A Close Read
What makes good writing good
"I left Cardman's rooms and wandered out into the quad, holding my error-strewn chapter rolled up like a baton, like a truncheon, in my hand. The afternoon sun obliquely struck the venerable buildings, picking out the detailing of the stonework with admirable clarity. The razored lawn was immaculate, perfectly striped, unbadged by weed or daisy, almost indecently, absurdly green. I realized that I hated old buildings, hated honey-colored crafted stone, hated scholarship, hated arrogant young dons with their superior ways. So much hate, I reflected, as I crossed Magdalen Bridge, can't be good for one. The leaves of my chapter helixed gently down onto the turbid brown waters of the Cherwell." —from "Adult Video," in Fascination, by William Boyd (Knopf)
Boyd effortlessly executes all the sophisticated tricks of conventional style even as he pushes beyond convention, taking liberties with language and proportion. The paragraph is both remarkably rich and supremely efficient, not least because Boyd chooses words that, even apart from their sentences, convey scads of information. "Wandered" and "error-strewn," for instance, establish immediately the narrator's dissonance with "immaculate" surroundings characterized by "clarity." And no more than "baton" and "truncheon" are necessary to communicate his mood. (In fact, either one of these would have sufficed, but the unexpected near redundancy draws the reader's attention, perhaps even suggests the beating of the stick.) "Razored" implies that Oxford's perfection is unnatural, harsh, uninviting. The string of phrases that follow not only reiterate and fortify these sentiments but also, in their breathless excess, signal the narrator's mounting hysteria. (It's a mark of Boyd's genius that "unbadged" here and the verb "helixed" in the final sentence read as wonderfully apt and evocative words rather than ones that—as Microsoft's spell-checker says—are "not in dictionary.") The next sentence—classically comic in its repetition, in its rejection of all that is commonly revered, and in its juxtaposition of formal language ("honey-colored crafted stone") with a childish word ("hate")—neatly pulls together all the elements the paragraph has launched. And, keeping the narrative lively, it unveils something new and significant: the true source of the narrator's humiliation "arrogant young dons and their superior ways." (Actually, one particular arrogant young don.) Lest excessive emotion turn comedy to tragedy, Boyd radically changes tone, injecting a note of reserve as he cleverly—and, again, with remarkable efficiency—uses an aside ("as I crossed Magdalen Bridge") to bring in the river. The Cherwell's waters, as muddy as the narrator's paper is muddled, provide the natural resting place for the pages introduced at the outset, now loosened and falling as "leaves"—an especially happy term in that it works both literally and figuratively here.
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