Wednesday, February 03, 2010

The Art Student's War

I picked up Brad Leithauser's new novel The Art Student's War the other day and have read the first chapter and a half. The first chapter is a tour de force, even if it begins in the present tense, something I often find irritating in fiction. But Leithauser makes a brilliant transition to the past tense:

Everything changes—as it so often does—the moment she climbs down from the enclosure of the streetcar; time itself shifts, shifted. When, in the open air, she spoke the words once more, Bea felt a renewed sense of wistful impoverishment: "He didn't even hear me thank him." This time the phrase sounded dry and matter-of-fact, as though the soldier really did belong to the past tense and their story were over.

I did not notice the shift of "shifts, shifted" until the reference to the past tense at the end of the paragraph.

Here's a whole nother point: in the second chapter, a character says, "I have a whole nother thermos." Is that use of "a whole nother" old enough to have been used in 1943? (Which is when the opening scenes take place.) As my friend Dan once said, "What is the status of the word 'nother'?"


James Owens said...

A beautiful transition that gets close to the heart of how fiction operates, both philosophically and practically … this casting of the present imagination into a pretended past world. I haven’t seen this novel, but I’m not really surprised, given the evidence of Leithauser’s poetry…. I love these words like “nother,” (which I assume is created by the same kind of re-analysis that furnishes “nonce” and “ninny”) … words bubbling with the demotic energy of the spoken….

mrjumbo said...

Nother is one part of a divided word; the rhetorical device is tmesis, which has a long and stately history, although the division of the word doesn't come in the place one might expect it. Nother fits in the same category as credible, when someone describes something "in fucking credible." English doesn't use tmesis often, but it does come up in certain regular idioms.

The shift is delightful. Now I'll have to go take a look at the rest of the chapter to see where it fits.

For a challenging (but to my mind successful) use of unusual voice and tense in narrative fiction, try the first story in Pam Houston's collection "Cowboys Are My Weakness," which is told in the second person, future tense.

Andrew Shields said...

Tmesis is a very cool word. There's also the first-person plural of "The Virgin Suicides," by Jeffrey Eugenides (another Detroit novelist).