Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Craft, sentences, and "banal miracles"

I as I was reading and enjoying Jess Walter's Beautiful Ruins (2012) the past few days, I found myself thinking a lot about craft. When we describe a writer as a craftsman, that's often a way of acknowledging skill or accomplishment while also relegating the author to a lesser plane of achievement--as if the ability and care and determination to put a piece of writing together well were all tools with which to hide the fact that it's not accomplishing anything new or important.

It's unfair, and I suspect it's a legacy of the ascendence of the moderns, who--while unquestionably craftsmen themselves--convinced a large part of the culture that difficulty equals importance and clarity should be questioned. For in some ways that's what we're talking about when we praise craft, as separate from skill, or flash, or talent: prose that's assembled well, and clearly, and put in service of something, usually a somewhat traditional story.

I thought about it as I read the following passage from Beautiful Ruins:
Jet tires chirp, grab the runway, and Shane Wheeler jerks awake and checks his watch. Still good. Yeah, his plane's an hour late, but he's got three hours until his meeting, and he's a mere fourteen miles away now. How long can it take to drive fourteen miles? At the gate he uncoils, deplanes, and makes his way in a dream down the long, tiled airport tunnel, through baggage claim and a revolving door, onto a sunlit curb, jumps a bus to the rental-car center, falls in line with the smiling Disney-bounders (who must've seen the same $24 online rental-car coupon), and when his turn in line comes, slides his license and credit card to the rental clerk. She says his name with such significance ("Shane Wheeler?") that for a deluded moment he imagines he's traveled forward in time and fame, and she's somehow heard of him--but of course she's just happy to find his reservation. We live in a world of banal miracles.
I love the sound and bounce and rhythm of that passage, its consonance and movement, the way that, while conveying the basic information about Shane's progress and always keeping us in his head, it manages to mimic the movement and disorientation of the modern airport experience. The jet tires that "chirp" and "grab," the "deluded" moment, the travel in both "time and fame"--it all works to lift these sentences above their very basic duty of carrying the character from one place to another.

One of the most interesting qualities of the novel as a form is that, most times, nearly everything in one could be thrown out--in theory. All the background details and the descriptions of weather and clothing and houses, all the ancillary characters and scurrying hither and yon are there solely to cocoon the infinitely more compact ideas and people at its heart, to give them a home and make them matter more when revealed to us. At the same time, in reality you can't strip it away and actually be left with anything. The novel, like everyday life, is its details. So when an author lifts his sentences above the functional, when he makes them into living, important things of their own while not rendering them unfit to perform their work, we should appreciate and acknowledge it. "We live in a world of banal miracles." The workings of good sentences in good novels are among them.

And if a well-crafted novel featuring interesting characters (and a convincing portrait of a drunken but not-yet-too-far-gone Richard Burton) turns out to be a tad more romantic than realistic, more hopeful and sweeping than strictly true-to-life--well, when that book begins with a beautiful actress stepping from a boat into a fading Italian fishing village in 1962 under the watchful eyes of a twenty-two-year-old dreamer, what more should we expect?

And, really, what more should we want?


  1. Anonymous10:24 PM

    I think we're 99.99% in agreement, but sometimes when we seemingly disparage a novel for being well-crafted we're saying that--despite its many manifest admirable qualities--it never quite comes to life, never quite breathes: there is that something extra, that je ne said quois, that makes a novel something more than well-written.

    I recently ran into this while trying to read Swamplandia, Karen Russell's much praised debut novel. The first couple chapters seemed, to me, derivative, especially of her admitted-influence Katherine Dunn. I couldn't get into it--which admittedly may be my problem, not hers. But the problem was nothing seemed to breathe--the vocabulary was interesting, the sentences lapidary, the narrative well-wrought--in short, the book was well-crafted--but it lacked that extra oomph to make it alive. Frankenstein's monster without the lightning.


  2. I know exactly the sort of book you're describing, Josh: you're right, once in a while you run into one that by all accounts ought to work but doesn't ever feel like a living thing. But I wonder whether there's a way to describe its superficially successful crafting without seeming, even inadvertently, to implicate craft--the ultimate emptiness of Swamplandia, for example, probably not being caused by it. I think that's what bothers me about the way people tend to talk about craft, as if it were a lesser, more easily achievable goal that an author was probably shooting for all along rather than some sort of more rigorous Dostoevskian (et al.) soul work that would have emerged, fully wrought, from some dark-of-nightl torments..