Tuesday, 16 October 2007

The Passive Volcano

Here's a snippet from Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano:

'Joffrey' became 'The Old Bean'. Laruelle mere, to whom, however, he was 'that beautiful English young poet', liked him too. Taskerson mere had taken a fancy to the French boy: the upshot was Jacques was asked to spend September in England with the Taskersons, where Geoffrey would be staying till the commencement of his school term. Jacque's father, who planned sending him to an English school till he was eighteen, consented. Particularly he admired the erect manly carriage of the Taskersons... And that was how M. Laruelle came to Leasowe.

Michael Schmidt's introduction to the book begins thus:

'The novel gets off to a slow start,' Malcolm Lowry concedes. Is this indeed 'inevitable' and 'necessary'? Many readers find it hard to break into Under the Volcano ...
... After three false starts I first read the book when I was twenty-two ...

It really is an impossible book to read. Indeed, one gets the impression that the proof-readers felt that way too as there are spelling mistakes on every third or fourth page.
It's not too difficult to demonstrate why the book is such a slog: Lowry shuns the basic building blocks of good writing.

We've looked at a cool technique for creating confusion in the reader: by rapidly switching subject and object within a long and breathless sentence, we create an effect rather like a spinning pov. This is brilliant for developing that sense of giddyness that we might require in a fight scene or a chase scene.
But Lowry scarcely lets up. I've found myself reading the same passage several times, each time wondering who this 'he' is or that 'we'.

Right-branching sentences form an active voice and that is how we logically think. First to last.
Who are we looking at?
What are they doing?
Who or what are they doing it to (if applicable)?

Alan shot the deer.
(Btw, a verb that does something to something else, like shoot, is called a transitive verb, which is indicated in a dictionary by v.t.)

Reversing this order forms a passive voice which requires the reader to think backwards:

The deer was shot by Alan.

You don't need to stretch your imagination to see how this might damage one's immersion in the narrative.

In a similar way, we can consider Sunset Bickham's advice on moving the story forwards.
Point the reader in the right direction from the off, he says.
So, elegant prose leads the reader by the hand; it does not stumble or falter or require of the reader an athletic brain that might deal with all manner of direction changes or focus changes. It has a clear heading and imperceptible transitions.

There's a lot of good, sound, building block advice here.

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