Limit One per Customer, Three

The problem with ten-dollar words is that they can price themselves right out of the business.  Once a fancy showboat like purlieu or miasma or effluvium has come on the scene saying, “Get a load of me,” it can be hard for the reader, upon subsequent encounters with those same ringers, not to think, “Didn’t I get a load of this already?”  No matter how long the book you’re reading is, when you hit that second circumambient, you probably still have a fairly distinct recollection of the first.  Making a splashy debut is one thing, but holding down steady work is another.

I’ve been to the well on this subject twice before* and have in those previous bucket-dunkings brought up such shiny attention-getters as unsentient, the sort of word that hardly needs to be used excessively for its use to feel excessive: Absalom, Absalom!’s “unsentient earth,” “unsentient barrow,” and—no, you are not reading this next one wrong—“unsentient plow handles” together constitute, I would argue, 200% more unsentience than any one novel should rightly contain.  (And as to my inconsistent practicing-versus-preaching policy in the area of not repeating oneself, I can only say in my defense that the well in question is pretty darn deep.)

Apotheosis, for example, seems like the kind of vocabulary seasoning that one would want to apply with some economy, but Absalom! is never less than a robustly flavored dish.  In one episode, kept women of multiracial heritage are described as “the supreme apotheosis of chatterly” and then, two pages later, as “the apotheosis of two doomed races,” while, in another moment, a man’s unobtainable self-ideal is characterized as “his own lonely apotheosis,” which, four pages after that, gets artily inverted into “the apotheosis lonely.”  (Elsewhere, for a final pinch of zest, there is “the dream which, conjunctive with the dreamer, becomes immolated and apotheosized.”  Oh, that dream again.)

transmogrifierTransmogrify is, no bones about it, an awesomely cool word.  External to the universe of Calvin and Hobbes, though, its frequency of use within a single work of fiction would likely best be capped at one (and even that might be pushing it).  If your book contains an unhappy woman whose married life has left her “transmogrified into a mask looking back with passive and hopeless grief upon the irrevocable world” and a couple of hardy, temperature-be-damned types who face the cold “in deliberate flagellant exaltation of physical misery transmogrified into the spirits’ travail,” you’ve got yourself an overegged pudding.

One click adjacent on the transmogrification knob is the setting for metamorphosis—and, fear not, the Absalom! stew will not go undersalted with metamorphoses, as unlikely as it is to see that word so well-represented outside of a lepidoptera textbook.  Fitting, then, that it should figure repeatedly in delicately winged metaphors of personal development—“Ellen went through a complete metamorphosis, emerging into her next lustrum with the complete finality of actual rebirth”; “[people] grow from one metamorphosis—dissolution or adultery—to the next…as the butterfly changes once the cocoon is cleared.”  But it also comes into play in the rather tangled erotic imaginings of one character who not only fantasizes about assuming the form of his sister’s fiancée so he can sleep with her (“that complete abnegate transference, metamorphosis into the body which was to become his sister’s lover”; “in the person of the brother-in-law, the man whom he would be if he could become, metamorphose into, the lover, the husband”), he also—and, hey, points for empathy—envisions what it would be like to be the female half of that coupling, to receive “the lover, the husband…by whom he would be despoiled, choose for despoiler, if he could become, metamorphose into the sister, the mistress, the bride.”  So, once your therapist is done interpreting those immolated and apotheosized dreams of yours, see what she makes of that one.

The multi-stage arc of experiencing a word like importunate can be charted with a series of points: Upon one’s first brush (“to heat and make importunate the blood of a young man”), one may reach for the dictionary and offer appreciations, Ah, “urgent or persistent”—what lively word selection!; upon the second (“the surprised importunate traitorous flesh”), one may feel a flickering of concern, Ah, but Author, Good Sir, did we not see this rather noteworthy word in just the previous chapter, also in very similar context?; and upon the third (“any hushed wild importunate blood”), one may gently opine, Ah, man…another one?  And with “blood” again?!

I don’t know if I necessarily noticed the second or even the third occasion of recapitulation as it appeared in Absalom, Absalom!, but by the end, once it had fully transmogrified through the many phases of its recapitulative metamorphosis—“harsh recapitulation,” “outraged recapitulation,” “patient amazed recapitulation,” “vain and empty recapitulation”—its bright colors had definitely caught my eye.  At one point, a lawyer, apparently charging by the recapitulation, crafts a letter of introduction between two men—“an introduction (clumsy though it be) to one young gentleman whose position needs neither detailing nor recapitulation in the place where this letter is read, of another young gentleman whose position requires neither detailing nor recapitulation in the place where it was written.”  (Whatever gave him the idea that this was clumsy?)

Other nominations I would make for the One of Those Should Be More Than Enough, Thank You designation include repercussive (“the fierce repercussive flush of vindicated loyalty,” “the tedious repercussive climax”), volte face (“a volte face of character,” “one of mankind’s natural and violent and inexplicable volte faces”), and lugubrious (“some lugubrious and painless purgatory,” “lugubrious and vindictive anticipation,” “lugubrious and even formal occasions”—these last two separated only by the space of as many pages).  You get all of these together in the same recipe, and, mamma mia, that’s a spicy meatball.

• • •

*Physician, heal thyself!  (Those visits are here and here.)

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Karma Chameleon

Mentioned here recently was the difficulty—when considering a fictional character who is prone to repeat herself, created by a writer who is…well, prone to repeat himself—of distinguishing what is being done by the author for effect from what is merely being done by the author out of habit (the same dilemma one might face in determining if a ventriloquist has Tourette’s syndrome or just a really potty-mouthed puppet).

As has been noted, the character of Miss Coldfield in Absalom, Absalom! likes to say things like “Oh, I hold no brief for myself”—she really likes to say things like this—and is forever nattering on about her neighbors’ obsession with her, but she also has a previously unmentioned fondness for the word instant:

[D]uring that instant”—she recounts of one fraught encounter—“while we stood face to face (that instant before my still advancing body should brush past her and reach the stair) she did me more grace and respect than anyone else I knew; I knew that from the instant I had entered that door.”  (“[P]erhaps I knew already,” she amends a page later, “on the instant I entered the house.”)

The above is from Chapter 5, which is narrated by the indefatigable insta-matic herself and features also a “complete instant,” a “constant and perpetual instant,” a “forever crystallized instant,” an “unbroken instant of tremendous effort,” a “full instant of comprehended terror,” and “the last thin unbearable ecstatic instant of agony”—as well as “the instant’s final crisis” and “one red instant’s fierce obliteration.”  Of her unexpected marital destiny and unlikely groom-to-be, she confides: “I had never for one instant thought of marriage, never for one instant imagined that he would look at me.”

But Miss Coldfield is certainly no more indulgent of this instant gratification than is Faulkner himself, as there are just as many examples that do not issue from his character’s lips, including a “reflex instant,” a “harried instant,” a “psychological instant,” an “instant of contact,” an “instant of dissolution,” an “instant of indisputable recognition,” and “some blind instant of revolt.”

Additional non-Coldfeldian occurrences: One character is “chivalrous for the instant”; another’s teeth are “glinting for an instant.”  Two birds “leave a limb at the same instant”; a father and son reach a “rapport of blood” at the “same identical instant.”  Momentous change can happen during “the instant which Fate always picks to blackjack you,” and destinies can intersect as “men’s secret and solitary lives may be joined for an instant.”  In one scene, a character is regarding handwriting on a page so faint as to be “like a shadow upon it which had resolved on the paper the instant before he looked at it and which might fade, vanish, at any instant while he still read.”*

Adjectival instances include reactions that are “instantaneous and complete” and decisions that are “instantaneous and irrevocable”; there is a dustcloud—a dustcloud—that is described as “instantaneous and eternal.”**  Miss Coldfield reports witnessing “instantaneous and incredible tears” (which are coming on quickly and “disappearing as instantaneously”; later, in Chapter 7, there will also be “tears which ceased on the instant when they began”).  Further Johnny-on-the-spot anatomical illustrations are one player’s “instantaneous unsentient hands”—already made fun of elsewhere by me—and another’s “rich instantaneous bosom.”  (Sounds like something marketed to the lovelorn on late night cable TV—just add water.)

At one point, Miss Coldfield surveys her situation and declares, in an anachronistically you-go-girl sort of mood, “This was my instant.”  And, hey, even if she and her creator have put an awful lot of miles on that word, at least she’s owning the moment.

• • •

*Also: “He must have known that at the very instant when he gave his father the lie” (p. 85); “now would come the instant for which Bon had [prepared]” (p. 89); “during that instant in which, before he knew it, something in him had escaped” (p. 189); “Grandfather…had just seen her too for a second…a chin for an instant beyond a curtain of fallen hair” (p. 201); “for an instant as they moved, hurried, toward [the house] Quentin saw completely through it” (p. 293).

**Here’s the context for that one, about 2/3rds of the way down into the sentence: 

And she (Miss Coldfield) had on the shawl, as he had known she would, and the bonnet (black once but faded now to that fierce muted metallic green of old peacock feathers) and the black reticule almost as large as a carpet-bag containing all the keys which the house possessed: cupboard closet and door, some of which would not even turn in locks which, shot home, could be solved by any child with a hairpin or a wad of chewing gum, some of which no longer even fitted the locks they had been made for like old married people who no longer have anything in common, to do or to talk about, save the same general weight of air to displace and breathe and general oblivious biding earth to bear their weight;—that evening, the twelve miles behind the fat mare in the moonless September dust, the trees along the road not rising soaring as trees should but squatting like huge fowl, their leaves ruffled and heavily separate like the feathers of panting fowls, heavy with sixty days of dust, the roadside undergrowth coated with heat-vulcanized dust and, seen through the dustcloud in which the horse and buggy moved, appeared like masses straining delicate and rigid and immobly upward at perpendicular’s absolute in some old dead volcanic water refined to the oxygenless first principle of liquid, the dustcloud in which the buggy moved not blowing away because it had been raised by no wind and was supported by no air but evoked, materialized about them, instantaneous and eternal, cubic foot for cubic foot of dust to cubic foot for cubic foot of horse and buggy, peripatetic beneath the branch-shredded vistas of flat black fiercely and heavily starred sky, the dustcloud moving on, enclosing them with not threat exactly but maybe warning, bland, almost friendly, warning, as if to say, Come on if you like.

(Three dustclouds in this sentence and four dusts.)

Limit One per Customer, Two

I’ve mentioned before certain words in Absalom, Absalom! that seem “overused,” not in the sense of racking up disbelief-inviting tallies on the stat sheet (does curious really merit nearly 40 times at bat?), but in the sense that their being used even more than once feels excessive—words like brigandage, cherubic, circumambient, effluvium, ratiocination, shibboleth, and substanceless.  Words that make readers—I assume I am not alone in this boat?—say, “Hold on a second…didn’t I see ‘substanceless,’ like, 15 pages ago?”*

As I speculated then (so now who’s repeating himself?), I may just be parading my ignorance—maybe purlieu, for example, is more of an around-the-dinner-table kind of word than I realize.  But, still, I would think it incumbent upon any self-respecting editor to say to his or her client, “You know how you have ‘purlieu’ in Chapters 2, 3, and 4?  Maybe we could think about losing one or two of those, what do you say?”

Perhaps I am being too touchy about purlieu.  And maybe I shouldn’t be so ticklish about the book’s four total uses of miasma, either (as in “the shadowy miasmic region something like the bitter purlieus of Styx”).  But when it appears twice in one sentence?**  When that happens, you’ve got to figure that somebody’s red pen has run out of ink.

Outside of a science-fiction novel, sentient strikes me as a one-per-book word.  That is not an opinion shared by the author of Absalom, Absalom!, which features “sentient forces,” a “sentient victim,” one traumatized personage’s “sentient though nerveless shell,” and “the old mindless sentient undreaming meat that doesn’t even know any difference between despair and victory.”  (Is undreaming what happens while you’re unasleep?)  And speaking of un-words, there is also “the blind unsentient earth” (emphasis, I am ethically obliged to add, mine); the human body described in a similarly sightless metaphor as a “blind unsentient barrow of deluded clay and breath”; and—in some kind of bizarre agrarian instance of seeming mind-transference that does sound like it’s from a sci-fi novel—a farmer “stopped dead…the unsentient plow handles in his instantaneous unsentient hands.”***

Just as sentient is maybe a 4 or 5 on the “Hey, check out this fancy word” meter and then adding the un- prefix bumps it up to a 7 or an 8, satiated does not in and of itself register all that high on the scale of lexical grandstanding—whereas the cumulative effect of satiated, satiations, satiety, insatiation, and insatiability definitely gets the needle twitching.  Ditto for the relatively anonymous volition, which only calls progressively more attention to itself as it is cycled through a series of variations—volition, volitional, volitionless, and—but of course—unvolition.

Sometimes it’s less a matter of frequency than density.  I don’t suppose it’s so terribly egregious within a single book to read “the granddaughter…asked querulously what it was” and then later “the granddaughter spoke querulously again” and then “they heard the granddaughter’s voice, fretful and querulous”—just not so good within the space of two pages (232-233).  And it’s bad enough that Absalom! could manage to contain the “lost cause’s unregenerate vanquished,” an “aura of unregeneration,” and a character “chivalrous for the instant even though still unregenerate”—but it contains them all in the first chapter!  I would say that it beggars belief for this sort of redundancy to occur with no editorial redress, but maybe none of this is for real and I’m just undreaming the whole thing.

• • •

* “He seems to hover, shadowy, almost substanceless, a little behind and above” (page 74); “the beam filled with substanceless glitter of tinsel motes” (page 59).

** There is no way—within the limited purlieu of my own excerpting abilities, at least—to excise from the body of the original sentence the twin miasmas (or in this case, miasmals) at an appropriately abridged length while still maintaining their sense.  I offer it here in its entirety, then, although be warned—it just so happens to be among my personal nominees for the book’s very most opaque, aneurysm-inducing head-scratchers.  (Yes, I realize what sort of first-among-equals rarefied company that places it in and, no, it is not a contention I would make lightly.)  Were there any explanatory context that I thought could possibly lend assistance in negotiating its meaning, I assure you I would provide it.

Or perhaps it is no lack of courage either: not cowardice which will not face that sickness somewhere at the prime foundation of this factual scheme from which the prisoner soul, miasmal-distillant, wroils ever upward sunward, tugs its tenuous prisoner arteries and veins and prisoning in its turn that spark, that dream which, as the globy and complete instant of its freedom mirrors and repeats (repeats? creates, reduces to a fragile evanescent iridescent sphere) all of space and time and massy earth, relicts the seething and anonymous miasmal mass which in all the years of time has taught itself no boon of death but only how to recreate, renew; and dies, is gone, vanished: nothing—but is that true wisdom which can comprehend that there is a might-have-been which is more true than truth, from which the dreamer, waking, says not ‘Did I but dream?’ but rather says, indicts high heaven’s very self with: ‘Why did I wake since waking I shall never sleep again?’

*** For completeness’ sake: There is also, in Chapter 1, a from-beyond-the-grave essence that “seem[s] to possess sentience” and, in Chapter 3, an if-these-walls-could-talk house that is described “as though [it] actually possesses a sentience.”  Neither of which, of course, is even close to being as enticingly nutjob as “unsentient plow handles.”