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Room for improvement As It Happened David Storey Jonathan Cape? 17. 99, pp 420 Writing the first chapter of a novel is like putting your flat on the market and preparing it for viewing. Lucid grammar, helpful punctuation, clear presentation of person and event these are the equivalents in prose of fresh flowers, bread and coffee smells, the string quartet on the landing. Starting to read As It Happened, on the other hand, is like venturing into a dark hallway crammed with bicycle frames, feral cats and mysterious boxes of treasure that the previous occupant could never bear to throw away. Among the things David Storey has hoarded are commas, brackets and present participles. About main verbs he is less sentimental.
This, for instance, is the last sentence of his first chapter: Sobriety, verging on unease, the object of Maddox's morning, so much having preceded him until this moment a moment (glancing at Rachel's drawing above his head) when it felt as if he were about to reinvent himself. Grammar is loose to the point of non-existence. Sentences routinely run out of structure about halfway and continue with tacked-on phrases like he long of the opinion Phrases in apposition to the whole sentence, or modelled after the Latin ablative absolute (as in Deo violence), are hard going in English because their relationship to the whole is so indeterminate. Latin writers used the ablative absolute often but then Latin had an ablative. Latin words bear the marks of their case, as English words do not. The meaning of an English sentence is socially constructed, as it were its internal links are looser, the hierarchy subtler.
The whole experience of reading a sentence like the following is of waiting for sense (or a verb) to emerge: Placed by their father in the seats of his cars, lined in an intoxicatingly scented row behind his showroom windows, the light reflecting off their bonnets mudguards, roofs the massage, as he called the paintwork, the odour of metal, oil, leather, polish sensationally, entrancingly, erotically combined, the garage and showroom fronting the old Roman road leading in from the south, straight as an arrow his fathers claim on his own behalf printed in lower-case gold letters across his principal showroom window: an allusion to probity, speed, openness (honesty, reliability, common sense), proven Maddoxian traits. Something has been placed in the seats of some cars but what is it? The only possible candidates seem to be light, massage, odour, garage and showroom. They also seem impossible candidates. Place your bets, ladies and gentlemen. The field is wide open.
But shouldnt grammar eliminate at least some of the guesswork? Punctuation can either help or hinder. Though these humble marks can work as lubricants of a sentence, they turn into adhesives when used to excess. In a sentence of 36 words starting on page 41, Storey uses 13 commas, two dashes and two colons. Thats a punctuation mark roughly every two words. Skilful punctuation articulates sentence structure, inept punctuation masks it.
It isnt a great labour to restore flow to a sentence like the one that begins: She, at the first meeting, he had, initially, hardly noticed This gives, easily enough, He had hardly noticed she at first meeting What could possibly be wrong with that? The book begins with a description of the life-drawing class attended by Matthew Maddox, an art historian half-way between breakdown and redemption by new love. The reader, on top of any other difficulties, must struggle to distinguish roughly a dozen characters. Theres Rachel, Ailsa, Arthur, Mary, Hannah, Ruth, Maria, Susannah, Duncan, Neil, Jeanette, Sheba and Harold. One is plain and high-breasted, another describes himself as asexual, one was wounded at Arnhem, and so on. The only excuse for starting a novel with this kind of confusing group scene, rather than something more intimate, must be that they are important characters who play a large enough part in what follows to outweigh the disorientation they cause by all being introduced at once.
Not so. After page 11 Sheba, Jeanette, Neil, Duncan and the rest disappear for 340 pages. By the time some of them come back, which they do for only half a dozen pages anyway, as if for a curtain-call after hours of hanging around in the green room, only the most masochistic and memories reader will remember whose feet were arthritic, who was a jewellers widow, who had the anomalistic expression. In fact, the opening group scene is uncharacteristic, although chapter two describes a different meeting and introduces another seven tertiary characters. Most of the novel is in the form of dialogues or ruminations on the big questions life, death, murder, madness, guilt, art. Sometimes the questions are rhetorical, posed by Maddox or his intimates: Is inertia sufficient to hold one back 91; from suicide 93; ?
Should we exercise our option to pre-empt? Are we little, if nothing more than a neurological function, triggered and controlled by chemicals which, fortuitously or otherwise, may or may not be there? Are we merely a mutation which, by repetition, has acquired a special 91; sic 93; authenticity? The grammatical fog has cleared a little by this point and the underlying pretentiousness shines strongly through.
No book as unreadable as As It Happened would be published without surgery if it came from an unknown writer unless all the reading is now done by machines, like so much of the proofreading. Spellcheck programs on computers eliminate only (some) impossible words, not incorrect ones. So, for instance, Maddox's uncle starts off being macaronic whose dictionary meaning is, of verse, written in more than one language. Twenty-five pages later hes a macaroni, a dandy (this is presumably the meaning intended throughout) and finally on page 260 hes the St Albans macaroon, a kind of almond biscuit. A stringent editing process at Jonathan Cape could only be less damaging than the revelation that a previous Booker Prize-winner doesnt currently write correct or communicative prose. As it is, no one in-house can be surprised if there isnt much interest in a property so badly in need of doing up.
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