Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Monday, May 17, 2010

getting off on the wrong foot

Brandon Sanderson's novel Mistborn: the Final Empire begins with a brief italicized passage, spoken by the protagonist, which contains this sentence: "They say I will hold the future of the entire world on my arms." Wait — shouldn't that be either "in my arms" or "on my shoulders"? In idiomatic English people don't hold things on their arms: they might have tattoos or mosquito bites on their arms, but that's about it. What mental image arises when you hear the phrase "She held her young daughter on her arms"? Nobody goes to fantasy novels for literary style, of course, but still!

Lord knows I have perpetrated greater errors, but this kind of thing annoys me, especially when it comes at the beginning of a book, because it compromises my confidence in the writer’s attentiveness to his task — and readers need that confidence, especially when they're starting books by writers new to them.

Something similar happened to me a couple of years ago when I picked up the one-volume abridged edition of William T. Vollmann's Rising Up and Rising Down. Here are the first two sentences of the book: “Death is ordinary. Behold it, subtract its patterns and lessons from those of the death that weapons bring, and maybe the residue will show what violence is.” Okay, let me work this through: Vollmann is asking me to take death tout court, death altogether, and subtract that from deaths that are brought about by the use of weapons. That is, he wants me to subtract a complete set from one of its subsets. Doesn't this leave the conceptual equivalent of a negative number? He can't mean what he’s saying here. He can only mean that if you subtract “the patterns and lessons” of nonviolent death from the patterns and lessons of death altogether (the whole set) you will be able to learn something about violent death. (Note also that he is equating “violent death” with “death caused by weapons,” which is wrong but at least is a comprehensible statement.) In other words, Vollmann didn’t even come close to saying what he meant. Didn't get within a mile of it. And this is how he starts his book!

How much farther did I get into Rising Up and Rising Down? That’s it. No further. Which is probably foolish of me. But I just didn't have any confidence that a guy who can so completely butcher the first sentences of his book would take significant care with the rest of it.

I’m moving ahead with Sanderson, though. A hundred pages in, the story has real potential, even if he writes in that wooden way that’s so common in fantasy and science fiction. I’m not totally unforgiving. Besides, in the first few pages a character was introduced who has a curious network of scars . . . um . . . on his arms. So maybe that fifth sentence of the book wasn't a slip after all? Maybe it's possible to pass judgment too quickly . . . ?


  • I've read the Mistborn trilogy and, without giving anything away (although a caveat like this kind of does anyway), I can tell you that "on my arms" is definitely intentional.

    Keep posting about this series, please. I'm very interested in your perspective on Sanderson.

  • It feels like a bit of a spoiler, so I'll put it in rot13:

    V qba'g guvax vg'f n zvfgnxr. Va snpg, gur snvyher gb ernq cebcurpl/uvfgbel pybfryl vf bar bs gur xrlf gb gur fgbel. Fb va guvf pnfr, lbh zvtug jnag gb ubyq bss whqtzrag. Ohg vg qbrf envfr gur dhrfgvba, pbzzba, V guvax, jvguva snagnfl, bs fhowhtngvat ynathntr gb fgbel.

    I hope you'll share further thoughts on the trilogy when you finish.

  • I guess there was no way for you to know, Jon, that rot13 is my native tongue. . . .

  • In Vollmann's case, doesn't the fact that you realized he was using the words wrongly mean that he was able to convey what he meant?

  • scritic: Maybe . . . if I got it right. What he wrote doesn't make sense, so I had to try to figure what those words could have denoted. I think I got it, but I'm not certain, and it took some thinking. Much easier to (for instance) know what a cat means when it says "I can haz cheezburger?"

  • Michael Straight said...

    Vollmann's math doesn't seem that hard to me.

    He's saying take Death+Violence, subtract Death, and you get Violence.

    Less literally, it seems pretty clear to me that he's saying, "Think carefully about an ordinary death, notice the ways it is the same as a violent death, and then let us consider the ways that it is different."

  • He's saying take Death+Violence, subtract Death, and you get Violence.

    That would make perfect sense, though it would be a tautology and thus a pointless thing to say. But I don't think it's possible to get that out of his syntax. As best I can read it anyway.

  • The woodenness never goes away, and there's some equally typically fantasy exposition in the service of retroactive explanation that fills most of the third book, but I don't regret the time I spent reading the trilogy. The setting is interesting, the magic system is thoughtful, and the characters are very slightly more than 2D, which is better than what you usually get with genre fiction.

  • Michael Straight said...

    I don't think it's possible to get that out of his syntax.

    Since that's clearly an assignment from an English teacher to diagram the sentence...

    “Death is ordinary. Behold it," = Death


    "its patterns and lessons" = Death


    "those of the death that weapons bring," = violent death

    "and maybe the residue will show" = equals

    "what violence is.” = violence

    Or in summary,

    Death subtracted from Violent Death = Violence

    or more mathematically

    Violent Death - Death = Violence

    It's no more a tautology than any other equation. Is 10 - 7 = 3 a tautology because (10-7) = 3 so 3 = 3?

    And the point, the proposal to idea of examine the effects of violence by first looking at all the ways a violent death is like a non-violent death, and them setting those aside, seems pretty intriguing to me.

    But I agree that as a sentence it's confusing if only for the reason you stated that normally you'd consider violent death a subset of death.

  • I don't seem to have the same problem with the Vollmann sentence that you have.

    A. The introductory phrase, "Death is ordinary" sets up his definition of death itself (death tout court). That's important. When he says "death", he's talking about the universal phenomenon of the end of life.

    B. "Behold it, subtract its patterns and lessons from those of the death that weapons bring, and maybe the residue will show what violence is.”

    The phrase "subtract its patterns and lessons" is key. What he is asking us is to ignore the phenomenon of "death" within the phenomenon of "the death that weapons bring" (since "death" is a simple, universal phenomenon), so that we can more clearly see the specific nature of the phenomenon of weapon-inflicted death.

    The idea, as you've understood, is that violence is not death, because death is universal and ordinary and weapon-inflicted violence is specific and extraordinary. In order to understand violence, we have to disentangle it from our natural associations of it with death tout court. We have to be careful not to confuse our general understanding of death with our specific understanding of violent death in particular.

    It's like an economist examining the effects of interest rates on inflation by agreeing to hold all other inflation-affecting factors equal (i.e. ceteris paribus).

    I wouldn't say that this is an easy or banal sentiment, as I can imagine that it would be rather hard to consider the damage inflicted by deadly weapons while ignoring death itself.

    Now, one may dispute the validity of usefulness of this philosophical technique, and I have no idea whether the rest of the book even attempts to justify it (I've never even heard of Vollmann before), but I find the idea itself neither unintelligible nor tautological.

  • Michael and Ethan: rather than trying once more to convince you that Vollmann has written some confusing and incoherent sentences, I will content myself with noting that you are both exemplifying Donald Davidson’s principle of charity in interpretation. I think I was doing the same when I tried to make the best sense I could of Vollmann’s writing. I think we probably agree that Vollmann has given the reader some work to do to make clear sense of what he’s saying — look at how how much longer your expositions of him are than the original passage — but we disagree about whether that passage is just somewhat unclear (as perhaps y'all might grant) or fundamentally incoherent (as I believe).

    To return to the main point of my post: whenever we readers come across a passage of writing that challenges us, that doesn't seem to be yielding to our attempts to make sense of it, we have to decide whether or not to persist, to keep working with it, to keep reading in the hopes that our efforts will be rewarded. We do a cost-benefit analysis, and, as I tried to suggest, sometimes our analysis is faulty. Sometimes we give up too easily, and maybe I gave up on Vollmann too easily. That said, I don't believe I’ll be trying him again, at least not anytime soon. . . .

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