Saturday 24 August 2013

On Margaret Atwood

Here's something written by the Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood:

Out of habit he looks at his watch - stainless steel case, burnished aluminium band, still shiny although it no longer works. He wears it now as his only talisman. A blank face is what it shows him: zero hour. It causes a jolt of terror to run through him, this absence of official time. Nobody nowhere knows what time it is.

The Economist once described the author as 'a scintillating wordsmith' and the paragraph above is quoted admiringly in the current TLS by Ruth Scurr, reviewing Atwood's latest novel Maddaddam. 

It's terrible, isn't it? Let's take a closer look.

Out of habit he looks at his watch - stainless steel case, burnished aluminium band, still shiny although it no longer works. Does Atwood mean that the band no longer works? Or does she mean  the watch? The grammar needs attention, and so does the sense. Is shininess, be it of the watch or the band, really a precondition of functionality? And why the dash?

He wears it now as his only talisman. Does she mean 'merely as a talisman, or are we invited to infer that until now he had many talismans, or talismen, now whittled down to a broken wristwatch? Can a wristwatch really be said to have talismanic qualities?

A blank face is what it shows him: zero hour. Why the inverted syntax? Why not 'It shows him a blank face'? And how can a blank face show 'zero hour', whatever that is? Yoda syntax is what she's offering. Annoyed is how it makes me. 

It causes a jolt of terror to run through him, this absence of official time. 'Jolt of terror' is a dim clichĂ©. And to what, anaphorically, does 'it' refer? And what's 'official time', and how can a wristwatch be said to embody it? Would official time not exist without wristwatches to corroborate it? If she means Newtonian Absolute Time (the relationship between inanimate objects) she really has nothing to worry about. If she means cultural time, once wittily defined as 'the random sub-division of eternity' she has little to work with here. Are we, finally, to understand that a 'jolt of terror' runs through this man because his wristwatch is broken? In which case it's a not much cop as a talisman.

Nobody nowhere knows what time it is. That should be 'Nobody anywhere', surely? Otherwise it must mean somebody somewhere does know what time it is, perhaps because their watch isn't broken. Is this an example of' contemporary counter-literacy'? Meanwhile jolts of terror are running through everbody, everywhere, and all the time. I don't buy that, and the writer has forfeited my attention.

The paragraph manages to be simultaneously trite and portentous. 

Trite because the situation is quite astonishingly banal (the poor chap doesn't know what time it is because his watch is broken) and portentous (the writer imagines this could have as much significance for the indifferent reader as it does for her implausible protagonist). It also, needless to say, makes no sense at all because if something is done out of habit (and, by implication, regularly) how can it cause a 'jolt of terror' to run through the habituĂ©. Wouldn't he have got used to it by now? 

My objection isn't simply that the writing is sloppy and slapdash (which it certainly is) but that Atwood, in common with almost every other contemporary writer, has decided for some reason to employ the historic present tense throughout. And I do mean every other writer - Will Self, Hilary Mantel, E. L. James (the Fifty Shades woman), NoViolet Bulawayo, Tom McCarthy - they all do it, and they can't all be right. They can't all want to be Tony Parsons.

It's a dull trope (no doubt promoted eagerly by Creative Writing Programme tutors) that its users imagine gives their prose a sense of immediacy - stand-up comedians use the same tense when they say 'this bloke walks into a pub' rather than 'walked'. But such immediacy is the stuff of comedy, not literature. It also modishly serves to destabilise the role of an omniscient author (because as we all know, post-Derrida, the author is at best a presumptuous spectre) and to suggest that events are unfolding right now in real time, mediated (but not controlled) by a writer who is humbly subordinate to the text, which is of course itself unreliable. It has in recent years become a near-universal style and I just can't stand it.

It's not as though it's anything innovative. Dickens used the form sparingly (and very effectively) in the Deadlock chapters of Bleak House, to reflect the moral and emotional inertia of a cold-blooded aristocratic protagonist. Only once has something worthwhile been fully achieved using this inflexible and monotonous form at length - Wyndham Lewis's great trilogy 'The Human Age' (The Childermass, Monstre Gai and Malign Fiesta), three modernist novels set in a hellish afterlife where time (and therefore tense) has no meaning. Lewis published the first volume in 1928 - why do today's writers imagine that it's anything new? And Stan Barstow employed the same approach in A Kind of Loving (1960), but this was appropriate as it served to represent a button-holing anecdotal Yorkshire vernacular and (more importantly) it was still uncommon at the time.

Elsewhere in an otherwise positive review, Scurr describes Atwood's prose as 'leaden' and gives plenty of amusing examples of the author's cloth ear for contemporary English (let alone a future dystopian version of the language) so if a fan can't work up much enthusiasm for the book I shan't be queuing for my copy. But (and here's the real point of this blog) - have you noticed the truly uncanny resemblance between Margaret Atwood and the actress Alex Kingston? Are they related?

Extract © Margaret Atwood Maddaddam published by Random House 2013

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