Saturday, May 17, 2008

Julia Leigh - Disquiet


A very short novella, this. Some of Saul Bellow's short stories are longer.

It appears to have decidedly mixed reviews, this book. It is certainly a love-it-or-loathe-it sort; the style is extreme, so it's either one that appeals to you or it will aggravate. Me, I like it.

It should be read by anyone who fancies themselves as a writer. They will learn some very useful lessons.

1. Less is more. The most obvious failing in beginners' writing is adjectivitis. I touched on this in the post below about Huck Finn. This story amplifies the point perfectly. Leigh uses hardly any adjectives or adverbs. It is simple, almost stark language, and yet it conveys far, far more than the description-soaked amateur offering ever could.

2. Simple language isn't dull. Once the amateur writer realises the truth of 1. he/she will usually go to the other extreme. Raymond Carver has much to answer for here. We get the most godawful Janet and John language. A did this. B said that. C happened. It was D. It was E. No music, no variation, no lift. Just word after sodding word. Julia Leigh's style is very simple, unadorned. She gives you the detail and no more - even when it is truly horrific detail. But it still maintains the interest because there is rich vocabulary and there is variety and movement to the sentences.

3. Horror can be drawn without the need for portentousness. Julia Leigh does dead babies much, much better than that old ham, Cormac McCarthy. The reason? She just explains and leaves us to fill in the emotions. McCarthy can't have a dead baby (and they're in most of his novels) without ratcheting up the emotional tempo.

So, lots of good things. Does it work? Yes and no. Some of the characterisation is excellent. The children, in particular, come across as real, and the starkness of the poor woman's plight, her agonising mental torment, is all the better for not being overplayed. But some of the remaining characters, the mother in particular, feel half finished.

And, while there is much for the aspiring writer to learn from in a positive sense in this work, there's also a strong lesson in negative. Leigh's attempt to thread some sort of theme about the elements - rock and water - feels laboured and spliced in. It doesn't feel natural, as though she has added these bits in later to give it a bit of profundity. A pity, because it really doesn't need it.

And the ending? Didn't really understand it, I have to be honest.

But a worthwhile read. It's only 120 short pages, won't take much more than an hour. And lots to admire.

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