#015 — Every Leaf. Every Ray of Light. Forgive.

Hi, hello, how are you? This is your weekly note from me, Adam Wood, from a corner of Oxford where — mark your bingo card, Tendrils-reader — it’s been too hot. Perhaps the heat has been making me grumpy, because I’ve had an unusual number of sub-optimal encounters with pieces of art this week. Maybe it would help to talk about it.

Books — I made a start with a couple of different books this week, and neither of them clicked for me. The one I want to talk about is Jem Calder’s well-reviewed first collection of short stories: Reward System (2022). With the caveat that I’m only through one of the book’s six pieces, I found myself irked by the level of needless complexity Calder’s employing, both in terms of vocabulary and sentence structure. Here’s a couple of quick examples, from the very first page of the text:

Throughout her three unpaid trial shifts, Julia had received orientative and procedural supervision from Lena, the sous-chef whose position the former would, after having successfully demonstrated her utility to the latter, eventually be hired to inherit.

It’s not that I think every writer should try to sound like Hemingway, but in the case of Calder’s prose I often found myself taken out of the story itself, distracted by writing that seemed too interested in showcasing how clever its author is. As an experiment, let’s try re-writing that sentence in a way that doesn’t get in the way of what it’s trying to convey:

Julia did three unpaid trial shifts at the restaurant. Throughout, she was supervised by Lena, the sous-chef whose job she was hoping to inherit. After a flurry of initial nerves, Julia tried to absorb as much as she could from Lena, about the restaurant’s people, and the kitchen’s complex inner life.

The first thing we’ve done is cut words like ‘orientative’, which no one uses. Encountering words like this in prose has the effect of pulling the reader out of the flow of language, and stopping them for a beat, so that they can parse the unusual word. It’s probably not even a matter of a half-second, but it is a detectable bump in the linguistic road — something an author and editor should be working to smooth out if they want the story to shine, rather than the linguistic prowess.

The second thing to go is the needless insistence on conveying all this information in a single sentence. Chop it up; parcel it more neatly; give your reader a break. Here’s another example from the text (which comes directly on the heels of the first):

Of the many formed and as-yet-unformed thoughts Julia had about Lena, the majority were dedicated to either comparing or deliberately attempting not to draw comparisons between their common and contrasting qualities. Lena was approximately Julia’s goal weight and sported the kind of pixie cut that made women of lesser confidence ideate over cutting their own hair short. She could not have been any more than five years older than Julia, but the extent of her culinary proficiency suggested decades of experience separating them.

That first sentence is twice as long as it needs to be, and contains more clauses than it knows how to clarify with punctuation. The second sentence uses ‘ideate over’ instead of ‘think about’ because… I guess Calder wants to flex his vocabulary. You can have your own fun re-writing the third sentence: whilst retaining everything it conveys, see how far down you can get it from its current 46 syllables. (I’d start with that pair of four-syllable clunkers: ‘culinary proficiency’.) In all of these cases, the author is making things harder for the reader, without any good reason. Concision shouldn’t necessarily always be of primary concern to a writer, but clarity should be. If you have a story to tell, or something interesting to say, make sure to say it in a way that helps your reader through it. The writer and editor should both be working to shape prose so that the reader doesn’t have to do the heavy lifting of parsing it all out.

I think one of the reasons this stuff stings me, is that I recognise myself in it. I know next to nothing about Jem Calder, but — for various reasons — I’m going to guess he’s in his early-to-mid 20s. Sometimes now, but especially at that point in my own life, I too often made the mistake of thinking that clever writing was good writing. There are certainly times, places, and contexts in which prose like that makes sense: go wild with sentence structures, and stretch the old vocab. But the form has to have a function. At least in the first story of this debut collection, it feels unmistakably as though the linguistic gymnastics are mostly to distract from the fact that Calder doesn’t have much to say.

• • •

Just as a point of interest (and possibly a cautionary tale about marketing), part of the reason I picked up Reward System came down to two names on the cover: an endorsement by Sally Rooney, and a comparison to Patricia Lockwood. Particularly in light of what we’ve discussed above, these two very different authors make for interesting counterpoints. Rooney’s prose is exceptionally readable; she crafts sentences, paragraphs, and whole novels so that they slip into the reader’s mind without friction. Lockwood, on the other hand, is a prose stylist with roots in poetry: her language can occasionally do cartwheels, but never without purpose, and more often than not it’s characterised by its economy. For what it’s worth — and because it’s nice to end on a positive note — at his best, Calder occasionally proves himself capable of something similar. Putting aside the over-long, overly complicated sentences that don’t say much, he can produce a formation that does a lot with a little: eg. ‘the baristas remembered her order but never her name’.

Films — I remain a David Leitch skeptic, but the trailer for Bullet Train was enough to pique my interest. Watching the movie however, my impression was that a) at 127 minutes, it outstays its welcome by perhaps half an hour; & b) it learns the wrong lessons from Guy Ritchie, who in turn (arguably) took the wrong things from Quentin Tarantino. The most irritating element — boy, I’m just a big, grumpy complainer this week — is the script’s hammering to death a metaphor / joke about Thomas the Tank Engine. Zak Olkewicz’s screenplay thinks this thread is clever, or funny, but it is very quickly (and then repeatedly) neither.

Don’t get me wrong, I had some fun with the movie, but (particularly in the latter half) I found myself making unfavourable comparisons to the simple charm of Gore Verbinski’s The Mexican (2001).

Anti-grump positive note — this week I also watched some good films: The Lost Boys (1987) for an episode of my podcast1; The Godfather Part II (1974) because I made a deal; and Mia Hansen-Løve’s Bergman Island (2021).

Games — OK, enough complaints. I am, however, going to permit myself the following (brief) inclusion because it’s actually more of an observation. This week I played through a new game from one of my favourite publishers: Annapurna Interactive.

Hindsight is a linear narrative experience with very light interactive elements. With a simple but evocative art style, and through some really effective manipulation of vantage in its 3D spaces, it tells the story of a woman’s complicated relationship with her mother. The whole thing lasts approximately 2 hours, and here’s my note: maybe don’t play it in a single setting, as I did.

For some reason that I couldn’t precisely define, the tone of the game began to wear on me a little as time went on, in a way that it doesn’t with tonally similar works of film that have a comparable duration: Terrence Mallick’s Tree of Life (2011) is the first to mind. Perhaps it’s something about the active engagement of interactive fiction, as versus the comparably passive engagement of watching a movie? Whatever the case: Hindsight is well executed, but perhaps take a cue from its use of chapter markers, and play it in smaller pieces.

• • •

Hey Adam, how about we keep the bullets upbeat and fun? You got it:

• look at this beautiful canopy structure by Olafur Eliasson — a wonderful marriage of complexity (832 panels in a riot of colours), and simplicity (a single, smooth conical form);

• even as someone who occasionally runs a kind of book club, I find the idea of this one in Buenos Aires, equal parts fascinating and off-putting;

• one of my most-anticipated films is set to open the New York Film Festival next month;

• my newsletter-writing hero — Craig Mod — is set to run a short pop-up newsletter starting tomorrow: sign up here for one week’s worth of daily notes & photos from walks around Tokyo;

• speaking of Japan — music pick of the week: I’ve been enjoying a series of Japanese Jazz compilations from BBE Music.

That’s the whole enchilada for the most consistently too hot week of 2022 (right? has to be? right?). I leave you with nothing but good wishes for whatever the week ahead may bring you, and I hope to write to you again next weekend! (Editor’s note: my special lady friend has just arrived home, bringing me a flat white and a flapjack, so things are looking up already.)


— Adam

  1. Update: the podcast is on hiatus and has been archived  ↩︎