Andrea Levy’s Small Island is a post-colonial novel told from four points of view. Queenie and Bernard, separated by war, are a British couple with a tepid relationship and Hortense and Gilbert are Jamaican, married out of convenience and lured to England by opportunity. The book explores British racism in the 1950s. It’s less overtly ugly than its American cousin, but it nonetheless dictates the borders of the lives of Gilbert, Hortense and their fellow immigrants. Britain, long the colonizer, renowned for her Empire, in Small Island has reached a point where it would like to forget about the past and start from scratch. This time all these people of different colors can stay in their own lands. But, of course, this is not an option. Instructed by centuries of colonialism to believe they are British subjects and stirred up by the global tumult of World War II, immigrants from all over the world resettle in their “Mother Country.” Nearly all of the white folks in the book are like Bernard, dismissive and even affronted by the arrival of darker people on their shores. They stare, heckle, slam doors and on occasion take a swing at these people. It matters not that thousands of Jamaicans fought along side the British during the war. It is telling that most of the British folks Gilbert interacts with think that Jamaica is in Africa. Queenie, however, is the anomaly and perhaps even a cliche since so often these novels of race relations have at their center an enlightened white person. But luckily Levy gives her sufficient depth to carry a large chunk of the novel. What sets this book apart, and what probably helped Levy win awards for it – the Orange prize in 2004 and then this year’s Orange “Best of the Best” – was her ability to imbue each of the four narrators with his or her own voice. Gilbert and Hortense speak with the native rhythm of their home island, Bernard’s voice is pinched and fidgety, and Queenie is the voice of hope and happiness. Though the chapter headings indicate who will narrate each chapter, the voices are so distinctive that this touch is unnecessary.
The “Machine” in the title of Tracy Kidder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book from 1982 is a minicomputer, but for anyone reading it now, it might as well be a time machine. The Soul of a New Machine takes the reader back 27 years, but in terms of the technology that is central to the book, it feels like we’re going back eons. Kidder’s book, once a riveting look into a fast-growing and mysterious industry, now reads as history. Kidder’s subject is a team of engineers at a now gone company called Data General (it was bought out in 1999). Under the brash instruction of their leader, Tom West, the engineers set out to design a computer even though the head honchos at Data General have put their support and resources behind another group. West’s Eagle group – made up of young, brilliant engineers – comes out on top. Though this book is quite dated now, I enjoyed it for a couple of reasons. Computer technology is so commonplace now that it is a part of our landscape, both essential and taken for granted. It was interesting to look back to a time before we had computers on our desks and in our pockets, when computers were as mysterious and awe inspiring as putting a man on the moon. The book was also compelling as a collection of character studies and a treatise on business theory. Kidder does a good job of putting the reader in the basement of the office building where this computer was born. If you’re interested, an excerpt from the book is available.
As Edgar Allen Poe wrote in his essay “The Philosophy of Composition,” a short story should be able to be read in a “single sitting.” The writers in Loud Sparrows have taken his call for brevity to heart. Topping out at three pages, each selection from this anthology of Chinese “short-shorts” (also known by the name flash fiction) consumes about as much time as smoking a cigarette, making sitting more or less irrelevant.Whether this is a good thing or not is open to question. What is beyond doubt is the popularity of the form in China. Although, short-shorts (as featured in such journals as Flashquake, Vestal Review, and Smoke-long Quarterly) have found a readership in the U.S., they have not been met with the same enthusiasm as in China, where the Journal of Selected Short-shorts accounts for over half of all subscriptions to the P.R.C’s 400 plus literary journals.Starting with this rampant popularity as its premise, Loud Sparrows proposes to give its readers an introduction to the “contemporary Chinese experience,” as seen through the world of Chinese “short-shorts.” To accomplish this goal, the translator/editors have assembled a selection of ninety-one stories by professional and amateur writers working in the P.R.C., Hong Kong, Taiwan and abroad. The stories are interspersed with philosophical musings about the nature of the “short-short,” which are somewhat condescendingly described as a means to “ease [any] anxiety that may have been caused by the absence of rigid definition[s] [of the form].”This absence of definition has not hindered the form’s success in China. Rather, the short-short’s popularity there seems almost inevitable. As the joke goes, if you’re one in a million there, there are 100,000 others just like you, a sentiment mirrored by the writer Yin Di in the book’s introduction: “What can be said in 1,000 words had better not be said in 10,000.” As suggested by its accompanying slogan “everybody writes” (a thought that must send shivers down the spines of slush pile readers across the globe), the form’s length makes it democratic in a way that the novel can never hope to be, opening a path not just to mass expression, but also mass consumption, a point that the writer Yang Xiaomin makes effectively in one of the book’s many interludes:Short shorts are the art form of common people. By that I mean, they can be consumed by most people, most people can participate in the creative process, and most people can benefit from an art form of simple words and profound meaning.This compression of form suits not just China’s population, but also its somewhat schizophrenic political sentiments. On one hand, the short-short’s brevity fulfills an almost Marxist function, taking the means of literary production away from the intelligentsia and giving them to the people (or proletariat, if you prefer). On the other hand, the short-short fulfills a market function: its length makes it the ideal literary commodity, easily distributed and easily consumed.This market function has lead to short-shorts being widely embraced by the business world. Unlike novels and longer short stories, which require a much larger investment of time and discipline from both the reader and the writer, the accessibility of short-shorts has made them the perfect vehicle for selling, distributing, and manufacturing the written word. As with any product, this commodification has been a mixed blessing. While short-shorts have made written works more widely available and accessible to the “average Joe,” they have also, arguably, cheapened the written word. A fierce battle over the literary merit of short-shorts – a question elliptically addressed in many of the “please love me” quotes peppered throughout the book – has raged for some time and there are no signs that it will soon abate. Rather, the boundaries of what constitutes literature continue to be tested. The upcoming introduction in China of mobile fiction for cellular phones, stories even shorter than the current crop of short-shorts, raises the question of when a story ceases to be a story (those with an interest in the coming apocalypse should follow this link.Predictably, this two-fold function of democratization and commodification has had the effect of creating endless opportunities for bad literature. In theory, the form encourages its practitioners to choose their words carefully, picking over every sentence, removing anything that might be extraneous, until all that remains is a small, hard, highly polished jewel of a story, something more closely approaching traditional Chinese poetry than Edgar Allen Poe’s vision for the short story. Examples of this “I would have written a shorter letter, but I didn’t have the time” philosophy of story telling are few and far between, however. Instead, the instant gratification of the form seems to encourage both lazy writing and lazy reading.This is the main problem facing Loud Sparrows. Despite a well of source material that probably approaches the infinite, the majority of the collection’s stories fail to inspire. While there are a few excellent selections, the majority, to quote one story, “[come] like a gust of wind and [go] like a waft of smoke,” relying on tired jokes or twist endings, rather than providing the reader with any true emotional resonance or the epiphanies that the stories’ writers repeatedly insist are part and parcel of the form. Part of the problem arises from a flawed premise. By anthologizing short-shorts, the translators have undermined their essence. When read in context, on the bus or between newspaper articles, a short-short might provide a pleasant aesthetic jolt, much like the sudden appearance of a full moon on a cloudy night, but with little space to develop memorable characters or incidents, the stories quickly lose their novelty and begin to run together. This problem is not helped by the difficulties faced by the book’s translators. Although all three translators write fluidly and well, the idiosyncratic voices of the various writers are inevitably subsumed by the translators’ personal styles. This is an unavoidable artifact of the translation process, but, while it might not be problematic in a novel length work, the stories in this volume fall victim to a sameness that further blurs their boundaries. Sadly, Loud Sparrows does not only fail as fiction, it also falls short as a scholarly work. The book’s informative introduction is undermined by a haphazard and seemingly arbitrary organizational scheme, which sees the stories arranged by putative subjects (grooming, nourishment, weirdness and, perhaps most tellingly, ??) of dubious value to either the scholar or the casual reader. Even the translator Howard Goldblatt, who “introduces” each subject with original short-shorts written for the project, seems to recognize the meaningless of the task, ending one of his more uninspired stories about a translator writing – guess what – a short-short with the line “…to hell with it…I’ve got better things to do.”More than anything, the organizational scheme underlines the book’s missed opportunities. Stories from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the P.R.C are lumped together, leaving readers to assume that a common language (common only if you ignore the enormous differences between the three Chinese dialects involved) has played a more important role in the form’s development than the three countries’ different politics, cultures and economic systems. This seems an unlikely proposition. A comment about “Greater China” in the introduction leaves one to wonder whether this possible organizational scheme might have fallen victim to the politics of mainland China, with its insistence on integrating Taiwan and Hong Kong into a seamless whole. Other pertinent information is also ignored. Although the translators make a point of emphasizing the importance of context to the stories’ content, claiming that their length means they are often dashed out in response to breaking news and social trends (a literature of the moment if you will), no context is given. Nor do the translators include the contributors’ biographical introductions that are typical in short story anthologies. These omissions all conspire to further deprive each story of its substance, drawing attention to the fact that, with such a paucity of words, most of the stories, unlike a novel, cannot exist in a vacuum.In the end, Loud Sparrows amounts to little more than an interesting experiment. Although a few of its pieces show promise, ultimately, its problems are best expressed by one of its contributors: A piece of good fiction must never leave the reader thinking, “So what?”
These days we tend to write as we speak, with a certain allowance for fancy words and allusions. Our sentences march from subject to verb to object like a horse heading for home, and we quickly become impatient with what is usually considered under the ancient heading of rhetoric: elaborate parallelism, repetition, mirror constructions, and so on. It looks like showing off; it feels tricksy. But until recently those tricks were the foundation of public discourse, and a knowledge of chiasmus and Cicero was a prerequisite for anyone who wanted to be thought cultured. There are many reasons for the change, and they are largely good reasons, but there has still been something lost, and Ward Farnsworth is here to remind us of what it is.
Farnsworth is a Boston University law professor whose professional writing runs to texts like “The Use and Limits of Martin-Quinn Scores to Assess Supreme Court Justices.” But he has thought a great deal about what makes for effective writing and in his Farnsworth’s Classical English Rhetoric has amassed an impressive array of illustrative quotations by writers ranging from the famous (Dickens, Lincoln, Churchill) to the now less remembered (Goldsmith, Webster, Kingsley) to the nearly forgotten (Henry Grattan, Richard Lalor Sheil); he has arranged them by their prominent use of various classical devices ranging from epizeuxis to prolepsis and shared them with us. What might have been (and in many texts on rhetoric is) a dry analysis full of rebarbative Greco-Latin terminology (epizeuxis!) becomes an enchanted garden of lively English prose.
Farnsworth begins his preface thus: “Everyone speaks and writes in patterns. Usually the patterns arise from unconscious custom; they are models we internalize from the speech around us without thinking much about it. But it also is possible to study the patterns deliberately….” He asks how one should study “techniques that succeed only when they seem unstudied,” and says “The answer lies in examples,” adding that the selection “reflects one of the chief purposes of the book, which is to help recover a rhetorical tradition in English that is less familiar because it is outside of living memory.” He does not try to cover all the traditional figures, just “the eighteen or so that, in my judgment, are of most practical value.” He omits metaphor and simile “not because they are unimportant but because they are too important; they are large enough topics to require separate treatment of their own.”
But enough theory. What is epizeuxis? It’s a fancy term for repetition; in his introduction to the first chapter he gives well-known examples like Conrad’s “The horror! The horror!” and the Bogart line from Casablanca, “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.” The chapter proper begins with Shakespeare (“Reputation, reputation, reputation! Oh, I have lost my reputation!”) and Thoreau (“Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!”) and continues with the wonderful Grattan, who deserves the prominence Farnsworth gives him: “Like the Draconian laws, this bill had blood! blood! – felony! felony! felony! in every period and in every sentence.” The next chapter is on anaphora, the repetition of the same word at the start of successive clauses; it is used to powerful effect in the Bible (“The enemy said, I will pursue, I will overtake, I will divide the spoil…”) and Churchill (“we shall seek no terms, we shall tolerate no parley; we may show mercy – we shall ask for none”) and to very different effect by Henry James: “He’s too delightful. If he’ll only not spoil it! But they always will; they always do; they always have.” After several chapters on various types of repetition, he moves on to “structural matters” like isocolon (parallel structure, as in Burke’s “He practiced no managements. He secured no retreat. He sought no apology”), chiasmus (“when words or other elements are repeated with their order reversed,” as in Chesterton’s “Men need not trouble to alter conditions, conditions will so soon alter men” and Melville’s “Pity if there is nothing wonderful in signs, and significant in wonders!”), or anastrophe (“when words appear in unexpected order”: Chesterton again, “Sad he is; glad he is not,” and Melville again, “breathe he must, or die he will”). The final section, on “dramatic devices,” begins with praeteritio (“saying things by not saying them”: Erskine, “I will not speak to you of his great youth, of his illustrious birth, and of his uniformly animated and generous zeal in Parliament for the constitution of his country”), continues with aposiopesis, or “breaking off in midstream” (Beerbohm: “‘If you are acquainted with Miss Dobson, a direct invitation should be sent to her,’ said the Duke. ‘If you are not –’ The aposiopesis was icy”); metanoia, or “correcting oneself” (Conan Doyle: “And now, Doctor, perhaps you would kindly attend to my thumb, or rather to the place where my thumb used to be”); and others, ending with prolepsis (“when the speaker anticipates an objection … and comments on it”: Fielding, “It may be objected, that very wise men have been notoriously avaricious. I answer, Not wise in that instance”). By the time you’ve read through the varied examples in each chapter, you not only understand the technique involved, you feel a warm glow of pleasure (and perhaps a desire to read an author who has been only a name to you, if that).
The book is beautifully designed (in Sabon Next type) and provides its examples in a handsome format, laid out on the page with plenty of white space with the source (author, title, date) in smaller type in the outer margin. I admire it; I appreciate it; I recommend it.