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Regarding Media

For Prose Warrior, Lit'rature Is the Enemy

Atlantic Monthly 'Reader' would smite pretentious writing.

July 16, 2001|MARY McNAMARA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Every 10 years or so, someone speaking from the subtly slick pages of a high-brow magazine declares that the American novel is dead. Or dying. Or getting drunk and making out with strangers at all the wrong parties.

In 1981, it was Bryan F. Griffin, an obscure essayist and short-story writer whose two-part epic "Panic Among the Philistines" ran in Harper's Magazine. In 32 pages of highfalutin sarcasm and purplish rabble-rousing, Griffith took down John Cheever, E.L. Doctorow, John Irving, Norman Mailer, Gay Talese, Truman Capote and the rest of that so-called literary elite who thought fancy language somehow redeemed their smutty and "onanistic" books.

Eight years later, it was novelist Tom Wolfe strutting across the pages of, again, Harper's in a shameless advertisement for his then-new work "The Bonfire of the Vanities," thinly disguised as a piece titled "Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast: A literary manifesto for the new social novel." Like an erudite Auntie Mame, Wolfe declared that life in modern America is a banquet and that all these mewling minimalist, fabulist and absurdist writers were starving to death.

This time around, the role of Boy in the Crowd, the one who tugs at his mother's hem, points at the passing emperor and announces, "But Mommy, he's naked," is played by B.R. Myers, making his literary and critical debut in the July issue of the Atlantic Monthly. Like Wolfe, Myers has also written a manifesto, "A Reader's Manifesto," subtitled "An attack on the growing pretentiousness of American literary prose." Like Griffith, he is an unknown, and he appears determined to remain so--with the exception of a very short radio interview, he has done no follow-up press and, indeed, was unreachable for this story. Unlike his two predecessors, he is the consummate outsider: According to his editors at the Atlantic, his only published work is an obscure book on North Korean literature.

According to Myers, any novel with a fast-moving narrative related in unaffected prose is doomed these days to the categorization of "genre fiction." To gain the stamp of Literary, to win the big awards, a writer must dispense with the middlebrow millstones of clarity and syntax and concentrate on creating a writerly presence. The reader must ever be continually reminded that this is Lit'rature, dense and important, and not to be confused with something one might find for sale at the supermarket.

This aloof presence is achieved through a variety of means, Myers argues, including tortured wordplay (E. Annie Proulx); sudden nonsensical barrages of image (Cormac McCarthy); or non sequitor and inexplicable observation (Paul Auster). When all else fails, one can simply produce mindless lists in an attempt to capture the bottomless void of consumerism (Don DeLillo) or take a mediocre plot and tart it up with a bunch of Japanese words (David Guterson).

In 16 pages, Myers takes these, and a few other, writers to task, deconstructing excerpt after excerpt, pointing out what suddenly seem to be obvious mistakes in metaphor, syntax, even noun/pronoun agreement. Calling Proulx's wordplay "relentless," he offers a list of doubled-up metaphors and similes: "Furious dabs of tulips stuttering in gardens" seems to be his least favorite, and one must admit that there is a lot going on with those tulips.

Myers also questions whether a woman whose arms have just been sliced off (Proulx's "Accordion Crimes") would really be all that entranced by watching swallows nab bugs in the rafters as her arms wetly hit the floor, or whether "the whole scene is not in bad taste of the juvenile variety." The same question could apply to a passage that Myers selects from McCarthy's "All the Pretty Horses," in which, Myers writes, the author cannot bear to use simple moderate language even when dealing with a cowboy's hangover.

[They] walked off in separate directions through the chaparral to stand spraddle-legged clutching their knees and vomiting. The browsing horses jerked their heads up.... In the gray twilight those retchings seemed to echo like the calls of some rude provisional species loosed upon that waste. Something imperfect and malformed lodged in the heart of being. A thing smirking deep in the eyes of grace itself like a gorgon in an autumn pool.

"I can just go along with the idea that horses might mistake human retching for the call of wild animals," Myers writes. "But wild animals isn't epic enough: McCarthy must blow smoke about some 'rude provisional species'.... Then he switches from the horses' perspective to the narrator's, though just what 'something imperfect and malformed' refers to is unclear. The last half of the sentence only deepens the confusion. Is the 'thing smirking deep in the eyes of grace' the same thing that is 'lodged in the heart of being'? And what is a gorgon doing in a pool? Or is it peering into it? And why an autumn pool? I doubt if McCarthy can explain any of this; he probably just likes the way it sounds."

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