“I was wearing an orange bathrobe. She was leaning over me in a white men’s T-shirt and tiny white panties, shaking me by the shoulder. Her slender body seemed fragile, secure, childlike, with no sign of last night’s Italian excesses. Outside was not yet dawn.”
As I wind down Haruki Murakami’s novel Hard-Boiled Wonderland And The End Of The World, I am deliberately slowing down my pace to savor the language and to listen to its tempo. The music is playing in the words.
A friend recently told me that her son had read over eighty books in the past year. This number is beyond my comprehension, since I don’t even approach this speed of reading. At best, I’m just slow and steady. He obviously would have excelled in an Evelyn Wood class, whereas I would have failed flatly.
Since I read as much for the beauty of the language as I do for the story, I find myself constantly stopping to parse the sentences and try to figure out why the author has chosen certain words and how he chooses to arrange those words into the patterns that not only tell a story but also do so elegantly. I think most of good reading comes from one’s desire to slow down enough to listen to the words, to hear the cadences.
Another book that that is good on cadence and tight writing is Mob Rules: How The Mafia Can Teach The Legitimate Businessman by Louis Ferrante, a writer with some of the most surprising qualities and someone you’d least suspect would be capable of producing great prose. He’s a former “soldier” and “capo” of the Gambino crime family. When doing time in a Federal penitentiary, he turned his life around and taught himself to write by reading the masters of nineteenth-century fiction. He said he learned how to begin and end a plot by reading Leo Tolstoy; Victor Hugo taught him how to introduce a character; and Fydor Dostoyevsky revealed his mastery of how to wind down a plot. His latest book is wonderfully written and full of succinct guidelines about workplace hazards.
With a little effort, one finds treasures in the least likely spots. Here are some examples of a few of his maxims:
—“The thing you’ve got to understand about Jimmy is that he loved to steal. He ate and breathed it. I think if you ever offered Jimmy a billion dollars not to steal, he’d turn you down and then try to figure out how to steal it from you. It was the only thing he enjoyed. It kept him alive. Few people are fortunate enough to connect what they love with what they do. Don’t settle and you’ll be one of them.”
—“Plenty of mobsters have killed to keep a secret. That’s why a smart mafioso holds on to someone who proves trustworthy, sometimes overlooking a shitload of other faults. If you’ve done something to garner someone’s distrust, you may already be written off. If you intend to be trusted in the future and can prove your worthiness over time, an apology certainly doesn’t hurt. If you’re already a trustworthy person, realize you’re a hot commodity. Don’t offer your loyalty to just anyone. The wrong person will use or abuse you.”
—“His word is gold. Whoever achieves this triple-A rating will inevitably meet with prosperity.”
—“Whether you look at Don Vic Amuso eliminating Petrucelli or President Harry Truman removing MacArthur, history is filled with object lessons in the importance of following the chain of command. Respect this at the bottom. Enforce it at the top. The alternative is anarchy.”
You don’t find this kind of writing just anywhere. I caught myself pausing to reread it a couple of times, to absorb it, to learn from it. It’s precise, it’s active, it tells you a story with no excess verbiage. It’s right out of Hemingway. You can almost feel Dostoyevsky lurking about or Hugo unveiling an actor in the show.
Back in my university days many moons ago, I remember one of my favorite classes included weeks studying the nineteenth-century British essayist and art critic John Ruskin. From then to now, I still remember our professor who was visiting from the UK walking us through Ruskin’s prose line by line, word for word. The venture was entirely new to me, but the lesson stuck. It certainly was not an easy chore for a nineteen-year old, but it hooked me, especially when learning about the art of writing from someone who once said, “It takes a Ruskin to catch a Ruskin.”
In recent days, I’ve run across a slew of writers known for their great quotes. They reveal their skills by simply seeing the world through a different lens. Some of this writing comes from the likes of Murakami whose prose can be a bit raw and might not rest comfortably with a book club of easily discomfited dowagers. But if you free yourself from your own restrictions, you will find all kinds of delightful prose and poetry becoming part of your life.
Another witty aphorist I have been reading of late is George Ade, who was born right after the Civil War in Indiana and grew up an atheist. On a lecture tour in the early 1900s, he checked into an Indianapolis hotel that was hosting a convention for a group of clergyman. One of Ade’s companions, noticing the irony, asked the humorist how it felt being around so many members of the cloth. Cleverly reversing the biblical story about Daniel, Ade replied:
“I feel like a lion in a den of Daniels.”
If I could just get within hailing distance of such clever writing I’d be a happy boy.
As we start the early days of another presidential campaign, we can look forward to the bad examples of speech as well as to the good. At least, there’s a fair chance of being amused at the twisted syntax and tortured diction of some of the candidates. A couple of times a week Gail Collins, a columnist for The New York Times, writes her perceptive and amusing articles. In a recent posting, she said that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie “is now about as serious a presidential prospect as Donald Trump.” Her masterful summary of a campaign says it all.
With so many wannabe presidents out there pandering to the lowest common denominator, it’s just a matter of time before we get one of those moments made famous by the late Meet The Press moderator Tim Russert who would goad some pol into saying something totally contrary to what he had said earlier. Of course, Russert was trying to expose hypocrisy, but often the pol would never acknowledge his mistake and continue along his merry way expecting success in his next flim flam. One has to wonder what T. E. Lawrence, the famous Lawrence of Arabia, would think of such shysters today when he said so long ago:
“If only one could have two lives: the first, in which to make one’s mistakes, which seem as if they had to be made; and the second in which to profit by them.”
From the columns of newspaper pundits to the chapters of writers of fiction and non-fiction, there’s no end to all the good scribbling we have available to us. People of my demographic who actually came of age during the 1960s and survived can only delight in the writing of Tom Wolfe who described some of the more colorful characters of the time. Writing about “The Merry Pranksters” in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968), Wolfe described how a group of hip writers high on hallucinogenics refurbished an old bus to drive around the country and convert people to their new “religion.” In describing the bus, Wolfe left us with this image,
“The painting job, meanwhile, with everybody pitching in a frenzy of primary colors, yellows, oranges, blues, reds, was sloppy as hell, except for the parts Roy Seburn did, which were nice manic mandalas. Well, it was sloppy, but one thing you had to say for it, it was freaking lurid.”
One can almost hear Shelley’s “profuse strains of unpremeditated art” echoed in this description.
In ushering in “The New Journalism” era, a literary movement in the 1960s and ’70s that pushed the boundaries of traditional journalism and nonfiction writing, Wolfe showed us how to combine journalistic research with the techniques of fiction writing in the reporting of stories about real-life events. In an essay published in 2007, he argued that the newspaper industry would stand a much better chance of survival if newspaper editors encouraged reporters to “provide the emotional reality of the news, for it is the emotions, not the facts, that most engage and excite readers and in the end are the heart of most stories.” How so many of us were influenced by those words.
Like Ferrante and Murakami, Wolfe frequently focuses on technical devices needed to get to “the emotional core of the story.” “They are the specific devices,” he said, “that give fiction its absorbing or gripping quality, that make the reader feel present in the scene described and even inside the skin of a particular character.”
These devices include:
- constructing scenes;
- dialogue — lots of it;
- carefully noting social status details — everything from dress and furniture to the infinite status clues of speech, how one talks to superiors or inferiors, and with what sort of accent and vocabulary; and
- point of view, in the Henry James sense of putting the reader inside the mind of someone other than the writer.
That kind of advice as a writer and reader works for me as I savor a wide range of reading material. Do nothing till you hear the music in the words.
Now to get back to Murakami and his version of the end of the world. I last left him talking about a touchstone between the world he would enter and the world he was leaving. Despite all the horrors of the times we live in, at least we have easy access to such prose:
“I returned the skull to the table and brought my fingers to her cheek. The sky had broken, clear and deep, carved out with a sharp knife. Not a bad day for taking leave of this life. Then I hugged her one more time, to etch her warmth indelibly into my brain.”