The Beauty of an Economy of Words #writing #hemingway #wolfe

In the the great game of Chess, we have this concept of Tempo (or gaining tempo).  There are many detailed explanations of this with regard to the mechanics of the game, but the essentials behind the idea may be generalized as follows:

Tempo is gained when many tasks are accomplished with a single action.

In Chess, this is a simple concept to grasp; however it is not always straightforward to achieve.  Developing a piece while delivering check (as is noted in the linked article) is the easiest example.  In short, you want your one move to yield the most benefit.  You always want to be doing more than one thing at a time.

This concept is expandable to many other avenues in life, though the idea becomes more abstract.  In the case of writing, gaining tempo through an economy of words turns a straightforward sentence into a many-faceted work of art.

Hemingway was a master at this.

I’ve spoke about Gene Wolfe here before, I think, and if I haven’t I should do so more often.  He is another master of this technique, albeit in ways strikingly different from Hemingway.  Hemingway shocks with his deceptively simple style.  His writing asks the reader to unhinge the analytical brain and feel the meaning behind what he writes.

The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places.

Ernest Hemingway

You must not spend a great deal of time on this statement.  If you do, it will be rendered meaningless and nonsensical.  The greatest disservice that happens in the American English classroom is when a writer like this is studied and the teacher asks the student, “What do you think he meant by this?”

No, god damn you.  Trying to force these things is like trying to recall a dream that doesn’t want to be remembered.  You must feel these things in your gut not understand them with your head.  Your head is not the place for Hemingway.  Your head is the shaking, fumbling fingers of an adolescent boy trying to master the clasp of a bra strap.  You belly is required for such things.

Wolfe, on the other hand, requires every bit of your analytical mind that you can muster.  Each idea that he presents has the potential to be a key that unlocks a greater puzzle.  With Wolfe, it’s a good idea to bring your A-game, else the experience of reading his stories may feel more like a fever dream than a diversion.

I want to share a quote from his story “Litany of the Long Sun”.  It will require that I do some explaining to set it up – this is going to contain spoilers.  If you plan on reading this book, I recommend you step out now.

Don’t say I failed to warn.

Maytera Marble, a synthetic being living on a space-bound generation ship referred to as “The Whorl” by its inhabitants, has seen better days.  She can remember a time before The Whorl, when she lived on a real planet.  This time is now so long ago that she may not necessarily remember the distinction between planet and ship or why one is different from another (the humans who live on the ship certainly don’t realize that there is a universe outside of their reality).  She knows only that, once upon a time, her body was not failing her.  Because she is a synthetic, she is being constantly assailed by failure codes and faulty systems diagnostics as they are overlaid in her field of view.  Being a Sibyl (akin to our Catholic Sister), she is a teacher of young human children; she hides her infirmities from those who love her.

It is important to note, here, that what they call the “sun” on this generation ship is a long heat ray that runs down the length of the cylindrical enclosure.  She can remember a time when the sun was a bright disk that moved across the sky.  The heat ray in the ship is referred to as “The Long Sun”.  The disk that she remembers: The Short Sun.

“Maytera Marble could remember the short sun, a disk of orange fire; and it seemed to her that the chief virtue of that old sun had been that no list, no menu, ever appeared unbidden beneath its rays.”

Wolfe, Nightside the Long Sun (p. 24)

This one small entry tells us so very much about Maytera Marble with so very little.  It tells us that she is melancholy, that she is rendered sad by her failing body and her memory of happier times.  It demonstrates that the short sun itself does not hold any special talismanic place of power in her mind outside of its rather simplistic association with a period in her life where she can remember that she was physically more.

It is instructive to note that by this point in the story, Wolfe has not yet made it clear that Marble is an artificial being – he hints and dances around the idea.  It becomes clear later; however Wolfe (in his deviousness) also goes to the trouble to blur the lines between synthetic and natural persons, greatly confusing the issue.  He toys with the perceptions of the characters in his story as he toys with those of his readers.

But, what incredible weight can be found in this passage!  It only becomes clear later (after perhaps more than one reading) what import should be assigned to these words.  You can never just assume that a sentence has but a single meaning with Gene Wolfe.  This is the beauty of his work.  He is the literary Daedalus; his body of work is the Labyrinth and we (the readers) are his Minotaur.

The Labyrinth

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