Often when we profess to liking or disliking a piece of writing, we’re reacting to style. Of course, we all have preferences for certain subjects—the travel narrative, the domestic drama, the plot-driven mystery, etc.—but even here we distinguish good from bad based on our evaluations of an author’s diction, syntax, punctuation, use of tropes, and figurative language. And while there’s no wrong or right style—some prefer Ernest Hemingway, and some William Faulkner—there are times when Hemingway is at his best, Faulkner at his. And these are times when style complements the piece’s larger aims. Stylistic choices are correct when they identify and magnify the piece’s central concerns.
As a beginning writer I had a typically naïve conception of style as something added to a finished piece, as if the content is water and style the vase you pour it in—a vase that shapes and decorates but doesn’t alter the chemistry of the water. But this understanding flattens style into its least dynamic, least magical aspect. It’s the equivalent of choosing a font before hitting the print key. My understanding of style has evolved as I’ve read more and written more and thought harder about why I love the books I love. Now I see style as integral to the composition, arriving not as an afterthought but active all along in the crucible, changing the chemistry of the water. And as a reader I’ve grown to see how an analysis of style can serve as a diagnostic tool to pinpoint the author’s intentions and lead to a greater understanding of the work.
In a memoir, the author’s intentions are to revisit an event that begs to be better understood and, through the pressure brought to bear by this revisiting, yield enough insight that the event can be incorporated into self-narrative. In order to do this, the memoirist must create two “characters”—the “I” of the now—the writer looking back, shaping, considering—and the “I” of the then, who lived through the past events. The “I” of the now returns to these events armed with a question, often one as simple as, “How did this episode shape the person I’ve become?” This therefore becomes “the central question” according to novelist and essayist Eileen Pollack. The central question and the desire to satisfy it lie at the heart of memoir; this stance may be its most characteristic aspect, in fact. One can’t imagine other kinds of nonfiction writers—the self-help author, the journalist, the academic—focusing so much on the writer’s initial ignorance and vulnerability. Those other nonfiction writers can follow the injunction to “Write what you know,” instead of Eudora Welty’s countering advice, “Write about what you don’t know about what you know.” The memoirist’s effort to fill in the gaps often forms a kind of ghost narrative that haunts the more apprehensible essay topic, the “I” of the now and the “I” of the then in a tense tango of conjecture and correction.
To illustrate how the memoirist is a pilgrim in search of understanding, Pollack traces the central question of the George Orwell essay “Shooting an Elephant.” Orwell details an episode that occurred when he was stationed as an officer in colonial India. An elephant, undergoing an episode of musth (a hormonal surge characterized by aggressive behavior), breaks loose and tears through several villages, even killing a man he comes across on the road. As the officer in charge, Orwell is expected to stop the rampage by shooting the elephant. Fair enough, perhaps, but by the time he finds the elephant, the musth is wearing off and the elephant is no longer dangerous. Orwell would rather wait, do nothing, yet he bows to the pressure of the crowd, locals who crave the spectacle of a kill followed by the treat of elephant meat. Pollack notes that Orwell’s central question progresses and deepens as he lingers with his younger self. While at first “Orwell feels compelled to figure out why he shot an elephant that didn’t need to be shot,” by the end “he also partially answers,” says Pollack, “the more universal question in which his own conundrum nests: Why do imperialists act in ways that are not in their own best interests or the best interests of the people they hope to rule?”
An analysis of Orwell’s style—his syntax, diction, punctuation, paragraph construction—supports the development of these central questions. And while many of these same stylistic choices can be found in other Orwell works—they form his stylistic DNA, as it were—here they particularly suit his aims, which is why “Shooting an Elephant” is perhaps Orwell’s most famous essay. To begin, we’d describe Orwell’s style as the embodiment of economy and clarity, no nonsense, in touch with regular folks as opposed to official accounts and jargonese. The diction register tends to be in the middle—he’ll use a Latin phrase when necessary but tends to favor Germanic words. Syntax, too, seems straightforward, often subject-verb-object, a bit stripped down at times, yet overall one is aware of the variation in sentence length, from quite short to quite long. In terms of punctuation, he favors asides set off by dashes. He avoids linguistic frippery; there’s very little figurative language here, few metaphors, rather like Jonathan Swift, whom Orwell admired. The rare metaphors Orwell does allow are unforgettable. (Orwell comes upon the trampled corpse on the muddy road and finds “his face had scored a trench a foot deep and a couple of yards long… . The friction of the great beast’s foot had stripped the skin from his back as neatly as one skins a rabbit.”)
And how does this essay’s stylistic fingerprint connect to its larger aims? We are aided in answering by some of Orwell’s other writings, particularly “Politics and the English Language.” Concerning style, he writes, “Good prose is like a windowpane,” a belief made manifest in “Shooting an Elephant” through directness and rejection of self-conscious mannerisms. Few abstractions are to be found in the essay because abstractions can shroud meaning. Clichés and idiomatic expressions are to be avoided not only because they are unoriginal but because they come to us fully formed, as opposed to having been arrived at by the writer’s insight and craft. Therefore, such prepackaged phrases are easy—dangerously easy. That’s why Orwell recommends against “Throwing your mind open and letting the ready-made phrases come crowding in. They will construct your sentences for you—even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent—and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself.” And Orwell is deeply opposed to concealing gestures. His windowpanes have no decals, curtains, or blinds. Leo Rockas, in his Style in Writing: A Prose Reader, makes this connection: “In Orwell’s own mind, independence of thought and a refusal to subscribe to any orthodoxy of thought were tied up with his plain style.”
Orwell affirmed that “To write in plain, vigorous language one has to think fearlessly.” Although the “I” of the then (the young man who shoots the elephant) was motivated by the fear of looking like a fool, the “I” of the now (the older man who questions his behavior) is fearless. Where the young man who shoots the elephant is a pleaser, the older man who recollects is critical—both of himself and the system that enforced inequality. We feel this criticism at the sentence level in the outbursts and asides between dashes that often interrupt the main clauses. Reversals of meaning frequently begin sentences. As Rockas writes, “Orwell’s contentiousness often turns up in the middle of paragraphs, when, having presented a review of his opponent’s conventional argument (more simply convincing than his opponent could probably have come up with), he suddenly turns the tables with a but or however and presents his own unconventional view.” In addition, Orwell varies his sentence length, and the pacing tugs us along and then draws us up short. It also serves to excavate deeper into thornier issues. In the same way that he begins with a simple question (“Why did I shoot an elephant?”) and proceeds to a more universal one (“What is the nature of imperialism?”), he often begins paragraphs with simple sentences stating simple ideas and builds to complex sentences expressing complex ideas. Consider the essay’s conclusion, where sentences mimic the speed of the bullet, its pitilessness. He writes, “I fired again into the same spot,” and, later, “I fired a third time.” Contrast these human actions with the slow, ragged, drawn out and immensely painful death of the elephant—“At the second shot he did not collapse but climbed with desperate slowness to his feet and stood weakly upright, with legs sagging and head drooping.” Then there’s the third shot, which brings the beast to its knees, and Orwell writes, “But in falling he seemed for a moment to rise, for as his hind legs collapsed beneath him he seemed to tower upwards like a huge rock toppling, his trunk reaching skyward like a tree.” How devastatingly brief is the killer’s action, the opening sentence of the next paragraph: “I got up.”
To explore further how great essays use style to reveal their concerns, I’d like to turn now to another essay I admire, this one very different from Orwell’s: “Cutty, One Rock,” by August Kleinzahler, from his 2004 book by the same name. Here’s the opening:
They didn’t look like hoods, more like mid-career bureaucrats, fortyish, chubby, thick glasses. But they’d brought two good-looking molls with them; I can’t imagine they were even eighteen: blonds, Marty and Will. It fell to me to keep the boys entertained while my brother retired to his bedroom with the two Mafiosi for what was to be a very, very serious conversation. My brother had warned me that there was a good chance they’d kill him, and without spelling it out, that if I was on hand my own health might be in jeopardy. We were very close at that stage. I loved my brother more than anyone in the world, and didn’t have anywhere else to go.
Immediately the style announces itself: high adrenaline, showy, chest-thumping. No windowpane here. We begin with a title—“Cutty, One Rock”—that we don’t understand. Then, “They didn’t look like hoods,” and only later do we learn the pronoun’s referent. We’re in the hands of a writer who is comfortable with our discomfort. We note, too, the overpunctuation highlighting idiosyncratic syntax. Let’s revisit the second sentence: “But they’d brought two good-looking molls with them”—a fragment followed by a semicolon—“I can’t imagine they were even eighteen”—independent clause followed by a colon—“blonds, Marty and Will”—noun followed by its appositive. Once at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, an attendee asked workshop leader Padgett Powell, “What’s the rule for semicolons?” Powell leaned forward and pounded the table: “Three per career.” Kleinzahler, to the contrary, will use three per paragraph, even when commas would have been correct. He’s little concerned, it turns out, with correctness, whether in politics or punctuation. Indeed, punctuation is used less for clarity than for emphasis, bullying a sentence’s pacing or emotion.
The third characteristic to note in this opening is the perspective. “We were very close at that stage,” Kleinzahler writes, implying this closeness won’t remain. But this foreshadowing isn’t allowed to build and gain power, for Kleinzahler tells his story out of chronological order; we dip into the brother’s life at different points alongside the narrator, and when the narrator loses touch with his brother, so do we. While there is tension set up in this first paragraph, Kleinzahler debunks the expectation that tension will heighten toward a climax. We’re told before the first page ends, “My brother would be dead inside six months, but not that night.” Finally worth noting is the last sentence’s abrupt humor: “I loved my brother more than anyone in the world, and didn’t have anywhere else to go.” Two tonally different independent clauses smash together with only the conjunction “and,” in a technique reminiscent of the zeugma (and as Kleinzahler is a poet with ten published books, it makes sense that he borrows poetic techniques). So here, overpunctuating Kleinzahler chose not to let the first thought—“of course I’d stay here to defend my brother, whom I love, against the Mafiosi”—receive even a semicolon’s separation from the second clause, which delightfully undercuts the nobility of the first: He stayed because he “didn’t have anywhere else to go.”
This essay is style-heavy, perhaps too heavy if it didn’t serve to articulate the curiosity that, I imagine, drove the author to write the piece. It’s a profile of Kleinzahler’s unnamed older brother, who himself is style-heavy, a deeply troubled, deeply charismatic man with “a good looking mug,” writes Kleinzahler, “like the young Marlon Brando,” a champion college wrestler and seasoned street fighter, verbally accomplished, physically affectionate, grandly generous, impulsive, violent, and hard-drinking (“Cutty, one rock,” we’ll learn, refers to Cutty Sark with a single ice cube.) He’s a “sweet, dangerous delinquent,” and he’s also a gay man struggling to accept himself in a homophobic world.
When I tell you that this brother commits suicide, I’m not being a spoiler. Kleinzahler is, or would be, if plot were the essay’s payoff. But it’s not. Kleinzahler’s central question is not, “How could my macho brother be gay?” He’s gay because he’s gay; there’s simply nothing to ponder there. That he’s gay doesn’t lessen the author’s admiration. Nor does Kleinzahler question, “How could my brother choose his dangerous lifestyle?” Even when detailing the brother’s arrest for smuggling cocaine from Mexico or being busted by the FBI for a white-collar computer crime, Kleinzahler doesn’t usher in an admonitory note. “Isn’t he destined for a bad end?” Of course he’s destined for a bad end. As Kleinzahler writes, “My brother was a gambler. A professional gambler until his death at twenty-seven. Poker. High-low was his action. He was a major leaguer in that line, and regrettably there’s a formidable attrition rate as regards high stakes and its lifestyle equivalent.”
If the question driving the essay isn’t answered by a revelation of plot, how is it answered? By a revelation of character. We shift from “What happened?” to “Why?” and as the essay progresses, our central question revises itself until we are left, perhaps, with this: “What does it mean to unconditionally love a brother, a tragic hero of a brother, destined to die young?” And now we see how Kleinzahler’s stylistic decisions reflect the curiosity that drives him to his subject. The hyper-masculine posturing of the tough-guy noir, displayed not only in stance but also in diction like “moll,” “palooka,” and “galoot,” mirrors the hyper-masculine posturing of the older brother, nicknamed “Gangster” by his New Jersey schoolmates. The extreme shifts in tone and almost complete lack of transitions underscore the life of the brother who works as a financial analyst for a Manhattan firm but spends his nights roaming gay clubs for trouble brought on by Cutty, gambling, and “loveless tricks.” The brother’s whipsaw lifestyle justifies—necessitates—the essay’s whipsaw narrative. While listing his brother’s violent exploits, Kleinzahler writes, “On one occasion he threw some big palooka who was beating up his girlfriend through the plate-glass window of a shop. Then the girl came after my brother; and then the palooka, shaking the glass off. But my brother was a speedy guy, too. Another time…” and Kleinzahler launches into another story. The reader protests: “What—you never told us the end!” Precisely; we can guess. Some writers cut to the chase. Kleinzahler cuts the chase.
The brother’s wide-ranging lifestyle is embraced by the narrator’s wide-ranging diction. We are learning about, remember, a high-stakes gambler: “High-low was his action.” So high diction—“unsalubrious” and “unctuous”—rubs against low, Germanic diction. Kleinzahler writes of his brother fighting “several greasers late one night at a restaurant-dive. He took care of a couple of them, but the third got behind him and” (check out these delightful dactyls) “cracked him in the noggin with a piece of crockery.” Low diction suits the crassness of the seedier parts of the lifestyle where a party turns into a “fuckathon” and the narrator, despite being introduced to gay underground culture, is never in jeopardy of switching teams because he “was already terminally cuntstruck.” Finally, even the abrupt tense shifts from past to present underscore the central dynamic—for Kleinzahler, his charismatic brother is incredibly present even thirty years after his death. As Faulkner reminds us, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
The essay’s non-chronological structure also serves to excavate the central question because, told chronologically, the story would end with a funeral. Sven Birkerts, in The Art of Time in Memoir: Then, Again (2008), cautions writers against falling sway to “the tyranny of the linear.” Instead, he says the memoirist must make the “crucial distinction between event sequence and story,” a distinction perceived through the exercise of hindsight. Freed from the tyranny of the linear, Kleinzahler reaches back in time to pluck a golden apple of brotherly affection. Instead of closing with one of the brother’s barbaric yawps—the LSD-laced sugar cubes, the lesbian masseuses, the gambling with Sonny Liston’s men, the skull-crushing of a double-crossing Mexican drug dealer—Kleinzahler recalls being “wretchedly unhappy at school and at being sixteen,” and taking the train into the city to visit his brother. “I couldn’t have made for very thrilling company,” Kleinzahler admits, “but he always acted glad to see me. He never put me down or pulled a disapproving face. ‘You’ll be all right, lover boy,’ he’d say, smiling. ‘Let’s go out and see if we can’t find ourselves a drink.’”
Faulkner’s great short story “A Rose for Emily,” written around a mile from where I live, seems cryptically titled, as there’s no rose in the story. The events are told out of chronological order, with episodes from Emily’s long spinsterhood in a decaying house related before we learn of her youth and the brief courtship with Homer Barron before he abandoned her. Only upon reflection do we understand that the narrator of the story relayed the events of Emily’s life out of sequence to show respect. Had he bowed to the “tyranny of the linear,” we would know early on that Emily poisoned her beau and then slept with his corpse, and we would leap to judge her. Instead, we sympathize with and even admire the elder Emily before we learn of her perversions. Thus at last the title makes sense—this manner of storytelling is a rose that the author throws on Miss Emily’s casket, a final gesture of homage. Similarly, the author of “Cutty, One Rock” orders events to end not on a suicide note but a love note, and the comforting iambic pentameter invitation to go out “and see if we can’t find ourselves a drink.” After reading the essay we reread the title. “Cutty, One Rock,” we think, and in doing so we, too, find ourselves a drink.
Albert Einstein said, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” It’s easy to agree that Orwell’s essay, shorn as it is of grand gestures, is as simple as possible. But Kleinzahler’s essay, in all of its hijinks, also turns out to be as simple as possible, for to tell this story in a simpler manner would be to tell a different story. For Orwell, style is a windowpane, and for Kleinzahler, a tumbler of Cutty Sark, but both essays provide a view, and both deserve a toast.