Saturday, May 9, 2020
I have been reading East of Eden by John Steinbeck and there is a paragraph that completely mystifies me. It seems that the general trend for good modern prose is to try to avoid getting bogged down in verbosity, to keep things short and punchy. If it doesn’t advance the plot or character development in as few words as possible, cut it.
“Time interval is a strange and contradictory matter in the mind. It would be reasonable to suppose that a routine time or an eventless time would seem interminable. It should be so, but it is not. It is the dull eventless times that have no duration whatever. A time splashed with interest, wounded with tragedy, crevassed with joy — that’s the time that seems long in the memory. And this is right when you think about it. Eventlessness has no posts to drape duration on. From nothing to nothing is no time at all.”
This, to me, is about as close as one can get to perfect prose. This is exactly the sort of thing that I aspire to in my own writing. But nothing is happening. It is, admittedly, chock full of beautiful, simply worded metaphors. Perhaps that is what makes it so intriguing. “Splashed with interest, wounded with tragedy, crevassed with joy.” If you tried to adequately express those sentiments using more literal language, it could take pages to do so. So maybe Steinbeck is indeed using as few words as possible. Except that the entire paragraph is unnecessary. He could have left it out entirely and no one would have ever noticed. But as far as I’m concerned, in the 150 pages that I have read so far (which have been perfectly splendid), it’s the best paragraph in the whole damn thing!
And when I read, “Eventlessness has no posts to drape duration on,” my eyes tear up and my heart stops for a moment. Why is that? Am I just an overly emotional person? He is quite literally talking about nothing. It’s a metaphorical representation of boredom. But it is so elegantly evocative of boredom, that suddenly this most hum-drum of emotions becomes a powerful and deeply relatable sensation.
It makes me wonder how many other beautifully composed pages, paragraphs, sentences, phrases have been deleted for the sake of brevity. How many eventlessly prosaic afros have been sheared away into short-and-to-the-point buzz cuts? It is a very tragic thought, in my opinion.