The other day, I was reading a book and had to, every few pages, set down the book and mutter a curse.
“No one should be able to write this well this easy,” goes the abridged version.
The most horrible thing about being a writer, or trying to be, is that in order to have any chance at being a good one, you’ve got to read lots of good books and other really well-written stuff. And to do so is a continual process of being smashed in the nose with the realization you’ll never produce anything half as good or enduring as what you’re flitting your eyes across at the moment.
“Brazil” by John Updike (the curse-inspiring book) is widely considered one of his minor works, just another of the many novels he pumped out during his lifetime. It’s not an essential piece of writing in American canon like his novel “Rabbit, Run,” or his essay on Ted Williams’ last game, “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu” (I’ve read the essay; I’m still working on getting to the novel — or telling myself that I am).
So this thing, this nonessential work of late-career experimentation, is still full of sentences that are too completely marvelous to even want to try to take apart and analyze because it would be like chipping pieces off of the Mona Lisa to get a better look at the brush-strokes. And when I say, “full of sentences,” I really mean that there’s not a sentence that reads less than impressively good, and for that, not a sentence that reads unnecessary.
Just prior to “Brazil,” I read “All the Pretty Horses,” which is a love story that leaves the 16-year-old protagonist alone and heartbroken, and it’s still the most uplifting work I’m familiar with by Cormac McCarthy.
For those who don’t know him right off by name, he’s responsible for the book adapted faithfully into the Coen Brothers’ film “No Country for Old Men,” which, no matter how great of a movie it is, you never get an impulse to rewatch it. It’s never going to end any other way but with total despair.
He’s also responsible for “The Road,” which in summary sounds a lot like someone’s joke of what McCarthy would write. I once read it cover to cover in order to cheer me up after a breakup with a woman. It did.
“Well on the bright side, soon civilization could collapse, and we could all be dead.”
What sets the two writers apart is that McCarthy is really darn good at writing a story that can be repeated and retold in whole, and Updike writes sentences like he expects people to rediscover his works in parchment fragments 2,000 years from now, with any given paragraph capable of being a piece of pure art on its own. McCarthy is more than capable of doing the same thing, but when he devotes a paragraph to “boiling clouds of dust,” you’re left asking yourself if he’s writing it for you to read or himself to nod and stroke his chin over in self-satisfaction.
In either case, no one reading this column, including myself in revision, will ever put together a sentence that will be lifted forth in 100 years as an example of anything. And that’s OK: We read good things because they’re good; we write things because we hope they’ll have some worthwhile effect on their audience. Posterity is just one audience.
If there’s a moral to this column, and I’m not sure there is one, it’s that words are really beautiful things, and worth reading, and trying to write.