American Literature

Through some of the prose I've splurged on these pages, I have made known my dislike of simple generalisations (see here and here). But I am, you see, a hypocrite. The following is a discussion of a massive subject -- American Literature -- with reference to an absurdly limited selection of texts: A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway, Less Than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis, and (this is unforgivable) the first 200 or so pages of All The Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy. I balance a mountain of shame upon my head, but shall continue.

Hemingway first. Apparently, if you don't weep the tears of giants at the end of A Farewell to Arms you have a gaping hole where your heart should be. My eyes remained dry, make what judgements you will. Hemingway's unique style just left me cold. The reader is aware only of external actions, and the most basic of internal emotions (I felt happy, anxious etc). Because of this, precious little insight into the protagonist and the central romance is possible. I just didn't 'get' any of it. Similarly, The Old Man and the Sea presented me with a very detailed situation, but I was unable to see beyond the surface. I suspect the short story is a parable of some sort. But of what? Don't ask me.

Moving on to Less Than Zero. The writing here is also very sparse, but this serves to produce a very particular effect. Our teenage narrator, Clay, is left emotionally and morally numb by his environment -- wealthy, druggy Los Angeles in the 1980s. The style reflects this. Clay makes no judgements on what he sees. He simply records the (increasingly macabre) occurrences around him. In places it almost reads like a screenplay (I'll return to this in a sec).

Finally, Cormac McCarthy. Like the above, the prose is sparse. A few lines setting the scene, and then dialogue back and forth, much of it mundane. However, this austerity is juxtaposed with passages that are kinda like widescreen cinema epics. An extraordinarily beautiful image of a rider galloping with the ghosts of long gone American Indians will forever be burned onto my brain mush. The effect is to take the regular, humdrum lives of the characters and set them against the magnificent landscape and history of the American West, and so fill these stories with an ominous significance that belies their simple nature. After watching the brilliant No Country for Old Men I can't wait to read more.

Anyway. What links these three books is a particularly bare style of writing, which scratches the surface without going inside the character's heads. The reader simply 'watches' the action, and then has to guess at what's happening underneath. Moments of pathos and meaning are constructed through dialogue or an action (like leaving the room). Seeing as the above three authors are American, I've ascribed this 'screenplay prose' to all American Literature (which is fine, right?). There may be arguments to be made about the influence of Hollywood cinema on authors, but I should leave that to the experts. I've pranced around on their turf enough.

I contrast this with the stuff written by British authors, of which I am almost equally ignorant. Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie and Angela Carter are who I'm drawing on in the main (and thanks must go to my English teachers for pointing me down this path, I'm very grateful). The prose of the latter two is anything but sparse. And all three seem more comfortable running around their character's heads than describing what's going on in the outside world. I stop at using the words 'modernism' and 'postmodernism' in relation to this difference, partly because I don't quite know what they mean (if, indeed, they mean anything at all). Also because this US/UK contrast doesn't actually exist anywhere outside this essay.

I find I much prefer the 'UK' approach, partly because the prose is more exciting, and also because it plays to the strength of the medium. With straight prose it's very easy to go into the brain mush. You can't do the same thing with cinema except with voiceover (which I've always considered somewhat clumsy -- no one thinks like they are telling a story). For me 'screenplay prose' will work great on screen. It misses the particular opportunities offered by telling a story with words.

In comics, there is a similar UK/US division (probably invalid, but bare with me). Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman (the British elite) are much like Rushdie and co. They make heavy use of first person narration, delve into the minds of their characters, and so their comics often have an air of 'literariness'. The thing is, in comics you have pictures to work with, and long meandering narration is cumbersome. So sometimes I feel such stories are more suited to prose. I prefer the 'US' approach, typified by the three musketeers Bendis, Ennis and Ellis (and yes I know the last two are British). It is more 'cinematic' and so plays to the strengths of the medium. Pictures mean you actually see the action, which gives it a force that is difficult for prose to convey.

Postscript: Morrison is a bit of an oddball in all this. He is also of the 'UK' school, in that his work is 'literary' rather than 'cinematic'. But he is less reliant on a first person narrative voice. Instead, his comics are infused with a knowing artificiality. He often stresses that his stories aren't 'real', they come from the wacky mind of Grant Morrison. And so the point is made that to read a comic is to delve into the mind of its creator. We don't so much explore Morrison's characters as Morrison himself. This is the main reason why I can't love him as much as everyone else on the internet does. While his ideas are interesting, and there's plenty of them, his characters are too outlandish for me to be able to relate to them.


  1. I don't quite agree with what you're saying about Morrison. Some of his work does focus primarily on Morrison himself, but even in the context of his explicitly meta work, Animal Man, Buddy still remains an independent character. And, I think the whole Seven Soldiers project is a testament to his ability to create a wide variety of character with very specific voices and approaches. He's certainly got a wider voice than Ellis or Ennis, who populate their works with endless variations on their public personas, the crotchety old bastard with a heart of gold or the Irish man's man respectively.

  2. My problem with Grant Morrison is one of personal preference. It's me, not him. I just can't access and get exited about his characters enough. They remain at a distance for me. Too many other people don't think this to make me believe Morrison is doing anything wrong. So it's definitely me, not him.

    Maybe I haven't been reading enough. The above was based on Doom Patrol (which I loved), an Invisibles trade (which I found more difficult), and the first trade of All-Star Superman (which was very hit and miss).I haven't read Animal Man and Seven Soldiers. I will though, rest assured. They have a few trades of each in my (amazing) local library. So far, my favourite Morrison work is his run on X-Men, especially his last four issues with Marc Silvestri.

    I take your point about Ellis and Ennis. I agree, Morrison is by far the more original and versatile writer. It's just that I find the musketeers' characters, on the whole, more interesting and identifiable. I really can't understand why. Further reading will hopefully provide an answer. Or change my mind.