditional-norfolk-koans.html

Empty Drum said...

I blame George W Bush

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