By Hal Duncan
Style, so often seen in opposition to story, is a much-maligned, misunderstood creature within the field of genre fiction, it sometimes seems. Story is ó so many would say ó content, the immersive and intriguing illusion of characters, plots and themes. Style is only ó they continue ó a superficial (and therefore secondary) sheen of tricksiness and technique overlaid upon this story. When we criticize a novel as being overwritten, overwrought... self-indulgent, what we are saying generally is that, well, the tricksiness is excessive. Thereís too much style here. The prose is too ornate, too baroque, too gothic (or inversely too pared-down, too modernist, too minimalist ó which is simply to say that the technique is overdone; the deficiency of detail is still a surfeit of style).
No, thereís a simple story to be told, with clear characters, a straightforward plot, apparent themes... and the author has only gone and messed it all up with this thick layer of impenetrable style smeared over the surface of the structure, prettily patterned but a camouflaging confusion of the underlying composition. Or worse still, he hasnít bothered with story at all, just daubed that gauche and lurid style stuff all over a blank canvass, with no attempt at ordered composition whatsoever. Thatís the argument against style.
Is this a straw man, this antipathy to style as something that "gets in the way" of story, or "disguises" a lack of it? I don't think so. It seems to me rather a common complaint within the field.
Now I want to establish from the start that this is not about Art versus Entertainment. This antipathy to style can come from either philistine or philosopher; both see style as execution, execution as a (potential) barrier to immersion in the composition, that composition as a means to an end, the end being vicarious thrills on the one hand, intellectual insights on the other. Plot and theme. Reading-for-theme tends to have more status than reading-for-plot, but whether you want beard strokes or eyeball kicks, itís all treating the work itself as a means to an end ó if thatís all youíre looking for, that is.
Both philistine and philosopher, these hypothetical extremes of reading only for plot or only for theme, will tend to blame the writerís execution if the composition is not immediately obvious. Aware of obvious tricks and techniques in the text but unable to discern any meaningful patterning of character and plot, they scapegoat style: if there is a story there, they say, it is obscured by the style; in the absence of plot or theme, they say, this is just playing with words. It is pointless. It is pretentious. It has no substance.
But thereís a threefold danger here, I think, of misreading the text in terms of import, intent and, most importantly, substance. To focus only on action or theme is to miss much of the potential import of a novel, to deny that others might actually, you know, read for other reasons. And to assume a shallow purpose in the face of a profusion of literary techniques is to rule out many plausible aesthetic intents, to deny that the author could actually have had any valid reason at all... really, I mean, honestly, theyíre just playing with the pretty words, arenít they? But these are blinkered views. Worst of all though, to assume that either plot or theme are "covered" in style rather than revealed by it, unraveled, presented to the reader through it, is to ignore the very substance of the novel and focus on an element that really is a superficial effect. This is not just blinkered; itís misguided.
Style is substance. The substance of a novel is the words upon the page, the clauses they construct, the sentences they make, the paragraphs, the scenes and chapters. Characters, plots and themes ó these are only glosses we put on the text, overarching generalities of who these fictional creations are, of what they do, and of why. The questions of personality, action and meaning are integral to the act of composition, but they are no more the underlying composition than the title of the novel is; like that title they are simply abstracted encapsulations of the subject. They answer the question "What is it about?" rather than "What is it?"
Ask me what Vellum is about and I can give you one of two answers. The first is simple, a complete encapsulation of character, plot and theme in a sentence of only two words:
I mean, you canít get clearer than that, can you ó a basic noun-verb predicate? That sentence tells you who itís about ó people ó what they do ó die ó and the thematic focus is, I think, pretty implicit in the combination of those two. Itís not exactly detailed, Iíll grant you, but then sketches never are. A more detailed sketch of a draft-dodging Irish angel, a War in Heaven and the liberating power of nihilism would remain a cursory summation at best. I could draw some more sketches, go into more detail; still it would only be a caricature. So usually, when asked the dreaded question, I go for the second answer. Itís a glib answer, a joke, but in a way itís more accurate. Whatís the book about?
Itís about 180,000 words.
Thatís the substance of the book, the meat of it. But what about the bones, you might ask, the architecture, the underlying composition? Donít we have to talk about this in terms of character, plot, theme? Isnít that just the way it is, because that is what the story is made up of?
No, the story is made up of words. The skeleton of the book, what gives the sinews and muscles of sentences an overall shape, is simply larger units of prose, the book as a whole breaking down into volumes, chapters, scenes, paragraphs, sentences, the building-blocks of that larger structure. How the sentences are put together into paragraphs is as much a stylistic choice as the choice of how the words are put together into sentences. How the paragraphs are put together into scenes is as much a stylistic choice again, as is how those scenes are put together into chapters, and so on, all the way up. All choices of substance, of what goes into a book, are stylistic choices, style being only the characteristic choices that distinguish one writer from another (or one book from another, to be more accurate; one writer can have many styles).
To give you a comparison, if we look at painting, the styles of Romanticism and Neo-Classicism (in, say, Delacroix and David respectively) are not just a matter of coloring-in some paint-by-numbers line drawing, using brushstrokes of different types, wild and thick on the one hand, restrained and smooth on the other in order to achieve different styles. The Romantic and Neo-Classical styles are not simply surface effects; itís as much a matter of structure as anything else, of subject and environment, foreground and background, the character and plot of painting. Itís dynamic diagonals and ellipses versus stable verticals and horizontals. Itís order versus chaos. One cannot take Delacroixís "The Raft of the Medusa", clean up the wild paintwork and suddenly have a Neo-Classical painting. Nor can one take Davidís "The Death of Marat", paint over it with rough brushstrokes and suddenly have a Romantic painting.
More to the point, take Cubism or Abstract Art, where the style is defined at least as much by choices of composition as by choices of surface execution: could we take a jpg of Picasso's "Guernica", run it through some filters in a graphics program (right-click, select Effects >> Soften) and suddenly have a work of the Impressionist school? Would browning, ageing, darkening turn one of Mondrianís geometric canvasses into a painting in the "style" of an Old Master?
What itís really about, I think, is the expectation of straightforward representation. In the work of Mondrian or Picasso thereís a break from direct representation that can leave the viewer unmoored, unsure of the subject and therefore unconvinced that there actually is one. And without a subject, it follows on, surely there is no substance. Itís just style. The term "cubism" was first applied as a term of abuse by a French critic, Louis Voxelles, who dismissed the work of Braques as composed of nothing more than "bizarre cubiques". Itís just playing with shapes, he seems to be saying. Itís just playing with words, is the equivalent literary criticism. Style without substance. Strange sentences. But the substance of a Cubist work is those "bizarre cubiques", just as the substance of a novel is those "strange sentences".
In Vellum, I certainly have some strange sentences. Hereís one from the first panel of the fourth section of the twelve section "eclogue" that sits between volume one and two (each of which are composed of seven chapters of twelve sections of four panels each, with a prologue before one and an epilogue after the other (also in twelve sections of four panels)):
He sings of the vast void and of seeds, of shatterings and scatterings and gatherings, of seeds of earth and air and sea and flickerings of flecks, the flash, the flux of fire.
Now that is, without a doubt, a flouncy sentence. My God, the alliteration alone should be enough to get it kicked out of the book and sent sulking home, its hand nailed firmly to its forehead in poetic posture. But itís there exactly because it is so ornate, so artificial. In that eclogue, three different narrative voices are used section by section by section, three different registers, three different syntaxes; one drops away, while the other two gradually merge, because this, as much as the characters, their actions and the meanings of those actions, is the story at that point in the book. Reality is breaking down, a living language is blending mundane reality with fantastic myth, so two different narrative voices, one prosaic and one poetic, have to mingle and merge. That structuring technique is far more of an identifying feature of my style in Vellum than any single narrative voice, naturalistic or artificial, painted with Romantic passion or Neo-Classical restraint.
Compare that sentence above with the first sentence of the next panel:
He lays his hand on the back of my neck and turns me to face him.
What Iím trying to say is that there is no more style, no less style, in one sentence than in the other. They have different registers, one highly poetic, the other spartanly prosaic. They have different syntax, one elaborate, the other simple. They have different voices, and one is more artificial than the other. But note that the first sentence has no adverbs and only one adjective in all its pompous grandiosity ó the word "vast" as a modifier for "void". As a precise description of an act ó the act of singing and the subject of the song ó the only excess words in there, other than that "void" are "of" and "and", articulating a list which would otherwise be a formless, incoherent trudge from A to B to C to D to E to F, God help us:
He sings of the void, seeds, shatterings, scatterings, gatherings, seeds of earth, air, sea and flickerings of flecks, the flash, the flux of fire.
Strip down the sentence to the functional and the sense of it is less clearly articulated; add a few stylistic flourishes, an "of" here, an "and" there, and it becomes easier to read because it breaks the sentence into clauses, gives it more structure. The substance is revealed through, not concealed by, the styling of the sentence.
Of course, we could lose some of that detail. I could have just written "He sings about stuff."
People die. End of story. Not much point in writing the novel then, eh?
But this isnít about justifying a particular syntactic choice on my part. Itís not about justifying the voice of that sentence. Itís about the idea that we should ó or even could ó take that sentence (or that sort of a sentence) and somehow strip away the "style", make the prose more "transparent", to reveal the story "underneath". That we could and should communicate the same descriptive detail more effectively in a simpler form. Are there more basic synonyms for "earth", "air", "sea" and "fire"? Are the words "shattering", "scattering" or "gathering" not clear and precise? Is it wildly unconventional to twist the verbs into nouns, too choose a more ergonomic "shatterings" over "acts of shattering" and so on? Are the words "flickerings" or "flecks" or "flash" confusing as descriptors of fire? Style is not something thatís been superimposed upon that sentence; itís just a matter of the structural choices made in putting it together. I made similar structural, stylistic choices putting that sentence together with others, some strange, some not so strange, to make the story as a whole.
Some people will, of course, simply prefer the register of one sentence to that of the other. That first sentence is, without a doubt, flouncy as fuck. Thatís the technical term, by the way. So, yes: the high-flown rhetorical tone can be grating in its artifice. The pared-down prosaic narrative can be lustreless in its functional simplicity. And to this extent, the narrative voice ó not style but voice ó the presence or absence of a combination of rhythm and vocabulary which has in its own right a certain character, which gives a sub-audible texture to the "surface" of the work, can be a barrier to perception of the "underlying" composition. But if style is, as I am arguing, as much structure as syntax and lexicon, we should not blame our incomprehension on a surfeit of style over substance. Itís like saying there's too much Cubism smeared all over Picassoís "Guernica". Stripping away the Cubism from "Guernica" would not reveal the underlying composition. Strip away the Cubism and there is no "Guernica".
So why is it style that gets the blame when the large-scale structuring of a novel is not obvious, when we look at a work and see only these "strange sentences"? I think there are actually two distinct complaints here.
On the one hand thereís the power of voice ó not style, but voice ó to alienate the reader, to irritate with its artifice. I remember when I first started reading Peakeís Gormenghast, trudging slowly through the first fifty pages, hating the book, despising it, because the prose was so thick, the tone so contrived, the pace so ponderous. Fifty pages in though, suddenly it clicked. I accepted this weird, unnatural narrative voice, understood how intrinsic it was to the novel, to the import, intent and substance of this grand, archaic and eccentric structure. Remove that voice from Gormenghast, strip away the style of Peakeís strange sentences, and youíd have only a shell without substance. Nevertheless, there are many, Iím sure, for whom that voice never clicked and never will, who canít "get past" the style, who canít "see through" it.
On the other hand thereís the rejection of straightforward representation that you get in Modernist art, painting and fiction, where the structure of the work does not map directly to the subject but instead works on more abstract relationships. Fragmenting and recombining, cutting-up and folding-in, this kind of work can render the subject in such an unfamiliar state it seems there is no subject at all. I remember when I first read Burroughsís The Naked Lunch, flying through page after page of centipedes and junkies, orgies and hangings, loving the sheer drive of this drug-fuelled homo-pornographic and fantastic chaos, but having no idea what was going on or what it all meant, no idea of plot or theme. Being a collage, a mosaic, the fact that the reader has to fit its shards of shattered subject back together in their mind, doesnít mean it has no subject at all. Still, there are those, Iím sure, whoíll always find Burroughs baffling, for whom thereís nothing there "beneath" all the experimentation, all the style.
If it sounds like Iím blaming all incomprehension on the inadequacies of the reader, thatís not the point Iím trying to make. The reader is perfectly entitled to read for whatever reason they want, to reject a book because the voice is too affected or the prose too dislocated. I simply think itís a mistake to set up a dichotomy between style and substance, to blame those strange sentences for seducing the callow author with their sensual drift, their sonorous shifts, distracting the writer from their role as purveyor of plot or theme. Thatís not style without substance. It might be voice saying nothing that we want to hear, or incoherent reconstruction of the subject, or both; but if thereís voice at all, if there are words on the page, then there is substance, and even if the subject is entirely unfathomable thereís still substance, just as a Mondrian has meaning ó import, intent and abstract significance ó even in its complete refusal to represent.
And who knows? Maybe those strange sentences you find infuriating at first will win you over with their wiles; maybe theyíre saying something thatís worth hearing. And maybe there is a coherent structure to be grasped, if you just step back a little from the novel and, instead of focusing on this bit here and that bit there ó instead of focusing on all those strange sentences which ó the substance just as much as theyíre the style, the basic components of the underlying composition ó look at it as a whole.
Maybe itís not all just "bizarre cubiques".
Maybe itís not all just strange sentences.