Friday, December 14, 2007

Quality Time (II)

Well, it's over. Today was the last day of classes for the year 2007. We'll have eight more days of semester one classes in January, then a week of exams, and start the second semester on the 22nd of January. But aside for some mopping up and some attempts at closure, it's basically game over. Most of my students are handing in their semester projects today. I've given them the option of handing them in when they get back, if they feel they need the extra time, but my recommendation has been that they get it in today so that they can enjoy the vacation without having the project hanging over them.

There's a passage about midway through Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance which Pirsig identifies as being a defining moment in his thinking: He's visiting the building in which he spent the early part of his teaching career, and he recalls a colleague, Sarah, who "came trotting by with her watering pot...going from the corridor to her office, and she said "I hope you are teaching Quality to your students." This is a la-de-da, singsong voice of a lady in her final year before retirement about to water her plants. That was the moment it all started. That was the seed crystal."

Much of the rest of the novel recounts Pirsig's pursuit of the what might be called the question of Quality: what it is, how you recognize it, how you produce it, how you teach it. It's a concept which has been much on my mind of late. I've spent a lot of hours in the last few weeks working with kids to help them produce work which has Quality. I've been talking with sophomores about their projects, with seniors about their projects, with other seniors about their college essays, and with the Ka Wai Ola staffers (that being our literary magazine, which we publish twice a year) about how to make sound judgments about the quality of the work that we choose to publish.

I've also been turning over in my mind quality discriminations in the reading I've been doing. A student brought Khaled Hosseini's A Thousand Splendid Suns to school last week and told me it was a book I should read, so I read it. It's an engrossing, if somewhat grim story, character-based, clearly written in a workmanlike manner. You can open the book more or less at random and see competently delivered action sequences like this:

Mariam turned one corner, then the other. She found the correct street but suddenly could not remember which was Rasheed's house. She ran up then down the street, panting, near tears now, began trying doors blindly. Some were locked, others opened only to reveal unfamiliar yards, barking dogs, and startled chickens. She pictured Rasheed coming home to find her still searching this way, her knee bleeding, lost on her own street. Now she did start crying. She pushed on doors, muttering panicked prayers, her face moist with tears, until one opened, and she saw, with relief, the outhouse, the well, the toolshed. She slammed the door behind her and turned the bolt. Then she was on all fours, next to the wall, retching. When she was done, she crawled away, sat against the wall, with her legs splayed before her. She had never in her life felt so alone.
This passage advances the narrative in very pragmatic way. It's cinemagraphic without being particularly artful; it evokes sympathy for the dilemma of the main character by drawing upon a fairly predictable array of imagistic options and culminating in a throwaway cliché: lost in the street, bleeding knee, throwing up, crawling away, feeling "so alone."

Hosseini has, I think, honorable ambitions. He's both a storyteller and an educator: he wants to portray for his readers the very real suffering that the citizens of Afghanistan, and, in this book, particularly the women of Afghanistan have undergone as a result of the belligerence and brutality of men driven by ignorance, greed, political and religious dogmatism, and lust for power and dominance. He is also attempting to answer some of the questions that the 9/11 attacks raised in the minds of most Americans: where did all this come from? What are the sources of this kind of religious and political fanaticism? These are worthwhile objectives, and clearly there is a ready work in this vein.

There are, however, three problems with what the way he goes about it. The first is that he's just not a very good writer. In the passage above, and in the rest of the book, there isn't much prose that is different stylistically or conceptually distinguishable from anything a competent high-school junior might not produce. The second is that he's simply too much in charge: he knows exactly what he's doing and where he's going, and the story has a paint-by-numbers feel to it, particularly at the end, which is uplifting and heartening in a way that seems calculated and, ultimately, false.

I had actually started reading Don DeLillo's Falling Man before Hosseini's book, and put it aside because I wanted to get the student's book back to her before the holiday break. Returning to DeLillo foregrounded for me the shortcomings of Hosseini's writing. Once again, more or less at random, here is a representative narrative passage:

He worked his way through the frozen zone, south and west, passing through smaller checkpoints and detouring around others. There was a Guard troop in battle jackets and sidearms and now and then he saw a figure in a dust mask, man or woman, obscure and furtive, the only other civilians. The street and cars were surfaced in ash and there were garbage bags stacked high at curbstones and against the sides of buildings. Everything was gray, it was limp and failed, storefronts behind corrugated steel shutters, a city somewhere else, under permanent siege, and a stink in the air that infiltrated the skin.
This passage also shows a character in distress on a street. It also is cinemagraphic, easy to visualize. What's different is the freshness of the imagery, the subtle and satisfying surprises embedded in almost every sentence: the street and cars "surfaced in ash," the city "limp and failed," the "stink in the air that infiltrated the skin." I can no more imagination Khaled Hosseini ending a sentence with a phrase like that than I can imagine 50 Cent singing an aria. The two novelists are inhabiting different realms insofar as Quality is concerned. One is a craftsman; one is an artist. One I read with interest; one I read with interest and appreciation and delight.

1 comment:

hawaiibren said...

hi bruce!
this was very thought-provoking analysis of the Hosseini's newest work. i really liked "Kite Runner" for the story, but "A Thousand Splendid Suns" fell flat for me during the first few chapters and i decided to return it to the library. Don DeLillo, however, is in a league of his own--a true American writer. "White Noise" remains one of my favorite American novels.

wishing you a happy holiday--you of all people deserve it.