Tuesday, 7 October 2008

Naked, tender hummocks

The Intellectual Hooligan, courtesy of a kind and tasteful benefactor, has just started reading Richard Yates' Revolutionary Road. From the first 50 pages alone, I feel it is rather brilliant – but will save any vaguely summative words until I've finished the thing.

Meanwhile, though, I'd like to serve up two very short extracts of great writing – the first descriptive; the second empathetic.
'At first their rehearsals had been held on Saturdays – always, it seemed, on the kind of windless February or March afternoon when the sky is white, the trees are black, and the brown fields and hummocks of the earth lie naked and tender between curds of shriveled snow.'
This is brilliant. Strong and simple prelude (sky is white, trees are black) gives way to a metaphor that – at first glance – might seem overblown or sentimental, then reveals itself in fact to be perfectly-judged. The obvious sexuality of 'naked and tender' seems glib and perhaps obvious – until Yates adds that masterstroke: the 'curds of shriveled snow'.

Curds. Genius.

Debasing the image of the (feminine) buttocks with those measly semen-like squirts. And, crucially, the metaphor passes the test: it's also real.

Then, 20 pages or so later, a fantastic piece of psychological observation. (One of many, I might add: I've chosen this particular example fairly arbitrarily). Two characters, wife and husband, have just had a taut emotional exchange (to call it an argument is perhaps to simplify). They've pulled over their car, and the woman has dashed thirty yards away along the roadside, pursued shortly by her husband. She '[isn't] crying; ... only standing there, with her back to him.':
"What the hell," he said. "What the hell's this all about? Come on back to the car."

"No. I will in a minute. Just let me stand here a minute, all right?"

His arms flapped and fell; then, as the sound and the lights of an approaching car came up behind them, he put one hand in his pocket and assumed a conversational slouch for the sake of appearances.
That's the difference between okay writing and great writing. The great writer remembers that even amidst anger and emotional turmoil, we can still be painfully self-conscious; laughably prim.

7 comments:

acraig said...

I think I need to read this. And it's not often that I say that to myself, my reading habits are shamefully sporadic.

Billicatons said...

Ah, Mr Craig, you should, you should.

I'm getting pretty tempted to blog a few more choice excerpts, so great is my admiration for this fine novel ...

acraig said...

I will, I will. A copy arrived from Amazon today. I'm quick, like a ninja on fire.

Have you read any Kurt Vonnegut, Mr. Parnell? He highly recommended Revolutionary Road (according to the sticker on the front of my copy), and I highly recommend his work. Yes I do indeed.

Billicatons said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Billicatons said...

The ninja powers of Alastair Craig are formidable.

I have indeed read Vonnegut. Gut is the very syllable.

(Oh, so pithy, so, so ... Ah!)

Which of his books have you read? I greatly enjoyed Slaughterhouse 5, and (a little less so, but still positively) Breakfast Of Champions ...

acraig said...

I agree with your assessments of Slaughterhouse-Five and Breakfast of Champions. BoC was probably the worst of his that I've read, but even then it was still good. My further recommendations are:

Cat's Cradle
The Sirens of Titan
Mother Night

Probably in that order. Cat's Cradle is short but a real page-turner, with some nice religious satire and the end of the world (always fun).

Sirens has some of religious satire too, but in a piece of pure sci-fi that comes together mind-bogglingly well at the end. Read it again and every little thing takes on a new meaning. And it's the first appearance of the Tralfamadorians in his work.

Mother Night is a wonderfully melancholic piece about an ex-Nazi who was actually a spy for the Americans, but did too good a job of disguising himself. Some shudderingly tragic parts.

David said...

Check out 'Seize the Day' by Saul Bellow. I ought to read more of his work. I'll read the Yates at some stage.

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