Pragmatics

There’s been some discussion already of Butler’s style, which I want to investigate a little in terms of how it functions to help create some interesting effects in the first sections of this book. (I agree with Paul that this book seems to demand less playfulness than I’d usually strive for in titling posts. For this post in particular, I know enough to know that I’m referring to an area of linguistics that relates to the points I want to make, but not enough to know how to lay out those connections myself! If anybody who does know more about pragmatics in the linguistic/semiotic sense wants to spell it out, I’d love to learn.)

I’ll start with a disclaimer: I’m going to do a bit of generalizing about Butler’s style, based not just on the first third of Kindred but also on the seven other books of hers I’ve read (the Patternist and Xenogenesis series). It’s been a couple years since I read those, so I’m working from memory; but that memory tells me that her style is largely consistent across books, with the possible exception of Wild Seed, which I remember as being somewhat more consciously beautiful.

So. In thinking about this little investigation, a rough dichotomy of styles occurred to me. On the one hand is a kind of writing that seems to show the author’s intellect visibly at work, or on the move. I’m thinking of Wallace, of course (and that sense so many readers describe of his writing being the voice in their brain), and Nabokov, and maybe Austen—and, frankly, myself: One of the things I value so much about these group reads is the opportunity to write about the books, because that’s how I find out what I think about them. Sometimes this style shows the writer themselves on a journey, or sometimes it shows them leading the reader on a journey that feels more planned. On the other hand is a kind of writing that’s trickier to pin down, but the best way I’ve come up with to describe the feeling that characterizes it is that the author has already made the journey, whatever kind of journey it is, and is sort of reporting from the place where they’ve settled. I’m thinking here of O’Connor, a lot of Morrison, Hemingway, and, relevantly, Butler. The characters still have places to go and things to learn (or not), but there’s a kind of density of conviction that underlies the writing, a feeling of experience rather than experiencing, if that distinction makes sense. (This is all sort of a provisional structure. If you have any refinements or additions or objections, speak up! For one thing, don’t think the gender skew of my examples has escaped me…)

There’s an incredible economy in the way Butler structures the first parts of this book. It’s clear that the structural logic and the narrative logic are largely aligned—Dana’s called to Rufus when he’s in mortal danger from something: a river, a fire in his bedroom, a fall from a tree. So we get a section for each of those: “The River,” “The Fire,” “The Fall,” and so on. (The flashbacks and present-time moments of Dana in 1976 are important, but in my reading that importance is narrative rather than structural.) The Prologue is two pages, beginning with “I lost an arm” and ending with two characters saying they don’t know what truly happened. Then comes “The River,” which introduces us to this pattern. Dana’s called away for just barely over a page, and there aren’t even six whole pages in the section. We’re moving fast, from event to event, and it’s deliberately bewildering. Butler’s giving us nothing that she isn’t also giving Dana, and what she’s giving Dana is a damn lot in a big hurry. “The Fire” is then about four times as long as everything combined that went before it, and then “The Fall” is another 20ish pages longer still.

I’m talking about page spans here because it’s quite literally a learning curve:

And that’s an important part of what we see: Dana learning. Learning what’s happening, especially, but also learning about living in the antebellum South as a Black woman, and learning as much as she can of what the Black people on and near the Weylin estate have grown up knowing. But also we see her taking action, and that’s some of where I come back to where I place Butler in that dichotomy I mentioned. We don’t watch Kevin decide to assemble a go bag for Dana; we skip right to her awaking with it already beside her. And then she iterates on its contents, trying to zero in on the optimal combination of supplies to bring with her. The thinking, here and throughout, is fully reconstructable (and indeed, not always withheld), but it’s kind of taken for granted that the thinking is indeed happening.

Even when we get more explicit cogitation, it reveals that there’s already a fully formed intellect underneath that’s doing the thinking: On page 28, when Dana’s putting together her tie to Rufus, she thinks, “Alice Greenwood. How would she marry this boy? Or would it be marriage?” (The italics are mine; Butler doesn’t do a lot of that kind of cuing.) From Dana’s 1976 perspective, that’s a reasonable question. But of course its real import isn’t whether Alice and Rufus solemnized their relationship—it’s whether Alice was given the power to consent at all. There’s no further elaboration on that point in Dana’s train of thought, though. On the Watsonian level, Dana already knows why she’s wondering, so there’s no need for her to rehearse it. And on the Doylist level, this is part of how Butler operates. It’s up to us as readers to be alert to the mass of the iceberg under the water. Whether that technique lands for you is more or less a personal question, but I’m finding it quite powerful.

7 thoughts on “Pragmatics

  1. Paul Debraski March 8, 2021 / 12:02 pm

    I love this insight, Jeff. I hadn’t really thought about he length of the chapters working like that but it makes total sense.

    I had also been wondering about the “legality” of Alice and Rufus’ children. I don’t really know … anything about how children of these relationships were treated . I assume not well, despite the father. But with Dana knowing her ancestry like this, it showed that there was some sort of caring for the children.

    Does Dana’s own pressure on Rufus to look after his children (still relevant today, fathers) ensure her family’s lineage?

    And as for the pacing of the book. My first thought, as I mentioned, was how matter of fact it all seems, but I like the idea that this is done as more than just matter of fact but as an overwhelming amount of information just like Dana is experiencing.

  2. Daryl L. L. Houston March 8, 2021 / 11:50 pm

    I have some thoughts here, but few of them are about Butler’s work directly. I’ll plunge in anyway.

    First, I like the stylistic dichotomy you propose. I wonder, with some unease, what it says about me that I so often like the style that shows the thought processes. Like, there’s something sort of self-serving about that style that I do not like when I see it in myself, though I sure as hell nurture it. So what does it say about me that I like the sort of style that presents as sort of super earnest and open but that is probably, at its root, sort of a bit? Anyway, the dichotomy you propose holds water for me.

    I like the graph too. I hadn’t really thought about the section lengths. Looking at that tidy curve makes me think, again, of other writers whose curves look very different. I don’t know how I’d graph Wallace. Some kind of Sierpinsky gasket, I suppose? Gaddis came immediately to mind because his J R has always seemed to me like a book that’s very hard initially but that teaches you to read it as you go. To me, it has this very steep initial slope followed by a plateau or fairly gradual downward slope once you sort of learn to filter the many voices and sounds effectively. Ulysses is similar to me, except that it resets the graph with every section.

    Structurally, the books that require a more active investment to sort of figure out how to read interest me more, to a point. Of course I’ve loved many books that didn’t require this sort of investment. But I think they are in general beautifully written, meaning that the prose style was lyrical or appealingly baroque or something else. In a book like Kindred, I’m not finding anything particularly hard about how it’s put together, and I also don’t think the prose is especially lovely. I mean, it’s fine. It’s utilitarian. The words mean things and do evoke feelings, most powerfully when they stir feelings of revulsion. But: Is that enough for me to consider it a really good book?

    I’m going to sit with your iceberg analogy (speaking of which, did you see this neat tool that lets you see how an iceberg of a given shape would actually foat vs. the usual but incorrect image we usually think of?) as I keep reading Butler. Part of what I wanted out of this read was to hear things from others that’d help me read more carefully work that I might dismiss as light otherwise. Even in my last paragraph, I’m leaning toward being dismissive, so it seems like I’ve got some work to do yet. Posts like this help keep that urge in check, for which I’m grateful.

    • Jeff Anderson March 13, 2021 / 8:47 pm

      I keep boggling at this comment, Daryl, because one of the things I discarded along the way while I was writing this post was a discussion about difficult beginnings. (I ended up discarding it because the beginning of Kindred turned out to be not that difficult after all!) One thing I often have in mind when I start a new book is Eco’s Postscript to The Name of the Rose (which is included in my edition, but was originally published separately). It has a lot of great stuff in it, but the part that really sticks with me is in his discussion of pace:

      “After reading the manuscript, my friends and editors suggested I abbreviate the first hundred pages, which they found very difficult and demanding. Without thinking twice, I refused, because, as I insisted, if somebody wanted to enter the abbey and live there for seven days, he had to accept the abbey’s own pace. If he could not, he would never manage to read the whole book. Therefore those first hundred pages are like a penance or an imitation, and if someone does not like them, so much the worse for him. He can stay at the foot of the hill.”

      That is to say, there are books that will teach me how to read them, if I submit to their instruction. (I know I’ve connected this before to the first however many pages of Infinite Jest, but that may not have been here, since I didn’t sign on until after Infinite Summer.)

      Eerie that you suggest a Sierpinski gasket for IJ—have you heard or read Wallace’s Bookworm interview with Michael Silverblatt? That’s exactly the template he had in mind.

      • Daryl L. L. Houston March 16, 2021 / 10:42 pm

        I’ve never read Eco, so the quote you share was new to me. The weird thing for me is that I don’t think I value difficulty for difficulty’s sake, though it is nice to feel a sense of accomplishment at finishing something difficult. I’ve found Vollmann pretty difficult to get into, for example, but nothing I’ve started of his has been interestingly difficult to me, so he’s not a white whale I particularly chase. So comments like Eco’s sort of rub me the wrong way because there’s a sort of hauteur there that rubs me the wrong way. Of course on the other end of the spectrum, you get somebody like Franzen (the fucker) on Gaddis, and that rubs me the wrong way too. Maybe I’m just ornery.

        I wish I could take credit for developing the Sierpinski gasket idea independently, but I picked that up from Silverblatt’s interview. I had learned about the fractal way back in high school because my graphic calculator would display it and I thought it looked neat, while having no idea what it was or meant. Anyway, not eerie at all — I just read and listened to everything I could get my hands on about Wallace back in the day, and that bit stuck with me.

  3. Dennis March 9, 2021 / 11:49 pm

    I really like your analysis of the chapter lengths. Chapter length reflects the prose which reflects the character’s understanding which reflects the movement of the story line. I was willing to accept Butler as someone who could deliver affecting prose, but your observation makes me realize that she has much more control of the total product than I was aware of.

    I’m not sure that I agree with your dichotomy. I can think of at least two authors who fall into the “author’s intellect at work” that also have a sense of someone who completed the journey. Both Moby Dick and The Divine Comedy are works where the character can be seen as having gone through the journey, but the narrator is distinct from the character within the story (the pilgrim?). So the narrator can comment on the actions of the pilgrim and be playful with the perception of his past foibles. Dana’s retelling of her experiences seems to lack any distance from them. Her retelling has the same emotional force as the experience itself. The difference may be that Ishmael’s retelling of the hunt for the white whale seems to have some circumspection associated with it whereas Dana seems to be telling it while it is fresh in her mind.

    Perhaps the distinction is between the self-consciousness of the narrator. Dana seems confident in her telling and any comment concerning her as pilgrim seems to only describe her state of mind at the time. From the beginning, once she realizes her situation, she seems to work things out to gain agency. In some cases it’s to ease her condition in the past, but in other cases to try to create a man she hopes is capable of engendering her ancestor. A self-conscious narrator would know how Rufus would ultimately act, she seems to hold judgment until we as readers can see as well.

    • Jeff Anderson March 13, 2021 / 9:11 pm

      The narrator’s self-consciousness feels like it could be a useful refinement, thanks! I thought some about Moby-Dick while I was writing this post, but if I’d included it I would have quickly put it in the first category. I see your point about Ishmael narrating post hoc, but the journey—such as it is—that I was trying to talk about (perhaps not clearly!) is something different from just the arc of the plot. I apologize for the haziness of some of this; the hazards of working out your thinking in public. The experience I mention isn’t just that the speaker of the narrative voice has been a part of the events in the story. It may be closer to say that it’s about that speaker having learned something of ethical significance from something they’ve been through—whether that’s the plot of the particular book in question or something in the textured notional history of that speaker.

      To me, Moby-Dick is intellectually pyrotechnic; you can look back in the archive here from our read of it to see some of what I mean! But for all that it’s one of my Important Books, I don’t read it as substantially flowering from any kind of ethical imperative. (Ethics seems to have caught me in its gravity well for considering this distinction…) Now Infinite Jest, which I also put in that first category, is a book that’s deeply, terribly concerned with ethical questions—but its presentation of them is so self-consciously (there you go!) intellectualized that, on balance, the style comes out as a strong example of the first category.

      I’m going to think more about the narrator’s self-consciousness as the key here. Thank you for that!

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