Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Aestheticism v. Daniel Woodrell

James Wood, in How Fiction Works, talks about “aestheticism,” using as one of his examples a passage from John Updike’s Terrorist. In the passage, Updike’s young protagonist, the high-school–aged Muslim American Ahmad, walks down a street. We are in his thoughts as he ponders a recent growth spurt, then Updike suddenly takes over and launches into his own authorial exploration of Islamic theology, his exquisite lyrical prose replacing the direct rhythms of the young man’s thoughts.

One of the wonderful things about Wood’s little book is that it beautifully articulates thoughts we have already had, and in this case, he is articulating what has been my recent tendency to acknowledge and disparage aestheticism in many of the books and stories I’ve been reading. This will sometimes lead to my reading passages to my wife, absurdly embellishing them in the reading, laughing, and rolling my eyes.

It was my intention at the start of this post to find just such a flowery passage in Daniel Woodrell’s 2006 novel, Winter’s Bone, and to reprint it here for comical contrasting against the hillfolk dialog sprinkled elsewhere in the novel. But what I found instead were passages of description that, while certainly stretching the distance between themselves and the drawling Ozark Mountain dialog, do not break that distance. The tether is taut, but sill intact.

Here, the protagonist, Ree Dolly, is walking back from squirrel-hunting on family land with her brothers, two young boys she cares for as a mother:
The sun was taller though light had not yet broken through to the ground. The path was narrow and iced on the north slope. These rough acres were Bromont acres and they’d never been razed for timber, so the biggest old trees in the area stood on this ground. Magically fat and towering oak trees with limbs grown into pleasingly akimbo swirls were common. Hickory, sycamore, and all the rest prospered as well. (pg. 105)
While this is remarkable writing (phrases like “pleasingly akimbo swirls” could even be called magical), what is most amazing is how it stands in harmony with the very real speech of Ozark Mountain youths found in dialog like this, on the very next page:
Harold said, “Ree, are these for fryin’ or for stewin’?”

“Which way do you like best?”

Both boys said, “Fried!”

“Okey-doke. Fried, then. With biscuits, maybe, if we got the makin’s, and spang dripped on top, too. But, first thing is, we got to clean ‘em. Sonny, you fetch the skinnin’ board. I think it’s still leanin’ on the side of the shed back there. Harold, you go for the knife—you know which one I want.”

The one I ain’t s’posed to never touch.”

“Bring it to me.” (pg. 106)
I’m sure those comical passages are in there and just not presenting themselves at the moment, but I think it’s safe to say that by and large, Woodrell has succeeded wildly in writing as his Ozark Mountain family and neighbors spoke, and in either recapturing or inventing the words and rhythms of the most eloquent of those family and neighbors for use in his exposition. The result—despite the sniggering of a sometimes pretentious Californian—is not only stylish writing, but easy reading.