Stripped down style

I’ve just finished reading Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. The novel won the Man Booker Prize and a host of other plaudits, so I thought it would be a worthwhile read. The book deals with the life of Thomas Cromwell, the no-nonsense chief minister in Henry VII’s court, and his relationships with the tudor nobility, the church and also his own family.
I enjoyed the novel, especially the natural tone of the dialogue and lack of literary tricks to highten the drama. The uncontrived nature of the story is probably helped by it being partly based on factual events. Too many novels are reverse engineered labyrinths where the author decides the endpoint and works backwards devising meandering paths for the protagonist, nudged on by contrived coincidences. It’s designed to keep the reader off-balance but feels unorganic after a while. Science fiction and fantasy writers are the worst for this: ‘our hero is in a tight spot! is this the end of his adventure? but wait, the sword of amulcar is glowing with energy!’. Every scenario has to have a recherché escape route, every enemy an achilles heel. The missile into the death star moment.
There are problems with Wolf Hall however. Many readers have pointed these problems out, and have sometimes been criticised for doing so. The main problem for the reader is getting lost, but not in the plot. Rather, it’s something more fundamental: the situation, the characters present, and who is speaking. Mantel seems to have made a conscious decision to largely strip away introductions of scene, character and dialogue. This means geographical location and cast are changed surreptitiously and you can be halfway down a page before you realise. Tracking dialogue is like reading a transcript of a real conversion being read out by a single person. This style helps with the flow of the prose as jarring cascades of ‘Mr Soandso said…’, , ‘Miss Thingy whimpered…’ etc can stultify the dialogue. It reminded me of the brutal style of ‘The Road’ by Cormac McCarthy. A style easy to admire but hard to love. The conversations are largely between only two characters in that novel, with one being a child, so it was impossible to lose track as to who is speaking.
A less serious problem is the portrayal of Cromwell himself. For many years he has been portrayed as a bit of a villain and a bully (e.g. A Man for all Seasons by Robert Bolt). Mantel seeks to redress this but describes him in terms of a quintessential modern humanist. He’s a bit too secular and irreligious for that period of time, in my opinion.
I’m looking foward to the next book in the series ‘Bringing up the Bodies’. There’s definite quality in Mantel’s writing and even the infuriating aspects add to its individuality.


the vocabulary of vacancies

There’s an old adage in reference to the workplace that says ‘if you can’t give a raise, give a title’. This ploy is often used for members of staff who feel they deserve monetary reward for their hard work, but could be placated with a (sometimes meaningless) upgraded job title. There could be a new adage for the recent trend of making the title of menial/mundane jobs sound more exciting than they are. Maybe ‘if the job’s shit, verjazzle it’. Maybe not. Here’s a few I’ve noticed in the past few weeks.

Pizza Artist – Dominos Pizza
I’m not sure what extent of artistic vision employees can create on a pizza for a customer. Maybe they can roll out a circular expanse of dough and then ride round it on a bicycle like Jackson Pollock freely scattering pepperoni and purée in abstract expression of their inner turmoil. Or maybe cut the vegetables in slender oblongs and arrange them in geometrical tesselation like Mondrian. Probably they’ll just make pizzas based on Domino’s menus and set recipes.

Chilled Colleague – Asda
Do Asda want someone like the Fonz to work alongside their more uptight Richie Cunningham-type staff? Someone to wear a leather jacket and nudge the jukebox when the party starts to drag? I don’t think I’m cool enough to apply for this job.

Hygiene Technician – OCS
The accompanying job description sounded a lot like scrubbing floors.

Apple Genius – Apple Stores
I’ve never been in an Apple store but I’m guessing the staff there aren’t actually of genius level intellect. I was always under the impression Apple products were simple to use. If you need to employ a phalanx of genuises to explain the products maybe they need a re-dedsign to something more user-friendly that any old punter, like you or me, can figure out. Also there is only one personage that comes to mind when discussing genius and apples. Someone who stood on the shoulders of giants. That person is Granny Smith (she perched on altitudinous fellows to reach the apples)

Chief Visionary Officer – Obsidian
This guy sounds important. Try to ingratiate yourself with him. Laugh at his jokes. Frustrate his competitors. Frown at his enemies. Maybe pat his dog.

Biz Dev Guru – Sandbox
Are you an Indus grand master of abbreviation? Apply here.

Nandoca – Nando’s
Work your way to a black belt in chicken preparation under the tutelage of the Nandojo’s peri peri sensei.

Assistant to the Regional Manager – Wernham Hogg
Sounds a lot like Assistant Regional Manager, hence Gareth Keenan’s delusional view of his own importance in The Office.

Nabokov nearly invents the smiley

In response to the question from the New York Times – ‘How do you rank yourself among writers (living) and of the immediate past?’
Nabokov replies – ‘I often think there should exist a special typographical sign for a smile – some sort of concave mark, a supine round bracket, which I would now like to trace in reply to your question.’
VN would probably have been both delighted at the procession of marks that make up the smiley :-) and dismayed at its overuse.