The word berth has always, for me, had something of an oaky afterbirth; that is, upon its reaching my lips, I have never been able to escape the taste of a freshly greased newborn. I have a feeling that I am not alone in this phenomenon. Luckily, this neurological event is not without some etymological reason, which makes the whole thing acceptable.
More than mere homophones, birth and berth are more than likely doublets, which means that they were born of the same root-word. Birth is the older of the twins by just a few centuries, finding origins in Proto-Germanic, thence slithering into Old Norse, and a bit later Middle English, during which time berth is born, meaning “bearing” or “carriage,” though not a baby’s, as mothers were still at this time staunchly anti-pram.
How long can mothers bear to bear bare-naked babies around bears without bearing arms?
The diversity of the word is hereabove illustrated. Yet, indeed, for what duration can a woman with child truly endure or accept producing unclothed infants within proximity of large, carnivorous mountain mammals sans the proper firearms? However, a better question exists: are bear, bear, bare, bear, and bear related to the birth/berth imbroglio?
Well, as mentioned, berth began as “bearing” or “carriage” and, to this day, still describes any allotted amount of space, particularly a ship’s (and don’t we often call ships she?) allotted space, either for her docking, or for the gentlemen underneath her who sleep in “berths,” otherwise known as small cabins, where sailors sleep in the fetal position, from which they unberth upon the captain’s call to perform their nautical duties, which may also be called a berth.
Cut the ship. With compound nouns such as “birth canal,” is it so strange, then, to have borne in mind the widths of certain waters and the flowing of certain currents?
Roger Micheldene is fat, drunk, lusty, British, and he is in the United States. But that would be to simplify Roger. He is a visiting publisher at Pennsylvania’s Budweiser University. He is somewhat well-dressed. He is also hypersensitive to criticism and rejection, introspectively self-absorbed, palpably insecure, unable to identify or own hurting someone’s feelings, and leads a black cloud of negative emotion and hostility, even describing himself as “distinguished in anger.” However, like all narcissists, whether grandiose or vulnerable, he is the only one that does not truly know it, and, most of all, the blame lies always with others.
Mollie Atkins, cringe-worthy anglophile, serial adulterer, and soon-to-be budget-mistress to Roger, asks Roger, during the first minute of their first picnic together, “Which (food) [he] would like to try first.” Roger: “I think I’ll start with some of that,” pointing at Mrs. Atkins. And, whilst the very next line in “He had some of that” reeks of humor stinking of Amis, the following describing Mollie’s fruits as “well matured but showing no untoward signs of age and with the customer’s satisfaction borne very much in mind,” though tickling and telling enough, smacks one of a strangely self-centered detachedness, his immediate post-copulation thoughts being those of her age and the customer’s satisfaction. The sinister abdominal workout continues, as one honks through Roger’s description of Mollie’s unattractively intimate utterings and his deadpan espying of a tortoise under a fern that had been watching the sin unfold in real-time. Yet, we are a trifle shaken by the dialogue directly thereafter, wherein he describes Mollie as disturbing “his own sensations.” And, whenever the British literary liaison is bested in vocabulary distinction by a cheating Pennsylvania bumpkin, a scene of some psychological concern commences. Roger uses the word tortoise whenever turtle is called for, and, whenever Mollie catches him on this, Roger “brooded for a moment…He was dissatisfied with the tortoise situation…it had put him down a couple of points conversationally and this must be redressed at once. ‘How’s my old friend Strode?’” In addition to the odd habit of seeing conversation as a points-game, Roger decides to mention the name of Mollie’s apparently dastardly husband for a number of hurtful reasons, chief of those being “Worsted over the tortoises.” Moreover, Roger uses the word “Egotist” to describe Strode, which is fitting, as narcissists are always quite adept at finding narcissistic traits in those other than themselves.
Without much delay are we given another rather indicative scenario. A campus debate develops spontaneously between Father Colgate, a handsome, young, gentle Catholic priest, and Roger. What started as a conversation becomes one of those odd campus showdowns between religious figure and disbeliever. Despite one’s thoughts on the cosmos and their order, Roger’s motivations during interaction are worthy of some attention, starting perhaps with the fact that he “wanted some sort of audience for what he was preparing to tell Father Colgate. One of their number, a blonde girl wearing a man’s shirt but in all other visible respects unmanly to the point of outright effeminacy, was looking at him. These Yank college girls were at it all the time, one heard.” Why would an audience be necessary for what is presently a private conversation? Additionally, why should a blonde Yank girl in a man’s shirt who was potentially at it all the time be an important consideration of the proceedings? Furthermore, why should she be the chief focus of the proceedings? “He must concentrate on showing this blonde…how marvelous he was at dealing with chaps like Father Colgate.” After the churchman had delineated his way through forethought, responsibility, and reason, Roger “said fast and loud: ‘I honestly don’t know which staggers me more, Father, your affection for the obvious or your half-baked humanitarianism.’” And, whenever Roger is momentarily impeded by the young, talented visiting novelist on campus, Irving Macher, Roger feels that he must now “engineer the punishment of Macher for his interruption,” for taking him away from his loyal herd of college disciples, “including the girl in the shirt.” A significant instance of shallow, self-revolving behavior, not to mention a preoccupation with being admired and praised by others, the main representative of those being the blonde, someone much younger than he, someone highly impressionable, someone whom Roger can control and manipulate.
And this instance of attempting to exploit Youth is not singular. Indeed Roger finds great irritation in losing a game of Scrabble to the seven-year-old genius child of the aptly named Dr. Ernst Bang, the husband of Helene Bang, Roger’s supreme lust. Roger goes as far as knocking over the Scrabble board in a way that attempts to convey an accident, whereupon he accuses the child of cheating. It was this same child whom Roger attempts to blame for plotting Roger’s downfall. Whenever all is resolved, however, and the child is free from suspicion, Ernst and Helene laugh a gleeful mirth, the kind of gleeful mirth that expects warm participation on the part of the laughee. Instead, Roger can hardly keep his narcissistic rage contained: “‘The laugh’s certainly on me,’ Roger said, keeping his mouth expanded and producing an aspirated grunt every half second or so.”
With regard to Helene, Roger’s main sexual fixation of the novel, his general sentiment can be summarized rather succinctly:
“Whether or not his motives about women were obscure he did not think they were. A man’s sexual aim, he had often said to himself, is to convert a creature who is cool, dry, calm, articulate, independent, purposeful into a creature that is the opposite of these; to demonstrate to an animal which is pretending not to be an animal that it is an animal. But it seemed a good moment to keep quiet about that.”
This sentiment can be still better understood, whenever taking his private calculations as regards Helene to heart. He oft describes his pursuit of her in quantified terms, one example thereof’s being “…a masterful feat of conscious policy, all of it successfully directed at getting her to come away with him in a week’s time…chances at about sixty to forty in his favour.”
Roger, in a scene during which a notoriously promiscuous wench asks him whether or not people should be kinder to others who have relationship problems with the opposite sex, even using the phrase “our position,” Roger’s ego is assailed by suggesting the problem to be in the plural. Roger then jettisons all consideration for the cookie and, after “[taking] a deep breath to insure rapidity of fire,” instead locks, loads, and delivers accordingly:
“I fail to see any similarity in our positions. I have, fortunately for you, been taking almost no notice of your nonsense. But considering your time of life I would advise you to conduct yourself with a little more dignity. Most men don’t enjoy drunken women after a certain age making certain passes at them. You have a perfectly good husband. I suggest that you pay a little more attention to him.”
Like all seasoned narcissists, Roger projects his insecurity upon this, albeit not entirely admirable, woman. It is nevertheless striking how much Roger truly desires to hurt people with what he says, and what he says being, with the names and situations changed, really just descriptions of himself.
The novel’s religious meditations are frequent and strong. In general, Roger has it the wrong way around: praying to sleep with another man’s wife, endeavoring to fist-fight priests, even attempting to gaslight God himself, who, being the inventor of the thing, likely hasn’t fallen for Roger’s charms. Although Roger arguably holds his own amongst some of the most despicable characters in literature, his story is redeemed by the call to change. Father Colgate tells Roger, and therefore the reader, how these symptoms are
“…infallibly the signs of a soul at variance with God. You, my son, are very gravely disturbed. You are in acute spiritual pain…I detected this from your very violent and distraught words to me back at the fraternity house and I obtained the clearest possible confirmation from the way you behaved a moment ago. A man doesn’t act like a child unless his soul is hurting him.”
Roger: “I’m not your son, you dog-collared buffoon…now unless you want to be martyred in the next five seconds you get out of my way.”
At just over 161 pages, One Fat Englishman, written in 1963 by the always witty ambassador to bad behavior, Kingsley Amis, flickers by with the speed and conscientiousness of a character-study. Whilst at first a novel merely unsettling, irritating, and even in nihilistic in scope, clarity reigns upon its conclusion; the redeeming factor to this novel is the call of transcendence that Amis offers in his demonizing Roger’s evil ways, indeed serving very much as something of a spiritual autobiography that led to Amis’s own retreat away from a delusional hedonism and accompanying convoluted nihilism to a life of, though ever satirically snappish, conservatively mannered contemplation.
The strength of a short story may be evaluated by various quality-judgements. And, as the nomenclature suggests, short stories haven’t the time to unimpress. Fortunately, there are many routes that one may take to perform such a feat; the best-cobbled path is, however, in the same fashion as one would win the heart of a lover: intimacy. Dennis Johnson’s collection of linked short stories, Jesus’ Son, not only deeply affects the reader, butalso possesses one’s soul with a devilish intimacy nearly divine in its courtship. Some might moot artistic afflatus; some might point to the rampant drug abuse. I remain nevertheless steadfast in the opinion that these slices of someone’s literary heaven exist from a mastery of craft. It may be interpreted that Johnson completes this coaxing, in part, by three forms of ingratiation: a conversational first-person-reportage narrative style, the acknowledgment of the reader with the second-person, and the Big Kiss Goodnight ending.
Johnson’s stories feel like a shifty, likely armed man in a dusty jean jacket whispering unspeakables. Whenever a shifty, likely armed man in a dusty jean jacket descries us at a social gathering and, after cornering us with his broad shoulders, proceeds to delineate to us his heaviest moments, we normally fear for our lives. Though this is often the prudent choice for those in favor of a full life, the opposite is likely our response to Jesus’ Son. Johnson earns our affections with his conversational first-person-reportage narrative style. Reportage, though often considered unliterary, is pungent with authenticity, for it most closely imitates someone speaking directly to us about one’s life. The reportage style is told using the past perfect tense, “I’d been staying at the holiday Inn with my girlfriend,” in conjunction with the simple past tense, “we made love in the bed,” often also using signifying wording, such as “I remember.” Neither does it hurt to compare one’s Holiday Inn romance with a heroin-junkie to Dante’s climb to Paradiso and the Empyrean with his truest love, Beatrice: “we…carried one another to heaven.”
What do you think about the use of the second person to acknowledge the reader? I am not certain about it, but I shall leave that up to you to decide. I trust your judgement. In any case, it certainly is personal. On the wrong day in Germany, you could get the bamboo cane for it. But, in Jesus’ Son, you understand the second person to be a term of endearment, as this usage suggests: “And you, you ridiculous people, you expect me to help you.” Consider this supremely yarn-like confidence that Johnson unravels, after confiding in us some heavy exposition about the characters in his story Two Men: “My two friends and I went to get into my little green Volkswagen, and we discovered the man I started to tell you about, the first man, sleeping in the backseat.” Remember?
What is the Big Kiss Goodnight ending? It is what everyone wants. Moreover, it also seems to be a tactic of writers who enjoy finishing stories with a smooch of the angelic. In accordance with the aforementioned considerations as regards a short story’s incapacity to allow a moment’s somnolence, its ending might perhaps be its most important time to excite, and the stories in Jesus’ Son do not leave us blue. Indeed, each story ends with a bang.
Consider this coda at the end of a story about a less than gentle man named Dundun: “Will you believe me when I tell you there was kindness in his heart? His left hand didn’t know what his right hand was doing. It was only that certain important connections had been burned through. If I opened up your head and ran a hot soldering iron around in your brain, I might turn you into someone like that.” Or this uplifting bit: “Your husband will beat you with an extension cord and the bus will pull away leaving you standing there in tears, but you were my mother.”
Of course, this narrator had no filial connection with the barmaid about whom he is reporting, but that has never been a qualification when considering if one has been another’s mother.
There is indeed nowadays an armed and steadily growing posse of masters. What with masterclasses, master’s degrees, and masterpieces around every corner, one begins to deliberate over the validity of whether or not one has been duped all along—hoodwinked, shammed out of his birthright that he is yet too an undiscovered master of something or other. Much like the words “amazing,” “crazy,” “awesome,” “impactful,” “unique,” and, every half-literate’s favorite, “problematic,” “master” has taken the initial and regretful Cheeto-crud-on-the-fingers-bathing-suit-tucked-under-the-panniculus stumble towards its bellyflop into meaninglessness. This is all to say that one should, at the very least, attempt to choose one’s words with some intention, and it is with not a little attention that I classify Evelyn Waugh as past master status. And, although Waugh claimed P.G. Wodehouse “the head of (his) profession,” it is in Waugh’s short story Scott King’s Modern Europe in which one may be masterfully classed on the rhetorical devices, grammatical gifts, and narrative tones it takes to make a worthy work of wit.
Rhetorical devices are the invisible patterns upon the page that make readers smirk and wonder at how a human with only one frontal cortex could turn a phrase so well, the same invisible patterns that make writers lower their heads, peep intermittently out the window, and wait for the approach of the rioting public with hot oils and blunt instruments who had just gotten hip to the jig that he’s been passing off Ancient Greek hand-me-downs at freshly woven silk prices. Waugh, in the course of less than forty pages, performs the unabashed huckstering worthy of a Middle Eastern bazar.
Most people, even my father, a man of precisely no reading at all, knows what a simile is. Most people, however, do not know a good simile whenever they see one. Allow me to play the purveyor: “He had been cross-questioned about his past and his future, the state of his health and finances, as though he were applying for permanent employment of a confidential nature.” Scott King, Waugh’s British protagonist seems to be rather discontent with his brief examination upon entering the nation of Neutralia: allegorized post-war, socialist continental Europe. The always playful transferred epithet scoots in shortly thereafter, titillating lookers-on with a quick one to the ribs about the story’s oddly breathtaking communist town hottie, Miss Sveningen: “Think of her striding between the beds, a pigtail, bare feet, and in her hand a threatening hairbrush.” Anaphora makes its first appearance twice when King speaks to the comically ingratiating communist professor, Dr. Fe: “There was more than politeness in Dr. Fe’s greeting; there was definite solicitude,” this repetition creating an emphatic effect. That same professor’s depiction of Neutralia’s liberation is eye-squinting in that unique way that many of us now may very readily connote with some contemporary views under the iron regime of Critical Theory: “Then we were liberated and put under the Serbs. Now we are liberated again and put under the Russians.” This fine use of isocolon, better known today as parallelism, achieves a repetition that, in conjunction with its connotation in the repeated word here in question, creates an ironic effect suggestive of successful academic menticide—also a very relatable theme for today’s universities. And a good mix is always appreciated. Consider the following right upstairs, left to the liver of alliteration and overstatement: “But here the din banged back from gilding and mirrors; above the clatter and chatter of the dinner table and the altercations of the waiters, a mixed choir of young people sang folk songs, calculated to depress the most jovial village festival;” though, for me, this is sober empiricism.
Yet one can create feats of wit with good, old grammar as well. Consider how much this simple absolute adds to an otherwise commonplace description: “He took Whitemaid by the arm and led him out of the hall to a cool and secluded landing where stood a little settee of gilt and plush, a thing not made for sitting on.” The key as regards witty grammar is to tincture its instances with a taste of the playful. A settee in indeed constructed entirely for humans to rest their limbs as they see fit, but Waugh revokes that privilege, suggesting something curious about the furniture that leads the lips of readers curling accordingly. In English, the Passive Voice has been, for some reason, forbidden by literary authorities as weak and spineless, and the writerly equivalent of filching the last of grandma’s money from her purse. The passive voice, however, is much funnier than the active voice, as it deletes the subject, indeed suggesting the subject as entirely unimportant, further intimating the subject’s stiff-lipped reaction to the scenario, perhaps mildly offended by it all: “Scott-King petulantly joined issue on this point. Strong words were used of him. “Fascist beast.”—“Reactionary cannibal.”—“Bourgeois escapist.” If his sentence were used in the active voice, the same image of rejection would simply not be enforced. Even something as simple as verb tenses can be used to inspire the acquisition of new facial muscles: “The waiters had drunk and were drinking profusely of brandy and there was a bottle at hand.” Verb tenses, and therefore the passing of time, can be used to achieve humorous results. Here, we have the past perfect tense followed by the past continuous tense, followed still by present bottle, suggesting the protractedness of the activity. This usage of two tenses in direct succession also aids in producing a kind of scene-transition effect, wherein we see the waiters drinking, then perhaps some time goes by, after which we expect the waiters to have completed the sluicing, only to find that they have unnaturally prolonged the activity.
In truth, one could almost give all of the above-mentioned the heave-ho, if one had an infallible command of narrative tone. One of the combinations above used overstatement, a fine comedic tone forsooth, but the understatement is the undisputed heavyweight champion: “The party trailed out through the swing doors into the dusty evening heat, leaving the noblemen to compare their impressions of Miss. Sveningen’s legs. The subject was not exhausted when they returned; indeed had it risen earlier in the year it would have served as the staple conversation for the whole Bellacita season.” Legs tend to have that effect on men, a woman’s legs all the more, a Nordic snow-queen’s of mythological length being thus a certainly. Yet understatements need not be about legs; they can indeed be about any body part and its function: “He hiccupped without intermission throughout the long dinner.” Here, a simple “he hiccupped a lot” would have had the same logic but lost all the sense. Comedians and comediennes alike make sweeping statements. Comedy is meant to make grotesque spectacles of otherwise quiet characteristics or foibles. To suggest that the man next to whom you spent your morning commute emitted a scent wicked enough to send Lot’s wife sprinting out of the salt is a slightly more entertaining image than reporting that he smelled bad. Therefore, get out your broom and sweep. Waugh could push one with the best of them: “The foyer was empty save for Miss Bombaum who sat smoking a cigar with a man of repellent aspect.” A man of repellent aspect? It is additionally funny due to its receiving no further description, thus no debate can be made. He was bloody repellent. That is all. This is not to be confused with making a witty aside. Witty asides are slivers of smartly crafted opinion that show the reader that the writer has thought a lot about the subject at hand, usually not positively. When describing a confused gaggle of herd-mind socialists, Waugh proffers the following: “Noah’s animals cannot have embarked with less sense of the object of their journey.”
Just like cashiers at the grocery, writers of comedy should change registers, making the switch from high language to low, the ornate and well-spoken to a slag-lad of the gutter: “Scott King was an adult, an intellectual, a classical scholar, almost a poet; provident Nature who shields the slow tortoise and points the quills of the porcupine, has given to such tender spirits their appropriate armor. A shutter, an iron curtain, fell between Scott-King and these two jokers.” Just as finally seeing the hilarious things at which everyone’s already hacking up their insides violently is an enjoyable time for most, should one, to achieve the same effect, place powerful images at the end of sentences. It is the long-awaited reveal; the man walking carefully along the icy sidewalk who has finally begun to dance—the cologne-drenched gentleman in the BMW who has been revving it for hussies coming it out of the bar at 2:00 a.m. finally losing grip on his latest drift, remodeling his vehicle upon the nearest metal road barrier; or, a beautiful giant of a Nordic female upon a balcony in a bath towel devouring a large cut of meat: “The windows stood wide open onto the balcony and on the balcony, modestly robed in bath towels, sat Miss Sveningen eating beefsteak.”
If one has not yet deduced the general pattern for oneself, it is indeed the clever changes and juxtapositions, whatever those might be, that carry the day and take home the big win. One very effective way to experience this is to suddenly change either the mood of the narrative or the characters proximity to the events before-described, as in the following: “Dr. Fe, when they met, showed the reserve proper of a man of delicate feeling who had in emotion revealed too much of himself. It was a happy day for Scott-King. Not so for his colleagues.” Or, “Scott-King petulantly joined issue on this point. Strong words were used of him. Fascist beast—Reactionary cannibal—Bourgeois escapist. Scott King withdrew from the meeting.”
The novel’s origins are (with the exception of a few earlier outliers) in the mid-eighteenth century, and, throughout the span of Modernity, the novel has established its foothold as the dominant and near-only form of literature produced. This has created within the literary canon a stark and often unhelpful historical detachment. Previous to the novel, each genre of literature had a “tradition of the past… impossible to change.” Ancient literature was developed not as a way to express subjectivity, as with the novel, but as a way to know and understand the surrounding world through story— “[t]he epic relies entirely on this tradition.” With ancient literature “it is memory, and not knowledge, that serves as the source and power for creative impulse.” The understanding of literature has significantly changed with the rise of the novel, for the Modern era’s consciousness is adamantly fixed on individuality, rationality, and scientific empiricism, the novel mirroring this epistemological phenomenon, becoming itself a form of literature concerned with “experience, knowledge and practice.” In synchrony with this notion of hyper-empirical thought, the novel is therefore also primarily concerned with “verification…plausibil[ity] [and a] requirement that… it appear understandable in itself.” The novel performs a complete about-face from ancient literature and the epic tradition, and, in this way, Modernity usurps the home wherein the epic rested its head. Yet, the novel also plays a double role regarding the crucial adaptation of literature to its era; the Good Novel–The Classic Novel–attempts to remain historically conscious whilst simultaneously meeting the pace of Modernity. “The resolution between art and science, pleasure and cognition” is Modernist Literature’s leitmotif, to say the least.
One reactionary refusal to the despotic pace of Modernity consists in Romantic literature and the accompanying idealisms of the Romantic Hero. Romanticism emerged through a rejection of the Modern way of life, suggesting Modernity as altogether a corruption, a “restraint of theological and social conventions,” and that one should pay heed to pre-Modern values in order to live a fulfilled life. Romantics view Modernity as a “spiritual disaster, a demeaning routinization of life…” The Romantic Hero, by result, is defined and depicted as someone “placed outside the structure of civilization…yet with a sense of power, and often leadership, that society has impoverished itself by rejecting;” he is a highly introspective character who triumphs the individual over the group, and saturated with traits of “wanderlust, melancholy, misanthropy, alienation, and isolation.” One might summarize the Romantic sentiment as mirroring the famous words of Max Weber: “The whole cosmos of the modern economic order is an iron cage, producing its specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart, and its delusion that this nullity… has achieved a level of development never before attained by mankind.” This belief that one can simply transport oneself to another time can, for some Romantic characters, pave a well-cobbled path towards “Modern Melancholy… [and] false autonomy.” Stark opposition to Romantic characters and their sentiments see Romanticism as but an illusion of escape from the responsibility of Modernity, indeed often further connoting it as an ideology capable of becoming militant.
The contemporary reader, whenever she is not watching Netflix, assumes that she is a detective. Since Edgar Allan Poe’s 1841 short story The Murders in the Rue Morgue, readers, rather than experience literature, investigate it. Previous to Poe’s invention in Detective Fiction, literature pursued a very different mystery: the portrayal of empathy, human intuition, and their combined relationship with our imponderable Human Condition and its connection to the meaning of all. Good things. However, from the Enlightenment’s rampant rise of science and Modernity’s subsequent Industrial Revolution came electric lighting, from electric lighting the ability to combat darkness, from the ability to combat darkness the opportunity to read books late into the night, from the opportunity to read books late into the night to highly increased literacy rates, from highly increased literacy rates to the profuse outpouring of a million new authors, nearly all of whom learning their trade by way of the Detective Story, the most seminal of those being Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation in Sherlock Holmes. This is what bakers call bitter-sweet, for more people can read, but, as with all businesses that bloat beyond good means, the quality of the readership, and–as can be readily reviewed today by a cursory dekko at contemporary bookstores–the quality of the authors, and, therefore, the work. Our infatuation with Sherlock Holmes and the narrative form pursuant thereto thusly permeated into all writerly attempts. Identical to the formulaic armature of a Sherlock Holmes story, the familiar Preferred Modern Narrative includes a gripping introduction to warrant the case, suspense by way of narrativesecret, sleuthing by way of narrative clues, the ever-ubiquitous Red Herring, and finally the story’s solving. To modestly bolster the assertion that we are indeed, until this very moment, unknowingly rewriting Sherlock Holmes, a brief investigation of Silver Blaze, Doyle’s first story from his collection The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, may be in order.
First impressions are not everything, but they are darn close. Story introductions retain a similar logic. And the contemporary reader, an entity exceedingly impatient with such initial conferences, does not like to pursue a subject without an official writ issued by the normative authorial power. To warrant the case of a story is to create, through the pithy portrayal of narrative circumstances, enough reasonable suspicion for the reader to begin investigation. The contemporary reader, as do the junkies at the main train station, lives hard and fast, and similar dossiers arrive fresh at the grocery store daily; therefore, this warrant should arrive first-thing and full of intrigue. What the contemporary reader finds intriguing is up to the color of her humors, but it is the swiftness with which it is served where the Detective Story, unfortunately, excels. Consider Silver Blaze’s immediate writ of narrative execution in the following:
“The tragedy has been so uncommon, so complete, and of such personal importance to so many people, that we are suffering from a plethora of surmise, conjecture, and hypothesis. The difficulty is to detach the framework of fact—of absolute, undeniable fact—from the embellishments of theorists and reporters. Then, having established ourselves upon this sound basis, it is our duty to see what inferences may be drawn and what are the special points upon which the whole mystery turns. On Tuesday evening…”
There is much promised here: tragedy, personal importance, surmise, conjecture, hypothesis, social critique, Truth—Doyle even posits the meta-suggestion that it is our, the readers’, duty to see what inferences may be drawn, even being so kind as to supply us with the information that it all began on a Tuesday evening. Herein provided are the contemporary craft essentials so sought-after by those so hungry to make it to the supermarket shelves, or, nowadays, any shelf at all: a sense of tension, meaning, reader participation, mystery, and the much envied sense-of-time—all within the first-two-page instant gratification we desire. Someone’s life is on the line. The issue with this model, however, remains: why we should care? The Modern writer says to herself, between said binge-bouts of Netflix, as Classical Literature, she knows, is merely social control (isn’t university easy?): Why write good character when one can write a secret?
We shall all go to our graves having hid something from those we love. Thus, the establishment of a narrative motive by way of secret is indeed a natural and poignant choice. Contemporary fiction would stand dumbfounded, mouth and eyes agape, without this Detective Fiction-based parlor trick. From Humbert Humbert’s arguably illegal psychology portrayed in Lolita to the farcically low-stakes outings propelling any P.G. Wodehouse story, a secret may be of any magnitude. How a secret is written, however, has been relatively similar since the Detective Fiction’s incipience. Something as simple as the expositive confirmation that “it [was] obvious…that there were many people who had the strongest interest in preventing Silver Blaze [a horse] from being there at the fall of the flag, next Tuesday” is enough.
The trail would go blue-cold, however, without an air of general suspicion and distrust—an atmosphere rife for sleuthing—from which the reader could deduce the most pertinent facts. This may be done in any story by way of clever, perfectly paced exposition that, unbeknownst to the reader, sends her on the hunt for narrative clues. It is indeed no mystery at all as to why the Silver Blaze’s second page should, with its familiar set up, leave the contemporary reader’s ears pricked upward and in belief that the game be afoot:
“…At King’s Pyland, where the Colonel’s training-stable is situated. Every precaution was taken to guard the favorite. The trainer, John Straker, is a retired jockey, who rode in Colonel Ross’s colors before he became too heavy for the weighing-chair. He has served the Colonel for five years as a jockey, and for seven as a trainer, and has always shown himself to be a zealous and honest servant. Under him were three lads, for the establishment was a small one, containing only four horses in all. One of these lads sat up each night in the stable, while the others slept in the loft. All three bore excellent characters. John Straker, who is a married man, lived in a small villa about two hundred yards from the stables. He has no children, keeps one maid-servant, and is comfortably off. The country round is very lonely, but about half a mile to the north there is a small cluster of villas which have been built by a Travistock contractor for the use of invalids and others who may wish to enjoy the pure Dartmoor air. Travistock itself lies two miles to the west, while across the moor, also about two miles distant, is the larger training establishment of Capleton, which belongs to Lord Backwater, and is managed by Silas Brown. In every other direction the moor is complete wilderness, inhabited only by a few roaming gypsies. Such was the general situation last Monday night when the catastrophe occurred.”
Just like Mama MFA made, the above expository fiesta contains just enough precise yet enigmatic information as regards all pertinent actors and associations appurtenant to the plot that the reader has therefrom gathered enough evidence to bypass the stage of reasonable suspicion and pursue the dictates afforded to probable cause.
Due narrative process, however, gets in the way of even the most veteran literati. Familiarity with administering arrests by the dictates of lexical law proves to that reader the red herring’s reign as powerful as ever. The red herring takes many forms. The red herring is a now-common literary device that presents a kind of narrative clue to the reader that intends to mislead or distract that same reader away from the true object of pursuit. The red herring now takes on many forms of deception, but the most traditional form comes from Detective Fiction’s redirection of suspicion upon an otherwise innocent party. Silver Blaze employs a classic Sherlockian misdirection contrived by meandering the reader away from the logic of a case and towards that of an otherwise innocent character’s possible motivations for wrongdoing:“‘Yes, and that is a factor which we must certainly not neglect. As Desborough, their horse, was second in the betting, they had an interest in the disappearance of the favourite. Silas Brown, the trainer, is known to have had large bets upon the event, and he was no friend to poor Straker.’”
Again: who cares?
Consider the meta-mouthpiece for the modern narrative, Sherlock Holmes, and his egotistical epilogues at the end of each story, which are equally a treat and a chore to read. In the Silver Blaze’s case, Colonel Ross’s dialogue, during Sherlock’s ending analyses, stands in for the thoughts of the contemporary reader, stating “‘You take my breath away.” Admitting that “‘(He) ha[s] been blind.” Further confessing that “You have made it perfectly clear, Mr. Holmes.” And it is this logic-machine of a man with an athletic form of Aspergers, sociopathic cold-bloodedness, a simultaneous cocaine/heroine addiction, a near-robotic man suffering from perpetual sleep-deprived torment—Doyle’s anthropomorphized cautionary tale of Modernity’s effects on the spirit for the world—to whom we owe our thanks for the modern narrative.
During the early sixteenth century, Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, said enough was enough, cocked his quill back, and shot a blank into the bountiful bosom of English rhyming poetry.
Previous to Sir Howard’s daring move, blank verse poetry had been, all the way through the Italian Renaissance, enjoying the circulatory luxuries afforded by fair weather and the positive digestive effects of a Mediterranean diet. Described by some as “clunky,” “wooden,” or “entirely ungifted,” The Earl of Surrey was not always feted for his stellar verse-writing abilities. But his peers’ good-spirited raillery did not stop his becoming one of founding fathers of English Renaissance poetry. It was, in fact, Howard’s translation of a description of quivering seamen at the sight of a battle between Laocoön, the sea-god Neptune’s priest, and a sea-monster in Virgil’s The Aeneid that flipped the ship of English poetic thought:
Whiles Laocon, that chosen was by lot
Neptunus priest, did sacrifice a bull
Before the holy altar, sodenly
From Tenedon, behold, in cirlces great
By the calme seas come fletyng adders twayne
Which plied towardes the shore (I lothe to tell)
With rered (reared) brest lift up above the seas,
Whoes bloody crestes aloft the waves were seen
The hinder parte swamme hidden in the flood;
Their grisly backes were linked manifold.
With sound of broken waves they gate the strand
With gloing eyen, tamed with blood and fire;
Whoes waltring tongs did lick their hissing mouths
We fled away, our face the blood forsoke.
Howard’s orthography is here unstandardized; thus, it is assumed he were besotted at the time of writing—as well as during its submittal for publication. Moreover, one will find here, somewhat refreshingly, no rhyming structure. One need but only ten fingers to translate The Aeneid from Latin into English, nearly every line containing ten syllables, as is the going rate for blank verse.
From there, Christopher Marlowe requested Henry Howard clench his sack, whereupon Marlowe wrote Doctor Faustus, and subsequently a much better (and drunker) blank verse than the King of Wood ever could. Here is but a snippet:
The starres moove still, time runs, the clocke wil strike,
The divel wil come, and Faustus must be damnd.
O Ile leape up to my God: who pulles me down?
See, see where Christs blood streames in the firmament.
And, although John Milton, Robert Browning, Robert Frost, and a gaggle of Moderns have employed the blank verse with great, sometimes breath-taking success, it was with the plays of William Shakespeare that shooting blanks reached a level of immortality. All of Shakespeare’s characters, from obscure farmers to the infamous Falstaff, speak in blank verse poetry, yet they all seem to speak in the tongue of the Everyday—which they indeed do. As always, Shakespeare is able to be two places at once, always able to sashay that mental tightrope of wit. Moreover, Shakespeare, monomaniacally enamored with the blank verse as he was, furthered the thing from its roughneck roots, applying iambic pentameter to every line.
In effect, The Bard might be witnessed rendering one of his stricter bits that contain exactly ten syllables and iambic stress such as the following from the second act of Romeo and Juliet:
But soft! What light through yonder window breaks?
Or, one of his looser, more hair-pushed-back-collar-off-its-stud swangers; that is, the lines hover around ten syllables and sometimes take the iambic pentameter, sometimes not, as in the first three lines of Hamlet’s famous bellyache:
To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether it is nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune…
And, as it is with all things, all meaning is pregnant with Shakespeare’s words, all existence, whether one is aware of it or not, merely our inhabiting of Shakespeare’s globe.
Whom we decide to murder is, luckily, mostly up to us. Simply connect a Latin prefix of your choice with the Latin four-banger of -cide, a suffix with a license to kill.
Feeling fond of warmer weather during the colder months? Murdering your brother might kindle passion’s proper flame. The first round of the ninth layer of hell is, according to an Italian eye-witness account in the early 14th Century, inhabited by the perpetrator of the world’s first slay, Cain, and subsequently the first fratricide. The Latin prefix frater(brother) joins hands of red deed with -cide in order to fell our brothers. But what about putting a sharp one through your sister? For this, there’s sororicide. This word stems from the Latin soror (sister), likely best recognized through the common university campus clubs called sororities, which institutions also serve as a kind of murder of a young woman. The eight-hour flight just started, the headphones just went kaput, and the baby is right on time with its piercing cries. Infanticide is the killing of infants, a task of unmatched physical ease—David Lynch’s Eraserhead shows one how simple it can be. Or, if offing the baby is not in the offing, then perhaps logic better supports the offing of oneself, namely through suicide, a word stemming from the Latin sui (of oneself). Matricide is the whacking of one’s mother, patricide the same for one’s father—I didn’t say off. For otherwise lesser spendthrifts amongst this exceedingly humble readership, a two-for-one scenario exists in parricide: the killing of one’s parents. Or, perhaps you are one for sticking it to The Man. The French and the Russians, amongst many other highly civilized animals, are rather fond of it: regicide, the murder of a king (or ruler), has been a crowd favorite for some time. The acting party most oft sees it, however, as tyrannicide: the killing of a tyrant. Simply getting your hands dirty without a specific target will likewise put a few hairs on your chest. Homicide (Latin homo [man/human]) will get the task done on the cheap. For a real deal, however, it’s best to buy in bulk. Genocide (Latin genus) is the killing of a race or kind. Or, if you are particularly fond of tragedy on a scale hitherto unforeseen, you might fancy menticide: the systematic undermining of a person’s values and beliefs through brainwashing or torture, a weak attempt at which may be easily imbibed with the viewing of the latest Batman film.
True humanists are a rare breed nowadays, but they nevertheless roam packless across this planet as God’s lonely children. No problem, though. There is plenty of stuff for you to kill, too. There’s pesticide for pests, insecticide for insects (often pests), herbicide for weeds (unfortunately nothing yet for potheads), bactericide for bacteria, fungicide for fungus, and vermicide for worms.
The bustling thoroughfares, once brimming with buxom bachelorettes, have been becalmed—their wide streets and wending alleyways now empty of women, except for one. All those sporting an XY and half a soul can relate: For every gentleman lucky enough, there exists that special woman in his life who fills his heart with warmth, his ears with bells, and his eyes with her. Amongst all this wide-eyed optimism, however, a practical problem asserts itself upon that same gentleman. Now happily encumbered by love, he suddenly lacks the lexicon to describe the remaining fallen women extant upon creation, those sirens who serve mainly as the forgotten road-bumps on his way home to Penelope. For this, Yours Truly proffers a few solutions. It has been recommended by many a Wise One that to shoot high should be one’s first aim. And to this adage can none be gainsaid.
Courtesan struts into English by way of French, which did its pilfering from Italian. A courtesan provided distinguished services to courtiers, whence derives the word, and later to wealthy, famous, and otherwise powerful men of all sorts. Lower than an escort—whose arrangement is not wholly sexual and indeed could be entirely without—a courtesan is the highest of the Fallen, the Beatrice of wayward Bettys.
No one can sneer at a classic. Prostitute carries with it some strong connotations, the imagery of which be likely readily available to the imagination of the reader. Thus, girls, women, and hookers alike take offense in achieving it as their sobriquet. Harlot sounds cooler, but the work is the same. Harlot is an interpretably milder term for prostitute. It originally denoted a man who was a rogue or villain. Although its Latin origins give this word for professional skanks an air of learnedness, meretrix is a ho, no doubt. Therefore, one might opt for strumpet, trull, or tart, all of which are direct synonyms for the oldest profession. Due, however, to their very Elizabethan and generally British sound, they are deemed excusable, humorous, even taking on the linguistic impression of something closer to a baked good. One might venture even lighter fare, such as slattern or trollop, both of which can mean slut, but have more of a connotation towards an untidy, dirty, or wanton woman of known promiscuity, but not necessarily someone who sells her body to anyone rough enough to take a dip. And our most vulgar: whore.
Paramour: a lover or sexual partner who is illicit and often secret; a companion in adultery (not limited to women).
Concubine: Latin’s “con” (together) and “cubare” (to lie down/go to bed) join forces to describe a woman who makes love to a man to whom she is not married, otherwise known as a mistress.