Thursday, August 23, 2007

Transformative Power of Apposition in Delillo's Prose

In his post on LITBLOG CO-OP, Delillo and Things that Become Other Things, Matthew Sharpe [The Jamestown Sausage Factory] gives us a fine analysis of the transformative power of apposition in Delillo's prose.

Defenders of book grammar in fiction remind me of the armed guards in those little outhouses by the driveways at the borders of Gated Communities. They stand posted to serve the interests of literature as the guards stand to serve the interests of greater humanity.

In the attacks on Delillo's prose, I perceive a deeply conservative and parochial fear of contingency, of the conditioned and relative nature of authority. His sentences tear down the hedgerows and fences that protect us from an open and unguarded encounter with the world; by freeing us from comprehension they expose us to apprehension--a form of enlightenment the conservative mind experiences as intolerable anxiety.

Here are a some quotes from his essay.

One of the qualities of DeLillo's prose I've admired since I began reading him more than a dozen years ago is its analytic rigor, the way he can use a phrase, a sentence, a paragraph to bore into the texture and meaning of contemporary life. And one of the grammatical constructions he uses repeatedly as the vehicle for his insights is apposition, which is when two nouns or noun phrases, usually adjacent to each other in a sentence, have the same referent and stand in the same syntactical relation to the rest of the sentence, as in, “George W. Bush, the worst president in U.S. history, is on vacation.” Apposition allows a writer two or more passes in a row at coming up with a verbal equivalent for a given phenomenon, wherein each pass amplifies the others. The result can be a kind of verbal Cubism, a grammatical form of hopefulness in which each periphrastic utterance brings you closer to the truth of the subject under discussion.

A truly wacky apposition, the kind that so frustrates DeLillo's grassroots base of ardent detractors, and is exactly the sort of thing about his work that excites me, comes at the end of a paragraph about the erotic charge between Keith and his wife, Lianne, at the beginning of their acquaintance: “The rented beach house was sex, entering at night after the long stiff drive, her body feeling welded at the joints, and she'd hear the soft heave of the surf on the other side of the dunes, the thud and run, and this was the line of separation, the sound out there that marked an earthly pulse in the blood.” Well, “entering” is a dangling participle, among other grammatical infelicities, and while “thud and run” and “the sound out there” are clearly two phrases describing the same thing, how is either of them a “line of separation”? But DeLillo throughout his work has lavished attention on uses of language that aren't correct or don't quite make sense. His people make a hash of grammar-“Which, by the way, did you get my postcard?”-while he investigates everyday vernacular's routine betrayals of its own presumed sense-making efficacy-“Light-skinned black woman,” for example, or, in reference to the physical therapy Keith does for his injury from the tower, “He used the uninvolved hand to apply pressure to the involved hand.” DeLillo's people struggle valiantly with or against language as a way to get a foothold in their own chaotic lives, their insurmountable mortality, the terrifying world that is often the subject of his novels-as in this conjugation-gone-mad, the heartbreaking final written remark of an Alzheimer's patient with whom Lianne has been conducting weekly writing sessions: “Do we say goodbye, yes, going, am going, will be going, the last time go, will go.”
Moments of verbal nonsense and misapprehension are DeLillo's way of representing the mind's-even the intact mind's-logic-transcending representation of the world. An apposition that violates the strict rules of grammar and sense replaces them with intuition's urge to find equivalence in disparate things. A mid-century Italian still life of some bottles in Lianne's mother's apartment reminds Lianne of the fallen towers, and, later, of her now-deceased mother. And the novel itself uses verbal quirks to unite disparate characters in resemblance: Lianne, to stave off Alzheimer's, counts backward from one hundred by sevens; her boy, Justin, refuses to speak except in monosyllables; Hammad, a 9/11 terrorist, recites repetitive prayers; Keith and his poker buddies take deep satisfaction in saying the words “five-card stud” at the beginning of each game, though this is the only version of poker they play.

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