In Defense of Clutter

Dear friends—

This week, an exercise in contradicting myself. But first, the publication day (April 6) for Subdivision and Let Me Think is almost here! You may preoder the books from your local indie, my local indie, or via the above Bookshop links.

Here are the virtual tour dates we have so far…I’ll send out the registration links in a future issue.

Tuesday, April 13, 4 PM Pacific / 5 PM Central / 7 PM Eastern. In conversation with Elisa Gabbert. Presented by Harvard Book Store, registration link TK.

Thursday, April 15, 3 PM Pacific / 5 PM Central / 6 PM Eastern. At Home With Literati: In conversation with Dorthe Nors. Presented by Literati Bookstore, registration link TK.

Wednesday, April 21, 4 PM Pacific / 6 PM Central / 7 PM Eastern. With Charles Robert Greene and Gina Nutt. Presented by Buffalo Street Books, registration link TK.

Wednesday, May 19, 4 PM Pacific / 6 PM Central / 7 PM Eastern. In conversation with Dana Spiotta. Presented by McNally Jackson Books, registration link TK.

Thursday, May 27, 6:30 PM Pacific / 8:30 PM Central / 9:30 PM Eastern. In conversation with Sharma Shields. Presented by Books in Common NW, registration link TK.

Contra KonMari

A big part of my job as a professor is getting my students to make their prose more efficient—to help them eliminate unintentional ambiguities, untangle nests of dependent clauses, cut unneeded or distracting detail, pull back on arbitrary similes and metaphors, and leave more open to the reader’s imagination. My own writing, like my house, tends to be fairly tidy (though not always—in the writing and house both). I sometimes give students an exercise called Subject Verb, that asks them to write a story using only two-word sentences, a subject and a verb. The goal is to show them how much of their distinctive style comes not from their syntactic elaboration, but the kind of ideas they get, and the order they put them in. (My own response to the exercise is in the new story collection.)

But I also give students another exercise, this one called Inventory, that is inspired by this famous passage from Tim O’Brien’s Vietnam War novel The Things They Carried:

Henry Dobbins, who was a big man, carried extra rations; he was especially fond of canned peaches in heavy syrup over pound cake. Dave Jensen, who practiced field hygiene, carried a toothbrush, dental floss, and several hotel-sized bars of soap he’d stolen on R&R in Sydney, Australia. Ted Lavender, who was scared, carried tranquilizers until he was shot in the head outside the village of Than Khe in mid-April. By necessity, and because it was SOP, they all carried steel helmets that weighed 5 pounds including the liner and camouflage cover. They carried the standard fatigue jackets and trousers. Very few carried underwear. On their feet they carried jungle boots—2.1 pounds—and Dave Jensen carried three pairs of socks and a can of Dr. School’s foot powder as a precaution against trench foot. Until he was shot, Ted Lavender carried 6 or 7 ounces of premium dope, which for him was a necessity. Mitchel Sanders, the RTO, carried condoms. Norman Bowker carried a diary. Rat Kiley carried comic books. Kiowa, a devout Baptist, carried an illustrated New Testament that had been presented to him by his father, who taught at Sunday school in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.

I ask the students to read this (there’s more of this paragraph, in fact; the above is only the first half), then invite them to describe one of the following fictional inventories:

1. The contents of an abandoned self-storage garage
2. The trash left behind after a summer youth dance at the local swimming pool
3. Everything found in the wallet of a stabbing victim
4. The contents of a new age self-help guru's phone
5. The contents of a pizza delivery guy's 20-year-old Honda Civic
6. The portfolio of a self-destructive art student
7. The contents of a foreclosed Florida beachfront condo
8. The lost-and-found box at an alternative middle school for ADHD-afflicted children
9. A storage closet in a third-rate nursing home
10. Everything kept in the booth of a full-time parking lot attendant

Sometimes literary clutter is useful and good. Earlier this month I spoke with my friends Sandra Newman and Catherine Nichols on their podcast Lit Century about one of my favorite books, Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled, a massive, convoluted, dreamlike shaggy-dog story about a concert pianist. Its many repetitions and recapitulations are reflections of a cognitive state, expressions of the protagonist’s guilt and obligation, and of his fear of old age and death.

Also this week, as part of March Plaidness, I wrote an essay arguing that Weird Al Yankovic’s Nirvana parody “Smells Like Nirvana” is the most fundamentally grunge song of the grunge era. I praised, above all, its maximalist video:

There’s belching on the downbeat, sweaty tufts of underarm hair on the cheerleaders. The janitor draws a donut from his mop bucket and bites into it. A couple of man-sized rag dolls flop through the air above the mosh pit. Dick Van Patten’s hamburger is knocked from his fist, a cow moos, a basketball team runs by, and some dude in the background catches fire.

Another recent project of mine, a curatorial one, was to listen to the last twenty albums by the Ohio rock band Guided by Voices, and create a playlist of my favorites. GbV was my favorite band in the nineties; they were prolific, but not too prolific, and every song on every album was great. The band broke up and reunited a couple of times, and frontman Robert Pollard gave up on self-editing. They’ve put out six albums—six!!—in the past two years. One estimate has Pollard having written more than 1600 songs. He’s become like those writers—poet Bill Knott, fiction writer Stephen Dixon—who just publish everything, without regard for how they come off. I respect this approach, but it depends on other people to sort it all out—and will they bother? Pollard, anyway, has me, probably an army of mes, so…more power to him, I guess.

I’m a little leery of the term overwriting, which seems prejudicial against the kind of deliberate literary fulsomeness that, strategically deployed, can give readers a sense of the intensity, the muchness, of life. What I think it refers to, or ought to refer to, is excess in the service of nothing—excess that gets in the way of the truth, rather than illuminating it. In other words, less is usually more. But sometimes you just…need more more.

More next week. Take care—
John