It’s a fairly straightforward question to ask, one which most literary scholars would be able to provide a halfway decent answer to based on their own readings. Ernest Hemingway, Samuel Beckett and Gertrude Stein more likely to use short words, James Joyce, Marcel Proust and Virginia Woolf using longer ones, the rest falling somewhere between the two extremes.
Most Natural Language Processing textbooks or introductions to quantitative literary analysis demonstrate how the most frequently occurring words in a corpus will decline at a rate of about 50%, i.e. the most frequently occurring term will appear twice as often as the second, which is twice as frequent as the third, and so on and so on. I was curious to see whether another process was at work for word lengths, and whether we can see a similar decline at work in modernist novels, or whether more ‘experimental’ authors visibly buck the trend. With some fairly elementary analysis in NLTK, and data frames over into R, I generated a visualisation which looked nothing like this one.*
In narrowing down the amount of authors I was going to plot, I did incline myself more towards authors that I thought would be more variegated, getting rid of the ‘strong centre’ of modernist writing, not quite as prosodically charged as Marcel Proust, but not as brutalist as Stein either. I also put in a couple of contemporary writers for comparison, such as Will Self and Eimear McBride.
As we can see, after the rather disconnected percentages of corpora that use one letter words, with McBride and Hemingway on top at around 25%, and Stein a massive outlier at 11%, things become increasingly harmonious, and the longer the words get, the more the lines of the vectors coalesce.
Self and Hemingway dip rather egregiously with regard to their use of two-letter words (which is almost definitely because of a mutual disregard for a particular word, I’m almost sure of it), but it is Stein who exponentially increases her usage of two and three letter words. As my previous analyses have found, Stein is an absolute outlier in every analysis.
By the time the words are ten letters long, true to form it’s Self who’s writing is the only one above 1%.
I have recently begun to experiment with Natural Language Processing to determine how particular words in modernist texts are correlated. I’m still getting my head around Python and NLTK, but so far I’m finding it much more user-friendly than similar packages in R.
Long-term I hope to graph these collocations in high-vector space, so that I can graph them, but for the moment, I’m interested in noting the prevalence of the term ‘young man’, Self and Baume being the only authors that have female adjective-noun phrases, and the usage of titles which convey particular social hierarchies; Joyce, Woolf and Bowen’s collocations are almost exclusively composed of these, as is Stein’s, with the clarifier that Stein’s appear shorn of their ‘Mr.’, ‘Miss.’ or ‘Doctor’.
Here’s all the collocations in the modernist corpus:
young man; robert jordan; new york; gertrude stein; old man; could see; henry martin; every one; years ago; first time; long time; hugh monckton; great deal; come back; david hersland; good deal; every day; edward colman; came back; alfred hersland
Canonical modernist texts:
young man; robert jordan; gertrude stein; henry martin; new york; every one; old man; could see; years ago; long time; hugh monckton; first time; great deal; david hersland; come back; good deal; every day; edward colman; alfred hersland; mr. bettesworth
fat controller; phar lap; von sasser; first time; per cent; could see; old man; one another; even though; years ago; new york; front door; young man; either side; someone else; dave rudman; last night; living room; steering wheel; every time
frau mann; nora said; english girl; someone else; long ago; leaned forward; london bridge; come upon; could never; god knows; doctor said; sweet sake; first time; five francs; terrible thing; francis joseph; hôtel récamier; orange blossoms; bowed slightly; would say
kentish town; someone else; first time; last night; jesus christ; something else; years ago; five minutes; every day; hail mary; take care; next week; arms around; never mind; every single; little girl; little boy; two years; soon enough; come back
mrs kerr; lady waters; mrs heccomb; major brutt; mme fisher; lady naylor; miss fisher; good deal; said mrs; first time; lady elfrida; one another; young man; colonel duperrier; aunt violet; last night; ann lee; one thing; sir robert; sir richard
robert jordan; old man; could see; colonel said; gran maestro; catherine said; jordan said; richard gordon; long time; pilar said; thou art; pablo said; nick said; bill said; girl said; captain willie; young man; automatic rifle; mr. frazer; david said
F. Scott FitzGerald
new york; young man; years ago; first time; sally carrol; several times; fifth avenue; ten minutes; minutes later; richard caramel; thousand dollars; five minutes; young men; evening post; old man; next day; saturday evening; long time; last night; come back
gertrude stein; every one; david hersland; alfred hersland; angry feeling; family living; independent dependent; jeff campbell; julia dehning; mrs. hersland; daily living; whole one; bottom nature; madeleine wyman; good deal; mary maxworthing; middle living; miss mathilda; mabel linker; every day
buck mulligan; said mr.; martin cunningham; aunt kate; says joe; mary jane; corny kelleher; ned lambert; mrs. kearney; stephen said; mr. henchy; ignatius gallaher; father conmee; nosey flynn; mr. kernan; myles crawford; cissy caffrey; ben dollard; mr. cunningham; miss douce
young man; faubourg saint-germain; long ago; caught sight; first time; every day; one day; great deal; des laumes; young men; could see; quite well; next day; one another; would never; nissim bernard; victor hugo; would say; louis xiv; long time
said camier; said mercier; miss counihan; lord gall; miss carridge; mr. kelly; panting stops; said belacqua; mr. endon; said wylie; said neary; one day; otto olaf; dr. killiecrankie; come back; vast stretch; mrs gorman; push pull; something else; ground floor
even though; tawny bay; living room; old man; passenger seat; bird walk; maggot nose; shut-up-and-locked room; stone fence; food bowl; lonely peephole; low chair; old woman; kennel keeper; rearview mirror; shih tzu; shore wall; safe space; every day; oneeye oneeye
miss barrett; mrs. ramsay; mrs. hilbery; young man; st. john; could see; years ago; peter walsh; mrs. thornbury; miss allan; said mrs.; young men; mrs. swithin; human beings; wimpole street; mrs. flushing; mr. ramsay; mrs. manresa; sir william; door opened
new york; per cent; eliza lynch; dear friend; years old; even though; first time; came back; years ago; long time; michael weiss; señor lópez; living room; every time; looked like; could see; one day; said constance; pat madigan; mrs hanratty
fat controller; phar lap; von sasser; one another; old man; could see; first time; per cent; dave rudman; let alone; front door; young man; skip tracer; quantity theory; jane bowen; los angeles; young woman; either side; charing cross; long since
father fahrt; good fairy; father cobble; said shanahan; mrs crotty; said furriskey; said lamont; mrs laverty; one thing; sergeant fottrell; said slug; old mathers; public house; far away; cardinal baldini; monsignor cahill; mrs furriskey; red swan; black box; said shorty
Ford Madox Ford
henry martin; hugh monckton; edward colman; privy seal; mr. bettesworth; mr. fleight; young man; mr. sorrell; sergius mihailovitch; young lovell; new york; jeanne becquerel; lady aldington; kerr howe; anne jeal; miss peabody; mr. pett; great deal; marie elizabeth; robert grimshaw
Jorge Luis Borges
ts’ui pên; buenos aires; pierre menard; eleventh volume; richard madden; nils runeberg; yiddische zeitung; stephen albert; hundred years; erik lönnrot; firing squad; henri bachelier; madame henri; orbis tertius; vincent moon; paint shop; seventeenth century; anglo-american cyclopaedia; fergus kilpatrick; years ago
mrs. travers; mrs verloc; mrs. fyne; peter ivanovitch; doña rita; miss haldin; mrs. gould; assistant commissioner; charles gould; san tomé; chief inspector; years ago; captain whalley; could see; van wyk; old man; dr. monygham; gaspar ruiz; young man; mr. jones
young man; st. mawr; mr. may; mrs. witt; blue eyes; miss frost; could see; one another; mrs bolton; ‘all right; come back; said alvina; two men; of course; good deal; long time; mr. george; next day
uncle buck; aleck sander; miss reba; years ago; dewey dell; mrs powers; could see; white man; four years; old man; ned said; division commander; general compson; miss habersham; new orleans; uncle buddy; let alone; one another; united states; old general
My PhD research will involve arguing that there has been a resurgence of modernist aesthetics in the novels of a number of contemporary authors. These authors are Anne Enright, Will Self, Eimear McBride and Sara Baume. All these writers have at various public events and in the course of many interviews, given very different accounts of their specific relation to modernism, and even if the definition of modernism wasn’t totally overdetermined, we could spend the rest of our lives defining the ways in which their writing engages, or does not engage, with the modernist canon. Indeed, if I have my way, this is what I will spend a substantial portion of my life doing.
It is not in the spirit of reaching a methodology of greater objectivity that I propose we analyse these texts through digital methods; having begun my education in statistical and quantitative methodologies in September of last year, I can tell you that these really afford us no *better* a view of any text then just reading them would, but fortunately I intend to do that too.
This cluster dendrogram was generated in R, and owes its existence to Matthew Jockers’ book Text Analysis with R for Students of Literature, from which I developed a substantial portion of the code that creates the output above.
What the code is attentive to, is the words that these authors use the most. When analysing literature qualitatively, we tend to have a magpie sensibility, zoning in on words which produce more effects or stand out in contrast to the literary matter which surrounds it. As such, the ways in which a writer would use the words ‘the’, ‘an’, ‘a’, or ‘this’, tends to pass us by, but they may be far more indicative of a writer’s style, or at least in the way that a computer would be attentive to; sentences that are ‘pretty’ are generally statistically insignificant.
Every corpus that you can see in the above image was scanned into R, and then run through a code which counted the number of times every word was used in the text. The resulting figure is called the word’s frequency, and was then reduced down to its relative frequency, by dividing the figure by total number of words, and multiplying the result by 100. Every word with a relative frequency above a certain threshold was put into a matrix, and a function was used to cluster each matrix together based on the similarity of the figures they contained, according to a Euclidean metric I don’t fully understand.
The final matrix was 21 X 57, and compared these 21 corpora on the basis of their relative usage of the words ‘a’, ‘all’, ‘an’, ‘and’, ‘are’, ‘as’, ‘at’, ‘be’, ‘but’, ‘by’, ‘for’, ‘from’, ‘had’, ‘have’, ‘he’, ‘her’, ‘him’, ‘his’, ‘I’, ‘if’, ‘in’, ‘is’, ‘it’, ‘like’, ‘me’, ‘my’, ‘no’, ‘not’, ‘now’, ‘of’, ‘on’, ‘one’, ‘or’, ‘out’, ‘said’, ‘she’, ‘so’, ‘that’, ‘the’, ‘them’, ‘then’, ‘there’, ‘they’, ‘this’, ‘to’, ‘up’, ‘was’, ‘we’, ‘were’, ‘what’, ‘when’, ‘which’, ‘with’, ‘would’, and ‘you’.
Anyway, now we can read the dendrogram.
Speaking about the dendrogram in broad terms can be difficult for precisely the reason that I indicative above; quantitative/qualitative methodologies for text analysis are totally opposed to one another, but what is obvious is that Eimear McBride and Gertrude Stein are extreme outliers, and comparable only to each other. This is one way unsurprising, because of the brutish, repetitive styles and is in other ways very surprising, because McBride is on record as dismissing her work, for being ‘too navel-gaze-y.’
Jorge Luis Borges and Marcel Proust have branched off in their own direction, as has Sara Baume, which I’m not quite sure what to make of. Franz Kafka, Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner have formed their own nexus. More comprehensible is the Anne Enright, Katherine Mansfield, D.H. Lawrence, Elizabeth Bowen, F. Scott FitzGerald and Virginia Woolf cluster; one could make, admittedly sweeping judgements about how this could be said to be modernism’s extreme centre, in which the radical experimentalism of its more revanchiste wing was fused rather harmoniously with nineteenth-century social realism, which produced a kind of indirect discourse, at which I think each of these authors excel.
These revanchistes are well represented in the dendrogram’s right wing, with Flann O’Brien, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett and Djuna Barnes having clustered together, though I am not quite sure what to make of Ford Madox Ford/Joseph Conrad’s showing at all, being unfamiliar with the work.
The basic rule in interpreting dendrograms is that the closer the ‘leaves’ reach the bottom, the more similar they can be said to be. Therefore, Anne Enright and Will Self are the contemporary modernists most closely aligned to the forebears, if indeed forebears they can be said to be. It would be harder, from a quantitative perspective, to align Sara Baume with this trend in a straightforward manner, and McBride only seems to correlate with Stein because of how inalienably strange their respective prose styles are.
The primary point to take away here, if there is one, is that more investigations are required. The analysis is hardly unproblematic. For one, the corpus sizes vary enormously. Borges’ corpus is around 46 thousand words, whereas Proust reaches somewhere around 1.2 million. In one way, the results are encouraging, Borges and Barnes, two authors with only one texts in their corpus, aren’t prevented from being compared to novelists with serious word counts, but in another way, it is pretty well impossible to derive literary measurements from texts without taking their length into account. The next stage of the analysis will probably involve breaking the corpora up into units of 50 thousand words, so that the results for individual novels can be compared.
A book that I’m looking forward to reading, that doesn’t exist yet, is an academic account of how Irish contemporary fiction went, in such a short space of time, from social realism, to the precociously sentenced art writing with dissociative narrators that now composes the Irish literary milieu. It’s the sort of thing that was probably brewing for a long time, these trends tend to be, but I first became aware of it when Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing was published in 2013. It caused a bit of stir in the literary press at the time, for its supposed uncompromising experimentalism, and its fraught, J.K. Rowling-esque publication history. Critics compared it to Marcel Proust or Samuel Beckett, but I don’t think there was a single review that didn’t mention James Joyce.
In the works of Sara Baume, Joanna Walsh or Claire-Louise Bennett, there are certainly comparisons to be made along these lines, but I think McBride is the novelist of the current generation who is suffering most egregiously under these comparisons. This leads to a kind of distortion that McBride has spoken about recently, saying that it’s ‘a way of not being seen’. Claire Lowdon, writing on McBride’s prose style in Areté, has used the Joyce comparisons as a way of demeaning the novel’s experimental qualities, saying that they are ‘redundant’ and ‘artificial’:
Having invoked Joyce, Joyce has to be McBride’s standard. She has taken all the difficulty and none of the brilliance.
Lowdon’s reading is important and thorough, but I have problems with it. The most significant one being that I think it’s nonsensical to say that just because a work is in some way formally indebted to Joyce has to be 1) as good, 2) as innovative and 3) as good and as innovative in exactly the same ways. I think it’s a very strange point to make that we should benchmark a writer relative to their influences , particularly when this is a comparison furthered more by the laziness of critics than something that McBride has taken upon herself. It’s also inadequate to assume McBride and Joyce’s modernisms are coterminous; I happen to think that they’re rather distinct in a number of significant ways.
Firstly, it’s clear that A Girl is more formally aligned with the Wake than with Ulysses, but taken relative to the former, A Girl manifests far less attention to the materiality of language. In A Girl, there’s less puns, there’s less references, there’s less leitmotifs. It’s also possible to make sense of A Girl without reference to other works. But it’s a mistake to regard this as McBride’s failure to live up to her twentieth century modernist aesthetics. An example from the novel’s opening that Lowdon cites reads as follows:
For you. You’ll soon. You’ll give her name. In the stitches of her skin she’ll wear your say. Mammy me? Yes you. Bounce the bed I’d say. I’d say that’s what you did. Then lay you down. They cut you round. Wait and hour and day.
‘Wait and hour and day’, carries with it the vague association with the phrase ‘a year and a day’ but it doesn’t strictly make sense in that context, there’s no clear reason for the semantic distortion. But there’s also no requirement that there is, nor that it add up to some enormous mythic framework in the same way that the Wake does. I think that once we approach the novel from this position, one which takes account of McBride’s actual concerns, we’ll be able to come to a more sophisticated understanding that doesn’t amount to downgrading her because of her perceived inadequacy in relation to Joyce.
By her own admission McBride retains an interest in nineteenth century novels with less self-consciousness about their language or processes of meaning-making. She has cited the work of the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky as significant, particularly as an example of proto-modernism, or modernism in a nascent stage of its development, wherein human intersubjectivity was beginning to make itself known within the novel while the tenets of realistic fiction was still trying to accommodate it. Being aware of the fact that The Lesser Bohemians is not the novel under discussion, it’s important to note the way in which it demonstrates this interplay. Within the context of what has been referred to by the author as a ‘modernist monologue’ there is a very sensationalistic narrative in which a character lays out their life story in a very direct and straightforward manner in the same way that you might find extended and directly rendered narratives nested within nineteenth century novels. McBride has said that this is a very deliberate formal mechanic which is pertinent to the text’s thematic concerns, as it is a novel about relating to another person in spite of one’s traumatic past:
In the end you tell a person and you have to use the words that they’ll understand.
What makes McBride’s modernism distinct then, is the centrality it gives to the conveying of narrative information, deploying it as a means of bringing the reader closer to
physical experience, to write about the female experience…the reader can partake in the experience.
McBride has said that the language of A Girl, was written in a way that would create a physical experience for the reader, an immediacy on the page that is reminiscent of theatre. She’s expressed frustration at the content of many of her reviews which have emphasised the quality of the language at the expense of the novel’s content, which she regards as very significant. This stands in contrast to the tradition of the Wake or other modernist works famed for their unintelligibility, such as Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans: Being a History of a Family’s Progress is a novel that she has spoken about dismissively for being ‘too navel-gaze-y.’
This stated interest in what the book is ‘about’ and a reader-centric ethic, is I think at least a partial reversal of expectations within the modernist tradition. McBride’s modernism is therefore conceptualised, not as a constructed textual estrangement from reality, but an attempt to bring it closer, to a dwelling-place of authentic being. Not that it’s likely to close off such comparisons in the future.
Aspiration: 50/50 gender & POC split (currently at a lame and terrible 20% and 0% respectively)
Samuel Beckett — How It Is
Reaching the conclusion that How It Is represents Beckett’s prose writing reaching its most concentrated point of distillation and intensity is somewhat inevitable, seeing as it was his last novel; the longest prose work subsequent to How It Is barely reaches the length of a novella, almost as if the weight of the novelistic tradition, a form known for its expansiveness and maximalism, couldn’t withstand Beckett’s striving towards a more hermetic and taciturn literature.
Having said this, I don’t wish to fetishise How It Is for its its impecuniousness alone, for there are plenty of sections in which traditionally pretty descriptive prose appears:
we are on a veranda smothered in verbena the scented sun dapples the red tiles yes I assure you the huge head hatted with birds and flowers is bowed down over my curls the eyes burn with severe love I offer her mine pale upcast to the sky whence cometh our help and which I know perhaps even then with time shall pass away
The ‘yes I assure you’ is demonstrative of How It Is’ overriding push/pull dynamic, in advancing an almost sickly description, almost reminiscent of Keats alongside its subverting narrative commentary. But this doesn’t deaden the effect of the writing, just as setting imagery of abject ugliness and inhumanity amid these lyrical digressions intensifies the effects of both:
as it comes bits and scraps all sorts not so many and to conclude happy end cut thrust DO YOU LOVE ME no or nails armpit and little song to conclude happy end of part two leaving only part three and last the day comes I come to the day Bom comes YOU BOM me Bom ME BOM you Bom we Bom
2. Jorge Luis Borges — Labyrinths
In talking about the short story’s as one of the more concentrated literary forms, one in which space is at a premium, and there can’t be too many words that don’t belong there, I think the work of Jorge Luis Borges is most deserving of mention. No other writer that I’m aware of is capable in under five hundred words of totally challenging the ways in which you think, how you think about how you think, and how you think about how you think about how you think. His capacity to do so through use of a style that is predominantly unadorned and perhaps uninviting makes him all the more fit to be praised.
Since ‘On Exactitude in Science’ is the length of just one paragraph, I’ll present it here:
In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.
At the premium of literary art is its capacity to open up entire worlds with just words on a page. For those who believe world-building to be a preserve of genre fiction only, I encourage them to read Borges.
3. J.M. Coetzee — Waiting for the Barbarians
The allegory, and playing with the conventions around allegory, is a way in which Coetzee’s writing career in its entirety has been characterised by critics, but it might be a line of interpretation advanced too tenuously; it might be more accurate to say that his novels reflect a radical scepticism regarding narrative itself; an unwillingness to confront anything directly. In the Heart of the Country is one of the most deft examples of metafiction I’ve ever come across, and in its refusal to fix its plot around any one sequence of events, we see a narrative force that is as congenial to the forces of its unmaking as its genesis.
Waiting for the Barbarians is more contained than In the Heart of the Country in this sense, but in no other. That it has parallels to South African society under apartheid will surprise no one familiar with the rich literary tradition of that political milieu of the past fifty years, but it has also an uncanny capacity to encompass and seemingly respond to the nature of racial prejudice and ethnically-based in general. I was so sure that it was a product of the Bush years, so I Googled it to find out whether it was written in 2007 or 2005, only to discover that it was published in 1980. Not to turn my ignorance into a virtue, but I think this speaks to its universality.
Which is not to say that the narrative entire is grounded in geopolitics — in the colonial administrator’s love affair with one of the supposed barbarians, we are permitted to meditate on the unknowability of any love object, and by extension ourselves, how ‘In all of us, deep down, there seems to be something granite and unteachable.’
4. Don DeLillo — Underworld
To write a Great American Novel has, thankfully, become rather passé, after feminist critics drew attention to how unusual it is for a female author to be feted with this title. The liberal commentariat’s realisation that they have committed the error of elevating Jonathan Franzen to the role of cultural commentator. Underworld, I would say, is one of the few published in recent years that’s worth reading, for the reason that it is a novel about America that won’t allow real life in.
Underworld is a novel supposedly about baseball, the lost era of old New York, the faux-simplicity of the Cold War, and yet there is nothing ordinary, white bread or milquetoast about the America in this novel; the closest we get to a ‘nuclear’ family is the most distorted and unsettling sections in the text.
It is a novel about subterranean connections and invisible intersections. As you read it, you may find yourself compulsively noticing, drawing analogies, knowing that you’re missing others that only reveal themselves the second time around. This is Underworld’s underworld; more so than many other novels from the time, it is pointing you again and again to what is beyond the page, to what’s beneath the words. You could go mental doing it, wonder why some chapters would be more aptly named with the title that a different chapter has, in what precise order the baseball passes from one character to another, which I suppose is only fitting for a novel in which a baseball is semi-seriously analogous to the famous magic bullet. But for once, I’d encourage any potential reader not to spend their time trying to read past Underworld, not when the prose is this good.
Civilisation did not rise and flourish as men hammered out hunting scenes on bronze gates and whispered philosophy under the stars, with garbage as a noisome offshoot, swept away and forgotten. No, garbage rose first, inciting people to build a civilisation in response, in self-defense.
5. Anne Enright — The Green Road
Enright is one of those few authors that refuses to write the same book twice, and never makes you regret it. Because there is, as publishers well know, a great seductive quality in becoming used to one writing style. Many authors who are too protean, simply do not catch on in a crowded marketplace. Well Enright is interested, and is good at, change. This is how she can move from the hilariously picaresque and surreal The Wig my Father Wore through the tortured monologue of The Gathering to an adept Irish family novel about land, which one could almost call realist, so subtle is the indirect discourse which drives it.
Enright is a deeply intellectual author, but unlike many book-readin’ writers, her ideas exists beneath the surface of the words, just gestured towards, to be decoded on repeated readings. For first readings, just allow the sentences to do their thing. You could read The Green Road all the way through and have no notion of the fact that its in conversation with William Shakespeare’s King Lear. You wouldn’t want to, of course, but you could.
It is a novel of many parts. Each of Rosaleen Madigan’s children get their own section and so the novel roves from Clare to New York to Mali and back, before they are all assembled for the set piece of the Christmas dinner. I really can’t emphasise enough how well this is done. It is in the novel’s closing sections that the function behind its structure becomes clear, in seeing exactly where these people are coming from, their ambivalence regarding their role in the family before their adult lives, then watching those roles slowly overcome them is great, hilarious and sad. A novel with characters you care about, things to say and great writing is too rare, which makes The Green Road all the more valuable.
6. William Faulkner — As I Lay Dying
7. David Foster Wallace — Infinite Jest
David Foster Wallace might be said to be undergoing his D.H. Lawrence moment, in having his reputation defined for too long by a reading community of dudey-bro-y dudebro brodudes, and y’know, to look at his representations of women, here and in The Pale King, not to mention his opinions, or life, it can be hard to say his books don’t deserve scrutiny. It is slightly disappointing all the same to see an author who, among the authors of phallogocentric literary fiction, to be tarred as such, considering he’s among the most giving of them. Infinite Jest apportions its fun about twenty per cent more generously than your average example of the genre, and reading about eschaton is about as much fun as you can have with your eyes open.
Its flaws, the sections dealing with the Québecois separatists, the exposition-laden conversations between Hal Incandenza and his older brother Orin, don’t totally come good in the end, but the unavoidable ambivalence one develops when reading a novel Infinite Jest’s length and ambition, is a feature, rather than a bug. As in any important relationship, the challenge is what matters.
So give yourself the chance to read it. It’s more than readable, and far more interesting than Foster Wallace’s persona as it has been construed in the pop-culture landscape since his death; as an icon, he simply cannot compare with the questions that his work throws up.
8. William Gaddis — The Recognitions
William Gaddis’ The Recognitions is a very conflicted novel. It is a profoundly generative work, one which may have given us every maximalist, encyclopaedic 500+ page text in contemporary American letters since, and it is also a profoundly angry text, one which lashes out at everything: organised religion, the commodification of great art, the hyper-mediation of our reality via advertising, the complacently bourgeois creative class, all these and more are targets of Gaddis’ ire.
However, it is also a novel based on profound erudition and cultural awareness. Its most proximate literary cousin is Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time and just as gallantly as Proust does, Gaddis manages to balance many portentous thematic concerns with Being, death and sex, alongside a vibrant social comedy. If I had to guess, I would say about sixty-five percent of it is spent convincing the reader how shallow the hipsters of 1950’s New York are.
And of course, the sentences are very powerful
Undisciplined lights shone through the night instructed by the tireless precision of the squads of traffic lights, turning red to green, green to red, commanding voids with indifferent authority: for the night outside had not changed, with the whole history of night bound up inside it had not become better or worse, fewer lights and it was darker, less motion and it was more empty, more silent, less perturbed, and like the porous figures which continued to move against it, more itself.
It can often be a struggle, Jonathan Franzen tried, and mostly failed to deal with it (in a public article no less), but the bonus of my edition is a foreword by William H. Gass himself, who provides us with a great key to the work, as well as a get-out clause, should we find it too difficult:
No great book is explicable, and I shall not attempt to explain this one. An explanation…would defile it, for reduction is precisely what a work of art opposes…Interpretation replaces the original with the lamest sort of substitute. It tames, disarms.
9. William H. Gass — The Tunnel
10. James Joyce — Ulysses
I was once challenged to sum up a novel’s plot in six words, and for Ulysses, my attempt was ‘2 sad men meet. a woman thinks.’ This is a perfect example of how, when it comes to summing up Ulysses, its hard to know where to begin. Humour, bathos, beauty, poetry, history, love, death, family, sex, great writing, it has everything you could ever want.
I won’t contest that it’s a grower, and if you come to it fresh (‘fresh’ in this case meaning, having read Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which will be necessary), expect to find yourself moving your eyes over large tracts of text without quite knowing exactly what’s happening. Reading aloud helps.
For those who may be used to more genre fare, there are sections for you too, there’s an episode written in the manner of a nineteenth-century romance novel, and while the line attributed to Joyce about enigmas codified into the text in sufficient quantities to keep the professors busy for hundreds of years is definitely apocryphal, what it tells us about the novel is definitely true — the novel is so dense with allusion, red herrings and unresolved questions that you’ll find yourself in the role of a sort of detective, which, is not a wholly inappropriate tack to take with Ulysses, since Joyce designed his one day in Dublin with meticulous attention to detail, his notes on how long it takes to walk down particular stretches of urban walkways, or the businesses Bloom encounters in his perambulations, were all derived from sources, and correspondences with people Joyce contacted in Dublin. A staggering work, everyone should make time for it.
11. Ben Marcus — The Flame Alphabet
12. Flann O’Brien — The Third Policeman
13. Marcel Proust — In Search of Lost Time
The term ‘baggy monster’, so often applied to the novel, is a rather ingenious one, as it captures a central ambivalence regarding the form in relation to itself. Both terms can be read negatively, in fact, they are perhaps more on the negative end of the spectrum than not, but taken together there’s something alluring about it, particularly when you have come to know, over the course of reading many of them, how successful a novel can be in reaching for exactly the kind of excess that ‘good taste’ might seem to advise against. Well there’s plenty baggy and monstrous in Proust’s seven volume work In Search of Lost Time, but, as much as it could be said to be in need of an editor, its vices are perhaps indissociable from its virtues.
And this is itself a virtue. What other work of fiction can be so assuming as to impose itself on you 1,267,069 words? Well it isn’t for no reason, and a close reading of fin-de-siecle French bourgeois culture next to the metaphysician Bergson is more than worth the time you’d spend on it. Yes, it is occasionally tedious, and seemingly repetitive, but you’re unlikely to come away from Proust without recognising yourself in at least a few of the characters, nor coming to some disturbing conclusions regarding the way you live your life. Write down your definitions of habit, love and time before getting into these novels. It’s unlikely they’ll have remained intact in your journey through these texts.
But don’t come to it with a pious reverence. James Grieve, a translator of À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs, writes in his introduction to the second volume that
Proust’s reflections, his enunciation of philosophical and psychological truths…are often more importance to him than his verisimilitudes. His composition was often not linear; he wrote in bits and pieces; transitions from one scene to another are sometimes awkward, clumsy even…His paragraphing often seems idiosyncratic.
Far from being a virtuoso of words, or a fluent weaver of imaginative reality, Proust is in many ways inept, or amateurish, and it is in this way that we should appreciate him; the idiosyncrasies are what make In Search of Lost Time such a brilliantly bizarre novel.
14. Thomas Pynchon — Gravity’s Rainbow
15. J.D. Salinger — The Catcher in the Rye
Yes, I know, I should definitely have grown out of thinking this novel is great. Well, every time I’ve gotten back to it, convinced that this time, this time, I’ll realise that I am an adult, and that Holden Caulfield is an annoying idiot, and The Catcher in the Rye is a novel for teenagers, well, it doesn’t happen, and I could read him a hundred novels with him just going about his business, being judgemental and obnoxious inside his own head forever and ever. My liking him is somewhat beside the point, and perhaps proves my immaturity, so I’ll try to deal with why these critics are wrong, for the fact that they seem to miss the rather big reveal at the end that Holden’s been institutionalised, and the oscillation between two different periods of time in his narrative; a representation of his thoughts in the moment and his recollection, attest further to his divided state of mind. It’s a bit odd to hear literary critics condemn him so roundly when his curmudgeonly attitude surely doesn’t lack for a cause.
It’s a great testament to Salinger’s skill as a writer that the surface level of the text, a brash, abusive narrator, can seem so available, that going any deeper into it would seem wrongheaded, but I think he, like all unreliable narrators, provides you with a clue up front. The novel begins, after all, with an act of self-censorship, an invocation to silence, as Holden refuses to provide a holistic appraisal of his self or his place in the world, something that he dismisses as “all that David Copperfield kind of crap.”
I: Things Wrong with my Dissertation’s Methodology
For my masters, I wrote a 20000 word dissertation, which took as its subject, an empirical analysis of the works of Samuel Beckett. I had a corpus of his entire works with the exception of his first novel Dream of Fair to Middling Women, which is a forgivable lapse, because he ended up cannibalising it for his collection of short stories, More Pricks than Kicks.
Quantitative literary analysis is generally carried out in one of two ways, through either one of the open-source programming languages Python or R. The former you’ve more likely to have heard of, being one of the few languages designed with usability in mind. The latter, R, would be more familiar to specialists, or people who work in the social sciences, as it is more obtuse than Python, doesn’t have many language cousins and has a very unfriendly learning curve. But I am attracted to difficulty, so I am using it for my PhD analysis.
I had about four months to carry out my analysis, so the idea of taking on a programming language in a self-directed learning environment was not feasible, particularly since I wanted to make a good go at the extensive body of secondary literature written on Beckett. I therefore made use of a corpus analysis tool called Voyant. This was a couple of years ago, so this was before its beta release, when it got all tricked out with some qualitative tools and a shiny new interface, which would have been helpful. Ah well. It can be run out of any browser, if you feel like giving it a look.
My analysis was also chronological, in that it looked at changes in Beckett’s use of language over time, with a view to proving the hypothesis that he used a less wide vocabulary as his career continued, in pursuit of his famed aesthetic of nothingness or deprivation. As I wanted to chart developments in his prose over time, I dated the composition of each text, and built a corpus for each year, from 1930–1987, excluding of course, years in which he just wrote drama, poetry, which wouldn’t be helpful to quantify in conjunction with one another. Which didn’t stop me doing so for my masters analysis. It was a disaster.
Uniqueness, the measurement used to quantify the general spread of Beckett’s vocabulary, was obtained by the generally accepted formula below:
unique word tokens / total words
There is a problem with this measurement, in that it takes no account of a text’s relative length. As a text gets longer, the likelihood of each word being used approaches 1. Therefore, a text gets less unique as it gets bigger. I have the correlations to prove it:
There have been various solutions proposed to this quandary, which stymies our comparative analyses, somewhat. One among them is the use of vectorised measurements, which plot the text’s declining uniqueness against its word count, so we see a more impressionistic graph, such as this one, which should allow us to compare the word counts for James Joyce’s novels, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and his short story collection, Dubliners.
All well and good for two or maybe even five texts, but one can see how, with large scale corpora, this sort of thing can get very incoherent very quickly. Furthermore, if one was to examine the numbers on the y-axis, one can see that the differences here are tiny. This is another idiosyncrasy of stylostatistical methods; because of the way syntax works, the margins of difference wouldn’t be regarded as significant by most statisticians. These issues relating to the measurement are exacerbated by the fact that ‘particles,’ the atomic structures of literary speech, (it, is, the, a, an, and, said, etc.) make up most of a text. In pursuit of greater statistical significance for their papers, digital literary critics remove these particles from their texts, which is another unforgivable that we do anyway. I did not, because I was concerned that I was complicit in the neoliberalisation of higher education. I also wrote a 4000 word chapter that outlined why what I was doing was awful.
The formula for ambiguity was arrived at by the following formula:
number of indefinite pronouns/total word count
I derived this measurement from Dr. Ian Lancashire’s study of the works of Agatha Christie, and counted Beckett’s use of a set of indefinite pronouns, ‘everyone,’ ‘everybody,’ ‘everywhere,’ ‘everything,’ ‘someone,’ ‘somebody,’ ‘somewhere,’ ‘something,’ ‘anyone,’ ‘anybody,’ ‘anywhere,’ ‘anything,’ ‘no one,’ ‘nobody,’ ‘nowhere,’ and ‘nothing.’ Those of you who know that there are more indefinite pronouns than just these, you are correct, I had found an incomplete list of indefinite pronouns, and I assumed that that was all. This is just one of the many things wrong with my study. My theory was that there were to be correlations to be detected in Beckett’s decreasing vocabulary, and increasing deployment of indefinite pronouns, relative to the total word count. I called the vocabulary measure ‘uniqueness,’ and the indefinite pronouns measure I called ‘ambiguity.’ This in tenuous I know, indefinite pronouns advance information as they elide the provision of information. It is, like so much else in the quantitative analysis of literature, totally unforgivable, yet we do it anyway.
V: Hapax Richness
I initially wanted to take into account another phenomenon known as the hapax score, which charts occurrences of words that appear only once in a text or corpus. The formula to obtain it would be the following:
number of words that appear once/total word count
I believe that the hapax count would be of significance to a Beckett analysis because of the points at which his normally incompetent narrators have sudden bursts of loquaciousness, like when Molloy says something like ‘digital emunction and the peripatetic piss,’ before lapsing back into his ‘normal’ tone of voice. Once again, because I was often working with a pen and paper, this became impossible, but now that I know how to code, I plan to go over my masters analysis, and do it properly. The hapax score will form a part of this new analysis.
VI: Code & Software
A much more accurate way of analysing vocabulary, for the purposes of comparative analysis when your texts are of different lengths, therefore, would be to randomly sample it. Obviously not very easy when you’re working with a corpus analysis tool online, but far more straightforward when working through a programming language. A formula for representative sampling was found, and integrated into the code. My script is essentially a series of nested loops and if/else statements, that randomly and sequentially sample a text, calculate the uniqueness, indefiniteness and hapax density ten times, store the results in a variable, and then calculate the mean value for each by dividing the result by ten, the number of times that the first loop runs. I inputted each value into the statistical analysis program SPSS, because it makes pretty graphs with less effort than R requires.
I used SPSS’ box plot function first to identify any outliers for uniqueness, hapax density and ambiguity. 1981 was the only year which scored particularly high for relative usage of indefinite pronouns.
It should be said that this measure too, is correlated to the length of the text, which only stands to reason; as a text gets longer the relative incidence of a particular set of words will decrease. Therefore, as the only texts Beckett wrote this year, ‘The Way’ and ‘Ceiling,’ both add up to about 582 words (the fifth lowest year for prose output in his life), one would expect indefiniteness to be somewhat higher in comparison to other years. However, this doesn’t wholly account for its status as an outlier value. Towards the end of his life Beckett wrote increasingly short prose pieces. Comment C’est (How It Is) was his last novel, and was written almost thirty years before he died. This probably has a lot to do with his concentration on writing and directing his plays, but in his letters he attributed it to a failure to progress beyond the third novel in his so-called trilogy of Molloy, Malone meurt (Malone Dies) and L’innomable (The Unnamable). It is in the year 1950, the year in which L’inno was completed, that Beckett began writing the Textes pour rien (Texts for Nothing), scrappy, disjointed pieces, many of which seem to be taking up from where L’inno left off, similarly the Fizzlesand the Faux Départs. ‘The Way,’ I think, is an outgrowth of a later phase in Beckett’s prose writing, which dispenses the peripatetic loquaciousness and the understated lyricism of the trilogy and replaces it with a more brute and staccato syntax, one which is often dependent on the repetition of monosyllables:
No knowledge of where gone from. Nor of how. Nor of whom. None of whence come to. Partly to. Nor of how. Nor of whom. None of anything. Save dimly of having come to. Partly to. With dread of being again. Partly again. Somewhere again. Somehow again. Someone again.
Note also the prevalence of particle words, that will have been stripped out for the analysis, and the ways in which words with a ‘some’ prefix are repeated as a sort of refrain. This essential structure persists in the work, or at least the artefact of the work that the code produces, and hence of it, the outlier that it is.
From plotting all the values together at once, we can see that uniqueness is partially dependent on hapax density; the words that appear only once in a particular corpus would be important in driving up the score for uniqueness. While there could said to be a case for the hypothesis that Beckett’s texts get less unique, more ambiguous up until 1944, when he completed his novel Watt, and if we’re feeling particularly risky, up until 1960 when Comment C’est was completed, it would be wholly disingenuous to advance it beyond this point, when his style becomes far too erratic to categorise definitively. Comment C’est is Beckett’s most uncompromising prose work. It has no punctuation, no capitalisation, and narrates the story of two characters, in a kind of love, who communicate with one another by banging kitchen implements off another:
as it comes bits and scraps all sorts not so many and to conclude happy end cut thrust DO YOU LOVE ME no or nails armpit and little song to conclude happy end of part two leaving only part three and last the day comes I come to the day Bom comes YOU BOM me Bom ME BOM you Bom we Bom
I would love to say that the general tone is what my model is being attentive to, which is why it identified Watt and How It Is as nadirs in Beckett’s career but I think their presence on the chart is more a product of their relative length, as novels, versus the shorter pieces which he moved towards in his later career. Clearly, Beckett’s decision to write shorter texts, make this means of summing up his oeuvre in general, insufficient. Whatever changes Beckett made to his aesthetic over time, we might not need to have such complicated graphs to map, and I could have just used a word processor to find it — length. Bom and Pim aside, for whatever reason after having written L’inno none of Beckett’s creatures presented themselves to him in novelistic form again. The partiality of vision and modal tone which pervades the post-L’inno works demonstrates, I think far more effectively what is was that Beckett was ‘pitching’ for, a new conceptual aspect to his prose, which re-emphasised its bibliographic aspects, the most fundamental of which was their brevity, or the appearance of an incompleteness, by virtue of being honed to sometimes less than five hundred words.
The quantification of differing categories of words seems like a radical, and the most fun, thing to quantify in the analysis of literary texts, as the words are what we came for, but the problem is similar to one that overtakes one who attempts to read a literary text word by word by word, and unpack its significance as one goes: overdetermination. Words are kaleidoscopic, and the longer you look at them, the more threatening their darkbloom becomes, the more they swallow, excrete, the more alive they are, all round. Which is fine. Letting new things into your life is what it should be about, until their attendant drawbacks become clear, and you start to become ambivalent about all the fat and living things you have in your head. You start to wish you read poems instead, rather than novels, which make you go mad, and worse, start to write them. The point is words breed words, and their connections are too easily traced by computer. There’s something else about knowing that their exact correlations to a decimal point. They seem so obvious now.
I’ve been a fan of Dylan Moran’s stand-up for as far back as I can remember, since I saw his first stand-up special Monster. I think I was about twelve, and Moran’s misanthropic and depressive whimsy got lodged deep into my world view, and influenced me to try stand-up the few times that I did, aswell as slur the way I speak infinitesimally. I’m not sure if the way I speak now is my actual voice. I would obsessively Google clips in the hopes of finding bootleg gigs, as Moran has always been quite good modifying and improvising local and topical material unlikely to turn up in his one-hour specials, the best example of which is his commentary on the 2011 Irish presidential election in Roísin Dubh, Galway.
It was during one of these excursions into the vortex of ‘Related Videos’ that I turned up a radio play that Moran wrote for the BBC, entitled ‘The Expedition,’ in which the protagonist, Aidan Clarke, addressed his absent girlfriend Isabel, in a series of recordings. Their relationship seems to be reaching a breaking point, but nevertheless, Aidan updates Isabel on his progress on a hike with her brother Leonard, though, in the same manner of Eminem’s ‘Stan,’ it is uncertain how the protagonist will get the recordings will make it to her, and why also, he renders them episodically, if it is the case that he will play all of them to her when he returns from his hike.
I would be surprised if Moran didn’t have the drama of Samuel Beckett in mind here. The most obvious parallel is his 1958 play Krapp’s Last Tape, in which an ageing man, apparently a writer, pores over a directory of recordings that he has made on every one of his birthdays, and makes a new one. Rather than dwelling on the details which his young self imparts with most fervour, his aesthetic realisations about life, love, art and all that, Krapp is most interested in returning to recollections of his bygone sexual conquests. Krapp’s Last Tape is far more engaged with the medium in which the recordings are contained than Moran is; the only signal we have that what we are listening to is the imprint of a magnetic field is the click-click noise that each monologue begins with.
Like Krapp’s Last Tape, however, it does chart the decline of its protagonist, from getting nippy and passive aggressive with his partner to succumbing to psychosis and delusion in the play’s second half. Albeit psychosis with comedic intent. It is in these sections that the whimsy that characterises Moran’s act enters the play, the marrying of surreal situations, such encountering a camel in a blizzard on a mountain, with the quotidian experience of being a tourist out of water, trying to amiably make chat with a local. His increasingly choppy and erratic syntax, as well as his estrangement from conventionally expressed emotion may well recall Beckett’s later, scatty prose works: ’I want to say that I want to go home, the wind. The wind.’
It is a cliché generally observed in Irish comedy journalism that such acts driven by their loquaciousness and absurdist perspectives be compared to Flann O’Brien, in who’s writing we see similar things. And this is fine, Moran probably read him and I think Tommy Tiernan is a fan, but it ignores the fundamental aspect of stand-up, and what makes it a form worth discussing on its own terms; the performative element.
Moran’s comedy is primarily character-based; we respond to his material in ways that if another, more Apollo Theatre type stand-up were to make them, we wouldn’t, because he is, in a very short period of time, capable of conveying to an audience what kind of comedian he is. His coming onstage stage in Monster for example features a glass of wine, extravagant arm gestures, a half-hearted audience greeting, and a spot of bother with the mic stand.
This affectation of partial incompetence or world-weariness is what makes his observations on boozing and drugs in his first special, and his take on family life in his second and those thereafter so good. In the former we see that he’s probably the type to have partaken his fair share of intoxicants. In the second, the absurdity is compacted, as he hasn’t quite shaken off the image of the perpetually drunk sexily dishevelled raconteur. In saying so, I don’t demean character-based stand-up. Stand-up, as traditionally practiced, requires repetition of material, glossed with the illusion of spontaneity.
Flann O’Brien is a very different creature. I’ve sometimes been at odds with his current critical reputation, which seems to me to depend more on his columns than his novels, The Third Policeman, At-Swim-Two-Birds and An Béal Bocht. Seeing him as an anticipator of contemporary Irish stand-up seems to miss how withdrawn he is as an author from his work, how hermetic and alienating his writing style is. In The Third Policeman for example, the bicycles seem more animated than the allegedly human characters, who barely seem to have advanced beyond the sentience of Syngean automata. Fintan O’Toole has spoken well on this peculiar sense of rootlessness in O’Brien’s writing, and wondered how it is possible for such an archetypal postmodern stylist to emerge from a society which hadn’t quite entered modernity yet.
This impersonal note sounded in O’Brien’s fiction is almost antithetical to the notion of comedy as practiced by Moran, who’s stage persona manages to be vital, even when channeling Beckett.