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Book Report: Inside Job

I suppose one of the things about being Connie Willis is that you can write a novella and have it published as a novel. I mean, Subterranean Press does call Inside Job a novella, more or less, but it still publishes the thing in hardback, all ninety-nine pages of it, all by its lonesome. My immediate comment, after finishing the thing, was that if it were in an anthology, it would probably be my favorite thing in it, but by itself it seems terribly light.

OK, a couple of inward-gazing concerns for Your Humble Blogger. First, a quick search of this Tohu Bohu leads me to believe that I have read no Connie Willis books for the last year and a half. Is this possible? This thing does appear to be her first new book since Passage, which I haven’t been tempted to re-read. It seems unlikely, though, that I haven’t re-read the magnificent and absorbing Doomsday Book, nor the lightly entertaining bathtub books Bellwether or To Say Nothing of the Dog, nor picked up any of the three short-story collections I own. Well, and if I hadn’t read Miracle and Other Christmas Stories by last December, it wasn’t terribly likely that I had picked it up since. Still, this whole business of logging what I read still has surprises for me.

Another connection to this Tohu Bohu that came to mind, although it’s possible that I am backing into memories in the wrong order, is that for all I dislike H.L. Mencken (who is, in a sense, a main character of Inside Job), I adore his magnificent and magniloquent style. My own ramblings are, as Gentle Readers have undoubtedly spotted and regretted, strongly influenced by Mr. Mencken’s prose habits, not only directly (and I have read only a few hundred pages of his stuff altogether, as his obnoxious opinions and mindset quickly turn me off) but through those writers most obviously influenced and liberated by his amazing towers of invective. Now, Mr. Mencken was a close contemporary of William Strunk, as has been pointed out by the Language Loggers, and it is unfortunate (in my arrogant opinion) that the panty-waisted lectern-lashing of Mr. Strunk, as passed along by his erstwhile student E.B. White, and as recently mentioned in this Tohu Bohu, has dominated fifty years of unnecessarily dreary prose. Mr. White approvingly describes Mr. Strunk’s work as an “attempt to cut the vast tangle of English rhetoric down to size” and I think that is what it has achieved, for the most part. For his own part, Mr. White (if I remember correctly) first pays lip service to the idea that there are different styles, and that different styles have different effects, and then tells his readers not to use adjectives and adverbs if they can help it. He ignores rhythm, and he ignores rhetorical tropes. He provides no advice or support for writing in any style other than an entirely fictional one, not his own, and furthermore, provides no real hope for any inexperienced reader to overcome his bad advice—as he explicitly states the writer must do.

Feh. I wrote a whole long note, even more mean-spirited than the above, all about the little book and its preposterousness, but it’s better off unposted. It will do no good to anyone. Talk about needless words. Nor do I want to tell any Gentle Reader who happens to use (judiciously) the advice contained in Elements of Style as part of their writing process that such application is always for the worse. It isn’t. Any writer with good judgment will find almost any rule useful simply as an ice pick to chisel away at flaws in the block. The power comes not from the pick but from the arm, exercised by the daily grind of reading, writing and criticizing (and somehow critiquing is more specific a word, unassailably legitimate, and yet so wine-and-cheesy that I prefer the more general one). Furthermore, the book is clearly the right tool for some jobs, for some people. My own preference for wordiness, for exuberance, for fire-spitting and ranting and digression and immoderation, for crazy Jenga-towers of clauses, for single-word sentences such as the one that begins this very paragraph, for slang and profanity and allusion and jest and the gooey drippy dangly muck of the half-baked, for metaphors mixed and mangled, for repetition and rhyme, alliteration, assonance and anaphora, for em-dashes and parentheses, for sentences like briar patches and cholla plants, for sentences like spikes and sandtraps, for all the magnificent tangle of English Rhetoric, built up to size, is just my own preference, and people are different one to another, and that is what makes the world interesting and fun.

Back to Ms. Willis, she clearly enjoys the opportunity to write as Mr. Mencken for a while, just as she enjoys playing at James M. Cain. I think it’s a trifle unfair of her to make out Mr. Mencken to be some sort of good guy, but then I suspect her of a tinge of the sort of vicious misanthropy that Mr. Mencken writes from. I wonder if anyone has compared this work to the recent movie Good Night and Good Luck, which also (as I understand, not having seen it) portrays a hero of journalism wartless and flawless, the better to contrast him with our own gutless and feckless crew.

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,


I suspect [Willis] of a tinge of the sort of vicious misanthropy that Mr. Mencken writes from.

I'm not the only one, then?

Oddly enough, it's only when she attempts humor or sentiment that I choke on the bitter subtext. When she makes no bones about it ("A Letter from the Clearys," f'rex) I respect her much more. "The Winds of Marble Arch?" Bellwether? Feh.

Quick comment on the novella thing: there've been a fair number of novellas published recently as standalone books by small sf presses. British small press PS Publishing in particular has done a bunch of these.

And no reason why they shouldn't, of course. There isn't anything special about novel-length books, even their length. I do find, just as a matter of habit, that the covers on a standalone novella are just too close together for me, but habits can change. Even Your Humble Blogger's.

And the thing about Bellwhether, which I quite enjoyed, is that the main character is clearly misanthropic, and it certainly appears that she is representing Ms. Willis in that, but she might not be, or she might be presenting an exaggerated version for (intended) comic effect. At any rate, at her worst she isn't anywhere near Mencken-scale nasty.


Interesting -- I wonder if I would have enjoyed Bellwhether after all if the main character of had struck me as "clearly misanthropic" instead of an everyday neutral protagonist with the standard ration of narrative approval. Then again, I didn't fall in love with A Confederacy of Dunces, either. Now there's a misanthropic protaganist.

Sure, Willis is no Mencken, but I'm less bothered by Mencken's misanthropy (at least what I've read of it) because though he represents himself as a voice of reason, he doesn't pretend to reasonability. And sometimes he even makes it funny in the bargain.

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