Loads of Learned Lumber

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Fifth note on _Witz_

5. I began by saying that the events of the story are readily summarized, and have just noted that the book vividly conjures up its settings, but event and setting are always seen through the decorated scrim of the book’s narrative style; like a scrim, the style is not fully transparent, and as with a decorated scrim you may find yourself paying as much attention to the decorations as to the action occurring behind it. More attention, perhaps – as in Gaddis’s Recognitions, tracking the turns of the sentence is so absorbing that you may fail to take in what is being narrated. The reader is always conscious of Cohen’s style: le style, c’est le livre.

And his style beggars description. It’s a torrent, for one thing, a deluge, an outpouring. Sentences routinely take up most of a page. The sentences are self-interrupting, constantly breaking in on themselves to illustrate, expand, make a joke. They usually embrace several tonal registers during their course, from the demotic to the epic, sometimes sounding like Lenny Bruce on amphetamines, sometimes biblically ornate like Cormac McCarthy, if McCarthy liked to pepper his prose with Yiddish and Hebrew. Alliteration and puns abound.
Consider some of the phrases from the sentence on the fart salvoes, quoted above. “[E]normous sortie wet and thick” – note the little internal rhyme on the “or” sound, the adjectives before and after the noun, the military flavor of the noun, conveying how men enjoy bringing a martial ardor into even the most ludicrous circumstances, figured later in the sentence with “barrage,” “booms,” “bombs.” Or “bucking the uppers,” with its surprising assonance, the animated-cartoon image of bunks lifting and falling from the abrupt shock of the farts. The odd Miltonic inversion of “from cot to cot echoing.” The quirky juxtaposition of homonyms in “there their.” The outlandishly apt figuration of farts as “dark graffiti.”

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