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Saturday, June 11, 2011

franzen, some notes on the first paragraph of a 12,000-word essay written by jonathan

the idea behind these posts is to help you "read like a writer"--that is, to help you examine a professional work of prose and identify not just what the text is doing, but also how it is doing it. the value in such an endeavour, i believe, is that we can radically improve our own writing through understanding the choices an author makes at both the micro (word choice) and macro (thematic organization) level.

consider the opening paragraph from "Farther Away," Jonathan Franzen 's 12,000-word essay in a recent issue of The New Yorker.

"In the South Pacific Ocean, five hundred miles off the coast of central Chile, is a forbiddingly vertical volcanic island, seven miles long and four miles wide, that is populated by millions of seabirds and thousands of fur seals but is devoid of people, except in the warmer months, when a handful of fishermen come out to catch lobsters. To reach the island, which is officially called Alejandro Selkirk, you fly from Santiago in an eight-seater that makes twice-weekly flights to an island a hundred miles to the east. Then you have to travel in a small open boat from the airstrip to the archipelago’s only village, wait around for a ride on one of the launches that occasionally make the twelve-hour outward voyage, and then, often, wait further, sometimes for days, for weather conducive to landing on the rocky shore. In the nineteen-sixties, Chilean tourism officials renamed the island for Alexander Selkirk, the Scottish adventurer whose tale of solitary living in the archipelago was probably the basis for Daniel Defoe’s novel "Robinson Crusoe," but the locals still use its original name, Masafuera: Farther Away."

What does the first sentence achieve? bracketing aside its style and skill, the first sentence establishes "the what" and "the where" (the "setting," if you like). yet we can also tell that the writer wants to personify this place as a kind of "who," that the island will function as a sort of character in the essay--otherwise why go to such pains to describe the place in such style-rich prose ("forbiddingly vertical volcanic island")?

note also the way in which Franzen sequences the island's animal life population: "millions of seabirds," "thousands of fur seals," "handful of fisherman." Franzen organizes from greatest to least (and not vice versa) because he wants the syntax to both structurally and semantically create a sense of isolation and rapid disappearance (a motif that runs throughout the essay).

the paragraph then makes a subtle turn toward gallows humor as Franzen explains the antiquated system of air travel involved in just starting to head in the island's vicinity. and things only become more and more rustic, because once deplaned,

"you have to travel in a small open boat from the airstrip to the archipelago’s only village, wait around for a ride on one of the launches that occasionally make the twelve-hour outward voyage, and then, often, wait further, sometimes for days, for weather conducive to landing on the rocky shore."

i'm not sure i'll ever come across another sentence so ready-made for this point: wordiness is not a function of how many words are in a sentence, but rather a value judgment regarding word economy and precision. in other words, a lengthy sentence is not automatically a wordy sentence. or, in opposite terms, even short sentence can still be quite wordy. if you go back and reread Franzen's sentence, which clocks in at 52 words (conventional wisdom suggests an average sentence should contain roughly 15-20 words), you'll notice how sturdy, how taut, how forward-flowing (and thus, how "clear") it nevertheless remains. the sentence--despite its length--never sags nor seems inefficient. and isn't inefficiency, after all, what we mean by wordiness? isn't wordiness when the purpose and content of a sentence seem somehow inefficiently paired, when the idea of the sentence wilted (rather than bloomed) under the weight of the writer's word choice?

a more interesting idea than wordiness, however, is at play in this same sentence--viz., the matching of form to purpose. it's an idea originally introduced to me by no less than Hamlet when he gives acting advice to one of his players. he implores the actor to "suit the action to the word, [and the] the word to the action." and that tip applies equally well in writing since, after all, what is writing other than a play that the reader silently performs in his or her head. which is why Franzen keeps extending and extending that particular sentence: he's suiting the action of traveling to the island (protracted, lengthy, seemingly endless) to the word count (also lengthy and seemingly endless) needed to recount the journey. simply put, the reader gets to feel how long it takes to travel to that island by getting to feel how long it takes to travel to the end of that sentence.

but, again, for all its length, it's not a wordy sentence, as evidenced clearly in Franzen's expert use of the "conducive." Franzen writes "[you often have to wait] for weather CONDUCIVE to landing on the rocky shore." (emphasis mine.) now suppose the word "conducive" did not exist. how would we still convey the same meaning? most likely, we would write something like "[you often have to wait] for weather THAT IS FAVORABLE to landing on the rocky shore." or maybe "THAT IS HELPFUL FOR SAFELY LANDING on the rocky shore." sure, both of my attempts kind of work, but they seem poor substitutes. the point is, conducive is the right word because it's the most economical.

Franzen, for all his style and structure, is not perfect here. indeed, i believe the writer makes a mistake when he decides to "name" the island twice in the opener. To wit: Franzen tells us in the second sentence that the island in question is "officially called Alejandro Selkirk" and then circles back in the last sentence to this idea but with the added information that the name stems from "Alexander Selkirk," the adventurer who most likely inspired the book "Robinson Crusoe."

my question is, why not tell us both things at once: the name of the island and where it came from? in my opinion, Franzen should have omitted naming the island in the second sentence (after all, what difference does it make if we know the official name of the island so soon? the real point is what kind of island it is) and, instead, included its name (and naming) as an organic entry into the significance of who it was named for. that being said, the paragraph does arrive exactly where Franzen has been leading it: to the words "Farther Away," which works to perfectly bookend the opening paragraph as a kind of self-contained work of art--given that the article itself is entitled "Farther Away."

perhaps the real genius of this work, though, is how the title's subhead plants a question in the reader's mind that then the essay waltzes in to answer. it's quite stunning. so stunning in fact that it deserves its own post, which i will get to this week. (oh, and in that forthcoming post, i'll very briefly offer a note on Franzen's ability to write in a voice that weaves together both formal and informal language. it's an important skill, so it seems right to save it for next time.)

1 comment:

Jabiz said...

Read it. Twice. You are becoming too smart for our own good. I really do appreciate these posts.

Reminds me that I need to work on the structure of my sentences for the re-draft of my book. I am a bit terrified, honestly, but everything you say i dead true. Keep it up..these posts are a treasure and will make a great book, for language nerds.