Sunday, December 28, 2014

literary conventions and language deconstructed

A few authors of contemporary literary fiction have used unconventional styles or non-grammatical constructions in writing novels, and it poses questions about the pros and cons of doing this.  A classic example may be Joyce's "Ulysses," with its stream-of-consciousness narration, which has its delights, but makes for difficult reading over the lengthy work.  Another classic example can be found in Cormac McCarthy's writing, including "All the Pretty Horses." No quotation marks enclose any of McCarthy's dialogue.  It did not seem at all distracting or confusing, and it could be said that it produced a cleaner, less busy-looking text.  Such an approach might need a closer editing by the author, however, to avoid any ambiguities for the reader.

Gathering swell of fertile bud
catches whisper of Memento Mori:
Remember (you have to) die,
and hastens to loose unripe seed
A more complex questioning arises where an author chooses to use non-grammatical constructions, as in a recent novel, "A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing," by Eimear McBride."  In a review by Fintan O'Toole in the NY Review of Books (Nov. 20, 2014), he characterizes the book as a feminist novel. He draws on a statement made by McBride that since men had already written everything, there was, for the female novelist, "only one small plot left to tell: the terra incognito of herself, as she knew herself to be, not as men had imagined her."

In McBride's book, the thematic structure portrays a female narrator (she remains unnamed throughout the book) who, in the words of O'Toole, "cannot build a self because the foundations of her childhood have been undermined by sexual exploitation.  The central event is the rape of the narrator as a needy, rebellious thirteen-year-old by the uncle who takes advantage of her as-yet indistinct desires. It is an event she is compelled to repeat again and again in crude encounters with strangers and with the uncle who abused her."

It seems there is a lot of subjective psychology used in the review, and the book, to see the girl's actions as self-punishment ("horrible can be a good act of contrition"), but let's go on to the grammatical construction that is so unique to McBride.  In a passage quoted in the review, the girl tests any power she may have over the uncle by forcing him to replay the original rape:

So he hits til I fall over.  Crushing under.  Hits again.  He hits til something's click and the blood begins to run.  Jesus he says.  I feel sick.  But I'm rush with feeling.  Wide and.  He thinks he's bad when he fucks me now.  And so he is.  I'm better though.  In fact I am almost best.

 The cognitive and grammatical form certainly elicit anguish, despair, and revulsion in the reader, but aside from questions about how reliable a state of mind might exist in the narrator, can such form sustain a memorable reading experience over some 227 pages? Evidently it did for O'Toole.  "McBride is not playing with form, she is playing with what has yet to be fully formed: language caught in its moment of transition between thought and articulation...The brilliance of the book is that this linguistic strategy exactly parallels the struggle of the narrator, who is also trying to come into being."

I shall read the book through mostly because I'd like to better assess the overall effect of McBride's writing strategy, but I would not be pleased to find to the end an unrelieved construction of the victim mentality.  Some captivating literature has included works of protagonist as victim, though they seem to show more hope and energy of the protagonist, if not some native intelligence, in trying to find a personal salvation or epiphany.

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