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“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.
More from Wyatt Mason:
On a Friday evening in January, a thousand people at the annual California Native Plant Society conference in San Jose settled down to a banquet and a keynote speech delivered by an environmental historian named Jared Farmer. His chosen topic was the eucalyptus tree and its role in California’s ecology and history. The address did not go well. Eucalyptus is not a native plant but a Victorian import from Australia. In the eyes of those gathered at the San Jose DoubleTree, it qualified as “invasive,” “exotic,” “alien” — all dirty words to this crowd, who were therefore convinced that the tree was dangerously combustible, unfriendly to birds, and excessively greedy in competing for water with honest native species.
In his speech, Farmer dutifully highlighted these ugly attributes, but also quoted a few more positive remarks made by others over the years. This was a reckless move. A reference to the tree as “indigenously Californian” elicited an abusive roar, as did an observation that without the aromatic import, the state would be like a “home without its mother.” Thereafter, the mild-mannered speaker was continually interrupted by boos, groans, and exasperated gasps. Only when he mentioned the longhorn beetle, a species imported (illegally) from Australia during the 1990s with the specific aim of killing the eucalyptus, did he earn a resounding cheer.
Percentage of Britons who cannot name the city that provides the setting for the musical Chicago:
An Australian entrepreneur was selling oysters raised in tanks laced with Viagra.
A tourism company in Australia announced a service that will allow users to take the “world’s biggest selfies,” and a Texas man accidentally killed himself while trying to pose for a selfie with a handgun.
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“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”