Sentences — June 16, 2008, 12:06 pm

On the Fringe of His Line

ageebroad

“You can see the grown man’s 5 o’clock shadow,” Will Blythe wrote this past weekend in The New York Times Book Review, “darkening the smooth cheeks of such baby prose.” The prose thus tarred is that of James Agee.

Note the excellence and clarity of Blythe’s metaphor. He has found a terse and vivid way to say that Agee’s attempts to artfully present the perceptions of a child, of childishness, were marred by artifice, were too-transparently those of an adult author attempting to “do” childishness. The passage Blythe presents to corroborate his critical take appears in both of the wildly different editions of Agee’s novel A Death in the Family. Rufus, the one son in Agee’s titular family, is listening to his mother Mary sing the song “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” As she does, the narration of the novel presents Rufus’s thoughts about the lyrics. This technique—in which third person narration is infused with the perceptions of one of the story’s characters—is sometimes called free indirect style:

A cherryut was a sort of a beautiful wagon because home was too far to walk, a long long way, but of course it was like a cherry, too, only he could not understand how a beautiful wagon and a cherry could be like each other, but they were.

The child hears “chariot” and, ignorant of the word, hears it as “cherry-ut,” building it from existing materials. Agee is attempting to present the drama of comprehension and knowledge-building as an explicit activity, one which, were we properly seated in a cerebrum, we could witness.

Blythe, though, is a fidgety spectator of this sort of theater. He’s seen it before. “[T]he early chapters,” he writes, “embody the development of Rufus’s childhood consciousness, at times in painful imitation of James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.” Blythe does not quote from Portrait, but if he had, he might have used this to show the technical similarity:

He crept about from point to point on the fringe of his line, making little runs now and then. But his hands were bluish with cold. He kept his hands in the side pockets of his belted grey suit. That was a belt round his pocket. And belt was also to give a fellow a belt. One day a fellow said to Cantwell:

—I’d give you such a belt in a second.

Yes, Joyce’s attention to the child’s attention to language (“And a belt was also to give a fellow a belt”) is meant to intimate the processes of becoming a “language animal” (Terry Eagleton’s shorthand for humans), a process that gains importance, in the case of Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus or Agee’s Rufus Follett, when we would understand that each is destined to make language–the makings of language–his life. Blythe finds that Agee’s attempt (“the grown man’s 5 o’clock shadow [etc]”) threatens to say less about Rufus the listener and more about Agee the reader and writer.

This is good criticism—good in its clarity, its founding of a judgment in a presentable detail—if not adequate in its judgment. “Even by Agee’s era,” Blythe suggests, “singsong prose as an embodiment of a child’s innocence must have been an exhausted trope.” Tricky, the ticketing of tropes as “exhausted.” Once one begins to issue such broad summonses, anything can be judged tiresome: Do we really need another father-and-son story? Another death-of-a-loved-one tale? Do we need to use alliteration to mark a moment’s lyricism; do we benefit from photographs interspersed in a novel; should we forego quotation marks to distinguish dialogue in favor of modernist doodles like em-dashes?

Nothing, in a novel, is needed, whether technical or material. Rather, a novel can admit of anything, breaking with convention or recycling it. Naturally, the success of such admissions depends on the talent of the writer. Blythe, I suspect, would agree, and would say only that the weaker parts of Agee’s enterprise depended too heavily and too transparently on the endeavor of another author. This is fair enough, as a point of view. Whereas the exhausted trope argument is, itself, a trope exhausted–novels would be nowhere without them.

Share
Single Page

More from Wyatt Mason:

From the February 2010 issue

The untamed

Joshua Ferris’s restless-novel syndrome

Sentences May 1, 2009, 2:41 pm

Weekend Read: The Last Post

Sentences April 29, 2009, 4:12 pm

A Certain, Wandering Light

Get access to 164 years of
Harper’s for only $34.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

May 2014

50,000 Life Coaches Can’t Be Wrong

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Quinoa Quarrel

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

You Had to Be There

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A Study in Sherlock

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Post
“In Thunupa’s footsteps grew a miraculous plant that could withstand drought, cold, and even salt, and still produce a nutritious grain.”
Photograph by Lisa M. Hamilton
Article
A Study in Sherlock·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“It is central to the pleasure of the Sherlock Holmes stories that they invite play, and that they were never meant to be taken seriously.”
Illustration by Frederic Dorr Steele
Post
My Top 5 Metal Albums and Their Poetic Counterparts·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“1. Death, The Sound of Perseverance (Nuclear Blast, 1998)”
Photograph (detail) by Peter Beste
Article
Found Money·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“I have spent my entire adult existence in a recession. Like most people I talk to, I assume the forces that control the market are at best random and at worst rigged. The auction shows only confirm that suspicion.”
Illustration by Steven Dana
Post
The School of Permanent Revolución·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“The University of Venezuela has provided a consistent counterweight to governmental authority, but it has also reliably produced the elite of whatever group replaced the status quo.”
Photograph © Daniel Lansberg-Rodríguez

Amount of trash left in New York City’s Central Park by people attending Earth Day festivities, in tons:

100

High ocean acidity from rising sea temperatures was causing the ears of baby damselfish to develop improperly; without ears, baby damselfish cannot hear (and thus locate) the reefs where they are meant to grow up.

Colombian author and Nobel Laureate Gabriel García Márquez died at age 87. “You’d be at a bordello,” said the journalist Francisco Goldman, “and the woman would have one book by her bed and it would be Gabo’s.”

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST