Aug 23, 2008

Jerky rivulets of rain

In his new book, How Fiction Works, critic James Wood renews his objections to John Updike's sumptuous prose style, quoting the following description of a window pelted with rain from Of The Farm:

Its panes were strewn with drops that as if by amoebic decision would abruptly merge and break and jerkily run downward, and the window screen, like a sampler half-stitched, or a crossword puzzle invisibly solved, was inlaid erratically with minute, translucent tesserae of rain.

“Aestheticism is the great risk here, and also an exaggeration of the noticing eye," says Wood, who claims Updike turns "detail into a cult of itself.” The New York Times, however, reminded me of Nicholson Baker’s U & I, in which Baker singles out for praise the very the sentence Wood so dislikes:

I cried at the aforementioned description of the raindrops on the window screen like a crossword puzzle or a ‘sampler half-stitched’: it killed for the time being a patch of screen description of my own, but that didn’t matter, because Updike’s paragraph was so fine that my competitiveness went away; and when I found that Elizabeth Bishop’s 1948 New Yorker short story called The Housekeeper also had a screen whose clinging raindrops ‘fill[ed] the squares with cross-stitch effects that came and went,’ this parallel only demonstrated to me how much more Updike could do with the same piece of reality: he had lifted it from the status of incidental setting and made its qualities part of the moral power and permanency of his mother’s house.

I mention this only because I recently tried to describe, in my novel, those jerky rivulets of rain you get running down windows panes. I called them the "jerky rivulets of rain." That's the difference between me and Updike, I guess.

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