Reflection XXIX: In which our hero’s resolve is tested, and he makes an apology to Booth Tarkington

I’ve gotten into the habit—almost a “tradition” of sorts—of titling these posts with an apt line or two from the section of the novel I’d just read.  I think it keeps me grounded in the author, and it gives you a little taste of the book I’m reading.  I don’t think I’m strong enough to do that with The Able McLaughlins.  I’ll offer an example passage:

“If it is’na Isobel’s Wully!”  She shook his hand, and patted him on the shoulder, and reached up and kissed him.  He didn’t mind that.  She was practically an aunt, so intimate were the families.  In her silent excitement she brought him into her wretched little cabin.

And there stood another woman.  By the window—a young woman—turning towards him with sunshine on her white arms—and on the dough she was kneading—sunshine on her white throat—and on the little waves of brown hair about her face—sunshine making her fingertips transparent pink—a woman like a strong angel—beautiful in light!

Wully just stared.

I don’t know how you’re reacting to this section. Personally, I nearly threw myself out the bus’s emergency door.

It’s as though I’m reading, not a novel, but a message from a far-off land.  A land where they have read no fiction but stories that were rejected by the editors of Chicken Soup for the Soul, and the rambling journals of people who think being excited about something while you write means that your writing will be exciting.

I’m being too harsh, you might say…it’s been a long week, and clearly my patience is wearing too thin.  And maybe I just hit a particularly clunky passage.  Fair enough.  A good point—let’s see how Wully’s encounter with this radiant young woman goes…

“Chirstie!” he whispered.  “I didn’t know that you were here!  I didn’t know that you were the lassie for me!”  He kissed her fearfully.  He kissed her without fear, many times.  She said only “Oh!”  He held her close.

I should point out that the “conversation” between them is the first they’ve had for four years, and that when Wully left home, she was a girl of 12 or 13, while he was going off to fight in the Civil War.  He sees her ‘all grown up’ and can’t quite contain himself.  Oh! she says.  Oh, indeed.

I have three observations to make.  First of all, truly, I apologize to Booth Tarkington.  I was irked by him many, many times, but he never subjected me to this.  He never made me wonder if he had the talent sufficient to compose a greeting card or leave an amusing Post-it note on the fridge door.  I was entirely too hard on him.  Second of all, the tragic thing is that there’s a society here to tell a story about—a secluded Scottish community in Iowa where everyone knows everyone, and where the outside world does not come, until these boys go off to war and never come back (Wully’s brother is dead, and Wully just escaped a prison camp after being a POW for months).  I ought to be fascinated, but I can’t get past Wilson’s writing.

So, to my last point, where I ask your input—what’s wrong with her writing?  The choppiness of that last passage, for example, isn’t all that different from Hemingway, is it?  And yet his prose works and hers doesn’t.  I know that I’m exceptionally picky about style (if my reactions to my book group’s novels are any indication), but I think there’s something undeniably bad here.  Given that none of you have read this, pick a novel you’ve read whose writing style was so atrocious you couldn’t bear it.  What is it that we react badly to?  Is there anything definable about bad writing, or, like Potter Stewart, do we simply have to say “I know it when I see it”?  I have a feeling I’ll be thinking about that often as I continue–this book wants to stop my journey, but I won’t let it!  It’ll be a long stretch of road, though, I can tell you.

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4 comments on “Reflection XXIX: In which our hero’s resolve is tested, and he makes an apology to Booth Tarkington

  1. Paul Hamann says:

    No time to deeply mull over the question, James, but it’s clear you have the answer in your hands in Wilson. I think this is a productive area for aesthetic study. You’ll need to read the novel a couple dozen times, of course, but when you do, imagine the contributions you’ll be able to make to literary theory! Let me know how those readings go.

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      Thanks, Paul: if I can survive this once, it will be enough of a miracle! I think you’re right, though, that this provides an interesting opportunity—we’ll see if I can make anything of it. Good luck grading those AP essays, by the way!

      • Paul Hamann says:

        To fully understand your question, James, you’ll have to read it AT LEAST a dozen times before reading anything else. Not ever a cereal box.

        Wait a minute! Was that last sentence you wrote a taunt? You jackanape cur!

        • jwrosenzweig says:

          Hey, if you claim I have to suffer prose that would lead a Hallmark executive to disembowel themselves rather than read any further, I figure a shot across the bow is warranted. 🙂 But in love, Paul, in love.

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