6/06/2002

tips for writers #327: the adjective grab-bag!

I have neglected my Harper’s and Atlantic (in fact I’ve let my Atlantic subscription lapse). The Atlantic has been getting more and more irritating, with all this talk of ‘the non-rich,’ and lately the joys of militarism (there’ve been a number of articles claiming that the US is at war—I mean it’s mentioned like, ‘the economy is surprisingly strong for a nation at war’ and this kind of thing—which seems disingenuous to me, and is meant, without a doubt to allude or hearken back to WWII), the merits of meritocracy, and so on.

There was that perfectly tasteless article about ‘decluttering’ the household that could have been ripped out of a 1950’s LHJ, containing the ines: ‘Scrubbing the toilet bowl is a bit of nastiness that can be fobbed off on anyone poor and luckless enough to qualify for no better employment; but only the woman of the house can determine which finger paintings ought to be saved for posterity, which expensive possessions ought to be jettisoned in the name of sleekness and efficiency.’ Maybe it all began when they ran that cover of Al Gore with fangs just before the elections. Still it’s a good counterbalance to Lewis Lapham’s increasing use (and abuse) of Latin in his monthly tirades.

So, anyway, I was reading a short story in the June Harper’s by Joyce Carol Oates. She’s a one-trick pony. She’s found her niche, that’s for sure. It was not until Csaba lent me a collection of her stories (Haunted: Tales of the Grotesque), that I realized how really ghastly her writing could be. Sometimes it’s not, but more often than not it is. The story in Harper’s is crammed full of real hum-dingers, as when she likens the protagonist’s bald head to ‘an upright male organ, throbbing with vigor, belligerence, good humor.’ Is this a mixed metaphor? Or is she actually saying his head is like a vigorous, belligerent, good-humored, erm, penis? I had to check the cover to see if I’d been sent Penthouse by mistake. Who uses the word ‘throbbing’ in mixed company? And who but a woman would write such a thing? You think if I wrote a story wherein I described a woman as having lips that looked like ‘sumptuous labia majora, pulsating with nimbleness, pugnacity, mirth,’ I could get away with it?

Another: ‘Lightly he’d touched her, stroked her unconscious body, and then himself.’ Seriously.

In another vein: ‘a skull like a Grecian bust’? A SKULL LIKE A GRECIAN BUST???? Oh, Joyce, where do you come up with them? Probably she has several big brown paper bags next to her writing desk. One is marked NOUNS, another VERBS. She’s cut her Roget’s Thesaurus into strips, and the third bag is chock full of ADJECTIVES, and whenever she needs one (and she uses a lot of adjectives) she just dips into that bag. The forth one is full of the second half of SIMILES. Each strip reads ‘like…’ followed by, for example, ‘an organ’.

Hmm, she says. A head like an organ. But what sort of organ? A pipe organ? She’s stumped. She cannot get the vision of the professor walking around with a pipe organ perched precariously on his shoulders out of her head.

She dips into the bag marked ADJECTIVES, and pulls out a strip. The word ‘male’ is written on it. She thinks a moment. A-ha! She claps her hands. What fun! Today will be a good day. She can tell! ‘…a male organ…’ she types on the keyboard. But what kind of male organ?

She dips into the ADJECTIVE bag again, and in her enthusiasm (she’s feeling frisky all the sudden) takes out a small handful of strips, placing them on the desk before her. One reads ‘insouciant’. She nods thoughtfully. Perhaps, she whispers, and makes a mental note to look up the word if she doesn’t find a more suitable one among the small pile on her desk.

Another reads ‘salacious’. Too obvious, she says aloud, rolling her eyes.

‘Despondent’ reads the next. The image is nice. ‘A despondent male organ.’ But not for this story. She jots it down in a little notebook, and moves on.

‘Paintable.’ Hmm. Well, she supposed anything was paintable for someone with paint, wasn’t it? Not very descriptive. She tears the strip in two and throws it in the wastepaper basket.

‘Remarkable.’ This could be the one! ‘A remarkable male organ.’ Mmm. Not bad.

By now she’s getting a little hungry for a snackie. Good thing there’s only one strip left. It reads: ‘upright’. Her eyes grow wide with childlike joy. Both male organs and pipe organs can be upright, can’t they? It’s a double entendre!

She claps her hands again and giggles like a… like a… like a remorseless hogfish!