Grokking the Subaqueous Consigliere John Clute

Given the near constant “WTF-is-this”-itis afflicting those who comment on John Clute’s reviews—ever since that feature was added when SciFi Wire and SF Weekly merged—I thought I’d perform a public service by explaining Clute. Thus, a few sentences from his review of The Wind-Up Girl

ORIGINAL: Like so many of the mad scientists and realpolitiking consiglieri who claimed sovereignty over the rest of us throughout the literature of the past century, he is a Faustian entrepreneur, a transformer of the planet for gain.

ROUGH TRANSLATION: Like so many of the mad scientists and pragmatic politicians/advisors whoruled the rest of us throughout the literature of the past century, he is a Faustian if you don’t know this one, shoot yourself, a transformer of the planet for gain.

ORIGINAL: This time round the name of Faust is Gibbons. For much of the indurated durance vile of The Windup Girl—which is set in the energy-depleted corporation-dominated world adumbrated in Bacigalupi’s “The Calorie Man” (2005), and in the hyper-saturated Bangkok featured in “The Yellow Card Man” (2006)—he serves as a MacGuffin, though an exceedingly deadly one…

ROUGH TRANSLATION: This time round the name of Faust is Gibbons. For much of the unfeeling wretched confinement of The Windup Girl—which is set in the energy-depleted corporation-dominated world foreshadowed by Bacigalupi’s “The Calorie Man” (2005), and in the hyper-saturated Bangkok featured in “The Yellow Card Man” (2006)—he serves as a MacGuffin, though an exceedingly deadly one…

THE ORIGINAL: The subaqueous intensity of The Windup Girl is, perhaps, in the end, slightly deceptive, as it is entirely possible to be so circumambiated by Bacigalupi’s quite extraordinary, virtuoso, shock-immersion rendering of his transformed world that one misses what might seem obvious in full synopsis: that The Windup Girl is a Thought Experiment.

ROUGH TRANSLATION: The It’s water, people. It means underwater for fuck’s sake intensity of The Windup Girl is, perhaps, in the end, slightly deceptive, as it is entirely possible to be so Don’t any of you wankers have dictionaries or google or an education? Stelllaaaaa! Stellllllaaaa! by Bacigalupi’s quite extraordinary, virtuoso, shock-immersion rendering of his transformed world that one misses what might seem obvious in full synopsis: that The Windup Girl is a Thought Experiment.

***

The problem, of course, is that my translations are substitutions—and substitutions change meaning. No word means exactly the same thing as another word. Even if you were to argue that some synonyms are exact, their origins will always be different, and thus all words will always be different. There is, for example, a vast distance between “realpolitiking consiglieri” and “pragmatic politicians/advisors”—so much so that, as a reader, I’m willing, then, to accept the possible overkill of “indurated durance vile,” especially because “durance vile” is a very specific way of saying “imprisonment.” Although I think it’s quite possible Clute just wanted his consonance, I can’t be sure there isn’t some more functional purpose for using that term.

In an age when we have not too much sophisticated analysis of books but too little, it is hard to fault a reviewer for expanding our vocabulary even as he explicates a text. The fact is, the ways in which his words seem stand out like a flashing siren or fit in as if part of an intricate mosaic will always depend on the brains of each individual reader.

(Now, on other hand, if Clute would stop writing about Story like, as a friend said to me, it’s “some old guy who lives next door to him and not a ridiculous simplification-confabulation dreamed up during a particularly passionate night of self-regard” I’d be quite happy…but, we all have our foibles.)

Comments

  1. says

    Ha! That’s quite amusing…and such a sad indictment of the illiterati out there that they cannot (or will not) try to follow what Clute is saying.

    That being said, it seems he had a much better impression of Bacigalupi’s novel than I did, but I’ll elaborate on that this weekend, after I recover from the possible flu.

  2. says

    I think he glossed over a lot of clunky plot stuff, frankly–even as he mentions it. It’s an interesting first novel. I don’t think it’s as accomplished as his short fiction, but it’s a good start.

    The main problem with Clute is something he’s not responsible for: people who try to imitate that approach. Then it just becomes parody.

  3. says

    I love Clute’s reviews. They are always a delightful exercise to read, and totally validate my 13 years of post-secondary education. And as a writer I’d be giddy if someone wrote a review like that for my work, even if they shredded it. It’s too bad that some folks can’t stand sophisticated erudition (BIG WORDS).

  4. says

    I have a vague sense that the unwillingness to meet Clute on his own terms has something to do with the persistent divide between “genre” and “literature.” If he were writing about the latter, there’d still be people who found him insufferable, but not as many. Doesn’t the SF audience recognize a Milton reference or know who Canute was? It’s as annoying as those Itzkoffian “mainstream” reviewers who patronize what they don’t understand.

  5. PhilRM says

    I’m with John Ginsberg-Stevens – I really enjoy reading Clute’s reviews, and I have always found them insightful, even though I don’t always agree with him, and I occasionally reach the end of a review wondering “John, do you think this book is worth reading, or not?”

  6. PhilRM says

    P.S. Oh, and Jeff, I’m totally with you on your last paragraph! “Hi, this is my friend Story…”

  7. marco says

    Jeff: In an age when we have not too much sophisticated analysis of books but too little, it is hard to fault a reviewer for

    PhilRM: I occasionally reach the end of a review wondering “John, do you think this book is worth reading, or not?”

    I see. A review must expand vocabulary, validate 13 years of post-secundary education, showcase sophisticated erudition (BIG WORDS) and therefore be intellectually rewarding to read.
    If the enumeration of strengths and shortcomings of the work under scrutiny doesn’t add up to a clear, albeit personal and open to debate, evaluation of merit, well, that’s not the main purpose, right?

    In the course of my English Literature classes I’ve read, among others, Beowulf, Sir Gawain and The Green Knight, The Faerie Queene, The Changeling, A Journal of the Plague Year,The Mysteries of Udolpho, Vanity Fair, Zanoni. I don’t find Clute particularly obscure or challenging, nor does he enlarge my vocabulary or convey a frisson of literary excitement.

    He does, however, give the impression of a mismatch between style and function, or at the very least of unnecessary sophistication. To wonder what’s the point is only a natural reaction.

    Some of his coinages (“realpolitiking consiglieri”) taken in isolation may be considered aptly descriptive turns of phrase and felicitous creations , but the cumulative effect is floridness with no apparent purpose, and therefore bathos. I’m sorry, but I don’t think that the phrase “indurated durance vile” has been chosen because it conveys some particular shade of meaning with regards to the type of confinement we may encounter in The Windup Girl.

    But maybe I’m too literate to appreciate what Clute’s trying to do.
    I may be misled by my studies of classical rhetoric – the science, or art, of harmonizing goal, content and form, which was strict in prescribing which kind of style was appropriate for various types of discourse, and aware of the potential pitfalls of wrong choices.

    “For instance, bordering on the Grand style, which is in itself praiseworthy, there is a style to be avoided. To call this the Swollen style will prove correct. For just as a swelling often resembles a healthy condition of the body, so, to those who are inexperienced, turgid and inflated language either in new or in archaic words, or in clumsy metaphors, or in [b]diction more impressive than the theme demands [/b]…
    Most of those who fall into this type, straying from the type they began with, are misled by the appearance of grandeur and cannot perceive the tumidity of the style. ” (from the Rhetorica ad Herennium).

  8. jeff vandermeer says

    Phil–i think you have a point, but my point is that yahoos complaining about big words aren’t expressing your point. They’re just yahoos.

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