Wednesday, 14 September 2005

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On Terrible Neologisms, Gene Wolfe & Stylistic Consistency Someday I'll write an impassioned defense ("necessitated" by some "recent" comments) of The Atlantic Monthly via an analysis of William Langewiesche's work. But not today. Today's fancy has been struck dumb by something that needs a better name (or an agglutinative one) than brilliant-one-trick-pony syndrome. What I mean is a stylist who employs the same breathtaking style in every single thing he or she writes. Some would accuse David Foster Wallace of being one such stylist. But his novels, shorts and essays are focalized through a variety of characters. Because each of his characters speak with a unique voice, his overall style remains heterogeneous despite his penchant for footnotes and sentences of Faulknerian length and complexity. (Brief Interviews With Hideous Men works as a perfect litmus test: no one "interviewee" sounds like any of the others or, for that matter, Hal from Infinite Jest.) Gene Wolfe, however, suffers mightily from brilliant-one-trick-pony syndrome. It doesn't influence my impression of any one, two or three of his novels, but once some critical point has been passed the cumulative effect of his prose stylings begins to falter before the law of diminishing returns. As keen readers of my sidebar already know, I recently finished The Fifth Head of Cerebus Cerberus. [Thanks John. Screw you Mr. Sim!] Quite the collection of novellae. (Novellae? It scans better than "novellas.") It begins when Severian... ...kidding, kidding. Severian isn't in this collection. But he could be if you judged by narrative voice alone. I could explore this in sufficient detail to prove my case, but because the three novellae intertwine in such surprising ways that I don't want to ruin them for you (should this post inspire you to read them). Suffice it to say that the collection thematizes the very issue I've raised here as it dances around the consequences of one man populating a planet with clones and the possibility that an aboriginal race of physiological mimicks have replaced the settlers of a colony so long ago that they now believe themselves to be (and have always been) humans. That's all I can say without ruining the collection, but that's enough to make my point: Wolfe seems to want to perfect (and in large measure has) a single narrative voice through which he can write all his novels, novellae and short stories. (I haven't read many of the latter but, despite my aversion for the form, I intend to.) He refines it further with everything he writes. (I realize I should date this discussion, or at very least ground it chronologically, but my point's sufficiently "meta-" to avoid what could reasonably be considered "work.") I can think of other writers (some of them former speechwriters for Republican Presidential candidates) who also fall into this category but am solliciting the expert advice of my erudite readership instead. (Not because I'm lazy, however, but because I've been so friggin' responsible a dissertator the past two days I want to pretend I am.)
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Doubling London; or, What to do with Dry, Dusty History On January 21, 1906, Jack London, three months divorced from Bess Maddern, three months married to Charmian Kittridge, entered Mrs. Stenberg’s Sacramento apartment with lascivious intent. Sometime that evening, Mrs. Selinger (a dear friend and frequent alibi of Mrs. Stenberg) informed the young adulterers of her encounter with a “Hindoo.” He threatened exposure, she said, though not in those words. The previous November, the Los Angeles Times had editorialized Jack’s divorce: “The Times suggests that the incident will serve well enough to call attention to the fact that the public is inclined to look more leniently on divorces where alleged ‘geniuses’ are concerned.” Now Jack knew the public will not look leniently on another divorce. He knew that this time it will frown on him “the same as upon all others who put themselves outside the pale of decency by reprehensible actions.” And what, Jack thought, what about Mr. Stenberg, branded a cuckold in boldface from Sacramento to New York City. He might respond with a reprehensible action of his own. “Pay the Hindoo what he wants,” Jack said. Months later, London explained his actions to a friend: “There’s no use getting them into trouble with their husbands, even if they are rattle-brained.” Later that same January night, at a meeting of the New York Educational Alliance, London entranced another sympathetic crowd with talk of the lucky cave man. “He Didn’t Have to Ask for the Right to Work,” read the byline the next morning. “If he woke up hungry he picked up his club and sallied forth.” London glanced down. He had first delivered this diatribe the previous March on the banks of the Sacramento River. He continued: “He was able, more or less, to satisfy his hunger. There was nobody between him and his work.” The Hindoo wanted too much. He wrote London every month. The letters were unsigned, but the Hindoo was unconcerned. Jack would know who he is. London continued to work. He completed Before Adam. On June 9, he mailed George Sterling the manuscript. “It’s just a skit, ridiculously true, preposterously real.” London implored him to “jump on it.” “I guess you know the thing’s pretty punk,” was Sterling’s reply, “or you’d not suggest that I roast it.” The Hindoo played both sides. He persecuted Mrs. Stenberg on Jack’s behalf, and London on Mrs. Stenberg’s or Mrs. Selinger’s. (Possibly his own.) His actions confused London, who no longer understood to whom he was beholden. He wrote Mrs. Stenberg: Now I am writing to you for information. I am the real Jack London. I don’t know you. I don’t know the Hindoo. I don’t know Mrs. Stenberg, much less love her. Was this all a concoction of yours, or did you really know some fellow who claimed that he was Jack London? Four days after finishing Before Adam, on June 14, 1906, London informed Elwyn Hoffman that “I undoubtedly have a double impersonating me.” In a letter written around the same time to A.L. Babcock, the...

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