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Pun-ishing plot

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I'm going to be reading more of Brad Leithauser's writing.  Thus far, I've read only his criticism in The New York Review of Books, but he is also a novelist, poet and verse novelist.  Obviously, a major talent (and did I mention MacArthur Fellow?).

He is also a very polite critic.  His NYRB review of Lorrie Moore's A Gate at the Stairs caught my attention with its opening paragraph:

Lorrie Moore's novels are remarkable for the number of linguistic detours they embark on.  Off in the distance, a plot is likely hatching.  But its unfolding will patiently have to wait until the characters - nearly all of whom have a penchant for wordplay - have explored the far-flung implications of the language that entertains and envelops them.
"Remarkable" sounds good, but it could also bear less positive connotations (e.g., remarkably misguided).  That the plot is "likely" hatching evinces a positive attitude about what could be a serious failure (i.e., if the plot didn't materialize).  And what must be "patient" with Lorrie Moore is not the plot, but the reader, who like Leithauser (and this reader) "kept looking for someone [in Moore's novel] who didn't parse and pun." 

As Leithauser observes,

Moore's fiction proceeds by "near misses": misapprehensions, mishearings, misidentifications, misunderstandings.  An innocent utterance floats out into the atmosphere, which turns out to be a hazardous and transformative medium, everywhere subject to misinterpretation.
. . . .
It's rare in contemporary American fiction to meet a writer so preoccupied with this sort of linguistic dissonance.
The reason for such rarity, I submit, is that stories don't proceed by linguistic "near misses": they proceed by action.  The action can be physical, emotional or psychological, but it cannot be solely linguistic.  (As Leithauser notes, "poets are another matter."  In a sense, poetry is by definition linguistic action: the rhythm of the language stirs our viscera.)

The weakness of Moore's approach is plain in her plot, which Leithauser (even with his critical delicacy) highlights.  "I turned skeptical, and a little feisty" when the protagonist, Tassie, and her boyfriend break-up (a scene which also caused me grief), Leithauser admits.  "Pesky questions of plausibility arose again" when Tassie accidentally poisons her roommate, Leithauser continues.  But worse awaits - "an utter suspension of suspension of disbelief," in Leithauser's words - when Tassie climbs into her brother's coffin.

To some extent, Leithauser excuses these problems with the explanation that

[m]any writers who are led by the ear, as I think Moore is, have little facility for visual detail.  But she has an arresting gift for the one-line imagistic simile or metaphor.
While this statement may be true, the plot of A Gate at the Stairs fumbles, not because Moore has little facility for visual detail, but because she's trying to power a plot with linguistic acrobatics - puns, similes and metaphors - instead of action.  Moore's is not a methodology worth replicating.  Over 322 pages, the experience of verbal-shenanigans-in-search-of-the-plot-in-the-distance is, even for the patient reader, remarkable. 

(Image of Brad Leithauser from Johns Hopkins University website)

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