Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Mid, I Say Midstream

Pardon me for speaking ill of the dead, but I really need to vent.  I've started reading the late Reynolds Price's unfinished memoir Midstream (Scribner, 2012), and I keep stubbing my mental toes on his prose.  I'm going to finish it anyway, for its bits of queer gossip, but I feel the need to explain why his writing annoys me so.

I have read over a dozen of Price's thirty-nine books, his earlier fiction mostly.  I even met him once when he visited IU and gave a reading from his latest novel, The Source of Light.  (I have an autographed copy to prove it.)   He was a really sweet man, and I liked him; I'd picked up The Source of Light after reading reviews that mentioned its gay content.  It disappointed me somewhat, but still gave me a sense of some gay men's lives outside of gay society in the Fifties.  Later he wrote an AIDS novel, The Promise of Rest, that didn't work for me at all.

(An aside: the New York Times reviewer of Price's previous memoir, Ardent Spirits, wrote that
Mr. Price hasn’t exactly hidden the fact that he is gay; he is simply a private person who hasn’t tattooed this information, in curly script, on one of his biceps.
Girl, please.  The rest of the review is just as offensive.)

That reading must have been in 1982 or 1983, just before he was flattened by a spinal tumor that eventually consigned him to a wheelchair.  Afterwards he became quite prolific, and I admire the determination that kept him writing and teaching despite the chronic, often severe pain that he suffered.  But I felt when I sampled his books in those years that his style became an imitation if not a parody of itself, a cross between Scarlett O'Hara and Foghorn Leghorn.  In Midstream the offenses are milder, but they still grate on my inner ear.  For example:
Further schnapps were provided gratis by amused other diners ... [14]
I didn't notice this until I copied it here, but I'm not sure about the plural of "schnapps."  I think I'd have used "was" instead of "were," just as I'd do with "further wine"; or I'd have written "Further glasses of schnapps." What initially bothered me was "amused other diners," which seems wrong syntactically: "other" should have gone before "amused," shouldn't it?

Another example, from his account of dinner with a former boyfriend at Oxford:
Not even the most ardently dedicated Gatekeeper of Western Morals could have sat and silently watched us for that first half hour and left with any suspicion that, three years ago, we'd been fervent lovers through a spring and early summer -- unreserved possessors of one another's bodies -- and that I, at least, had sensed something durable under way in the interim [8].
"Silently" feels redundant.  Maybe the implication is that the Gatekeeper could have spotted their connection only by interrogating them verbally.  But that, I should think, goes without saying.  Price is saying here that nothing in their conversation or actions would have betrayed their intimate history to an observer.  And he's still laying on the adjectives with a trowel.  (I also recognize that I'm picking up his stylistic tics as I write about him.)

I'm not saying this is necessarily bad writing, though it's what I judge it to be.  It obviously doesn't bother any number of other people who enjoy Price's work, people whose taste I can't dismiss, but it's like nails on a blackboard to me.  I speculate that his is a Southern voice, since I'm allergic to similar tendencies in such writers as Rita Mae Brown and Tennessee Williams, especially in the latter's own memoirs.  I also wouldn't say that there's no such thing as bad (or good) writing, though I think it's easier to agree that a given sample of prose is bad than that it's good, and why.  It occurs to me that one word for Price's style is "mannered," yet I can think of other writers whose writing I enjoy, though it's just as mannered, but in different ways.

But let me end on a positive note.  I respect Price immensely for continuing to write after his paralysis even while he suffered, as he often did, from terrible pain.  (To say nothing of the depression that came from losing mobility.)  I'm not sure I could do it, and I hope I never have to.  I honor his courage and dedication, and I'm grateful to have his account of a different time.