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Invisible vs. Conspicuous Prose with Octavia Butler and Ahmed Bouanani

Written by  mglyde in 


What does it mean to write invisible prose? Why might we want to write “visible” prose instead? Here, I’m taking a look at two excerpts that hopefully exemplify each method. 

THE CHALLENGE
Might as well come out right away and say that I’ve always felt skeptical about the advice that good prose is invisible prose. 

At its most shallow, that skepticism stems from my love of prose that leaps and surprises, that sings, that draws attention to itself. Some books, I only read because I love the strange way the sentences progress. 

But on a deeper level, my skeptical mind wonders “invisible for who?” and “to what end?” How can prose be invisible when the reader is still just reading words on a page? Is this drive toward invisibility giving up some powerful experiences that can only be gained through reading, experiences that set reading a book apart from watching a film? Maybe invisible prose is impossible, or highly contextual, or maybe it’s just short-hand for prose that meets every expectation of the reader, never surprising, the reading equivalent of the traditional three-camera shot through the fourth wall in a sitcom. Even then, the invisibility of the prose will rely on the readers just as much as the writers. 

I want to look at two examples, just to see.

THE STORIES
What really got me going on the topic of invisible vs. visible prose was reading Ahmed Bouanani’s THE HOSPITAL, with it’s wonderful, challenging, endlessly complex prose. I started thinking about the common idiom in writing circles that “good prose is invisible prose” which I’ve never really agreed with, but I also began to wonder what exactly “invisible” meant when it came to prose, as I suggested above. 

So I returned to a page in Vandermeer’s WONDERBOOK that I’ve often referred to, a diagram on “Approaches to Style” on pages 62 and 63. He separates prose into 4 vague styles listed in order from simplest to most complex, with example authors and examples of authors who wedge in between these styles. The first is Minimal / Stark (think Raymond Carver or Brian Evenson). The second is Invisible, paired with the even more cringey word “Normal” (at least the book puts it in quotes, but at that point why not have the good sense to instead use the word “lean”) which lists Daphne Du Maurier, Joe Haldeman, Mary Doria Russel, Karin Tidbeck, and Kurt Vonnegut. I own books by three of those writers, but I did not find Tidbeck’s prose at all invisible, and I had no interest in looking at Vonnegut. But Butler, I thought, was an interesting option, so I’m going to take a look at my copy of PARABLE OF THE SOWER. The third style is called Muscular / Conspicuous with examples of Kelly Link and Ursula Le’guin, and I think that Bouanani likely fits well in this category, although THE HOSPITAL probably does jump into the fourth category in places. The fourth is called Lush / Ornate and includes Tanith Lee and Angela Carter, with China Mieville as a clear transition writer from Muscular to Lush.

Both THE HOSPITAL and PARABLE OF THE SOWER are excellent, and you should read them.  

That said, we don’t need to know much about the stories themselves to jump into looking at their prose, so let’s just move along. 

Here are two short excerpts, first Bulter and then Bouanani. 

From THE PARABLE OF THE SOWER by Octavia Bulter — Chapter 2 near Opening
     Crazy to live without a wall to protect you. Even in Robledo, most of the street poor–squatters, winos, junkies, homeless people in general–are dangerous. They’re desperate or crazy or both. That’s enough to make anyone dangerous. 
     Worse for me, they often have things wrong with them. They cut off each other’s ears, arms, legs. They carry untreated diseases and festering wounds. They have no money to spend on water to wash with so even the unwounded have sores. They don’t get enough to eat so they’re malnourished–or they eat bad food and poison themselves. As I rode, I tried not to look around at them, but I couldn’t help seeing–collecting–some of their general misery. 
     I can take a lot of pain without falling apart. I’ve had to learn to do that. But it was hard, today, to keep pedaling and keep up with the others when just about everyone I saw made me feel worse and worse. 
     My father glanced back at me every now and then. He tells me, “You can beat this thing. You don’t have to give in to it.” He has always pretended, or perhaps believed, that my hyperempathy syndrome was something I could shake off and forget about. The sharing isn’t real, after all. It isn’t some magic or ESP that allows me to share the pain or the pleasure of other people. It’s delusional. Even I admit that. My brother Keith used to pretend to be hurt just to trick me into sharing his supposed pain. Once he used red ink as fake blood to make me bleed. I was eleven then, and I still bled through the skin when I saw someone else bleeding. I couldn’t help doing it, and I always worried that it would give me away to people outside the family. 

From THE HOSPITAL by Ahmed Bouanani — Page 48
I didn’t leave my bed this morning. While the bottle of serum emptied drop by drop into my veins, instead of gazing at the ceiling–and imagining living, elusive figures in the stains that bear witness to past winters, or taking an interest in the carousel of flies whirling without end around the naked light bulb that’s shut off inexorably every night at nine o’clock, plunging us into a semi-darkness that illuminates sorrowful landscapes along which my body drifts in search of a merciful memory that will protect me from dissolution–I reread these pages without recognizing my handwriting, and then understand that my hope of remaining intact was like that of a drop of salt in the ocean. The air in this place facilitates the growth of bizarre fungi in the imagination. At all hours I am caught between vertigo and delerium. Every day I feel my memory heal over its scabs; I am reduced to a skeletal being, unappetizing even to the crows and vultures that I sense circling around me in my nightmares. I’m going to have to get used to living with my companions of misfortune in this world no stranger than any other, where, on occasion, despite my best efforts, the silence resuscitates painful seasons. And my companions? Mostly they no longer have any reason to leave, lost as they are in the density of their dreams. Whereas, I feel as if I came here for the day, two weeks, or a century ago, and forgot to leave. Where would I go? To another time, beyond the hospital walls, somewhere that I had a name, an occupation, a reason to exist. Today, my name is a number, I occupy rumpled blue pajamas, a member of a melancholic and joyful brotherhood that hasn’t asked any questions for a long time. I’m not confessing, and I don’t claim to describe things that I know nothing about. I’m not trying to relieve my conscience the way you relieve your bowels or your bladder, I don’t flatter myself, for the most part I don’t pretend that my shit doesn’t stink, so, if you’re waiting for me to start whining, to spin infantile flights of fancy about my people and our dark ages, then hurry up and pawn me off on your usual middlemen and let’s be done with it.

THE SOLUTION
First, because I’m still not totally sure what either of these things mean, let’s start with a definition of invisible prose and visible (conspicuous) prose. These are the definitions given in WONDERBOOK. 

Invisible prose: “The ‘baseline’ approach common to much fiction, especially in commercial modes, picks its spots with balance in scene/summary and judicious use of sensory detail. Immersive reading is usually the goal. Few long sentences. Poor execution induces a reaction of ‘mediocrity.’ “

Let’s go through the first definition little by little with Butler’s prose in mind. Invisible prose is called the “baseline” approach in “commercial modes,” but it’s hard to know what is meant by commercial modes. Certainly, Butler is trying to write in a more-or-less commercial genre, Science Fiction, and the book does have some structural similarities to other popular works of the day. When it comes to “balance in scene/summary,” I’m not sure we’re seeing that here, and I would say that PARABLE, at least, has just as much summary (if not more) as THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS, even though Le’Guin is categorized as a Conspicuous stylist. There is, in the Butler excerpt, certainly a judicious use of sensory detail–the details or specific and spread throughout very well. The sentences are also of a fairly average length. So maybe we’ll say 3 out of 4? 

The last bit gets me: “Poor execution induces a reaction of ‘mediocrity.’ ” 

Maybe I have trouble thinking of Butler’s prose as “invisible” because she’s clearly a talented stylist. Maybe my biases are making me think that “good” writing can’t be “invisible” writing.  

I want to say more about this excerpt, but let’s take a look at the definition of Conspicuous prose, first. 

Conspicuous prose: “Sentence structures tend to be more complex and summary/half-scene is employed in a more layered way, with time perhaps more easily manipulated as a result. Character POVs may be differentiated as much by style as content. Ample use of extended metaphor and sensory detail. Poor execution induces a reaction of ‘too clever’ or ‘lost the thread.’ “

Is this an impartial definition or a personal attack? Historically, I have often received the “lost the thread” feedback, as a writer who waffles between Stark, Evenson-like prose and Conspicuous, Le’Guin like prose. Even at its worst, I don’t think Bouanani’s prose ever loses the thread. 

Also, all throughout the book, he uses summary and half-scene to speed through or slow down time, and he just lathers on the juicy sensory details and extended metaphors like no one I’ve ever read before. THE HOSPITAL never changes POV, but the characters all have quite different voices in dialogue (although clearly you can’t see that in this moment). 

So much for definitions. 

There’s one obvious feature of what we might call “invisible” prose that seems to be missing from the WONDERBOOK definition, and that’s a general use of short words and common vocabulary. Butler certainly has that over Bouanani, especially if we compare the Butler’s line, “Crazy to live without a wall to protect you” with the functionally similar line by Bouanani, “The air in this place facilitates the growth of bizarre fungi in the imagination.” Both of these lines serve to explain the state of the contemporary world of the novel, and they do so in a relatively pithy way. But there is a much grander diction in the Bouanani line, whereas Butler’s line feels almost colloquial with its use of “Crazy.” 

Even beyond the grander diction, Bouanani is clearly intentional in his use of conspicuous prose. His prose is very complex, using compound phrases, participial phrases, even a few gerunds. But what makes Bouanani’s intentions so clear is the interruption smacked into the middle of the second sentence. It’s long and windy (and wonderful) but definitely makes the sentence harder to follow. It seems to be trying to stretch your mind thin and mush you up, evoking the feeling of the character. The sentence structures in THE HOSPITAL, even in this one excerpt, are not just more complex than Butler’s, they’re doing a lot of weird stuff trying to evoke the story physically.

But that brings me to another point: Butler’s prose seems to go out of its way to achieve a certain level of predictability. The paragraphing intentionally groups sentences that are directly and obviously related to each other, almost to the point of having an introductory and concluding sentence in each one. Interruptions are short and the first interruption seems to setup and emphasize the final words of the sentence “are dangerous.” This prose, it seems, is intended to read easily. And it does read far easier than Bouanani’s massive pillar of a paragraph. 

So one of two things must be true so far: 

Either 1) It’s much harder to identify Invisible prose than it is to identify Conspicuous prose. 
Or 2) Butler is not an excellent example of Invisible prose. 

Or, well, 3) Maybe “invisible” really is in the eyes of the beholder and doesn’t actually exist at all, in any generalize-able sense. 

At this point, I have to resist running to my bookshelf for more examples. My blog post will balloon, will strangle itself in a web of whiplash sentences that tangle. I will never find the thread. 

Maybe one more example of invisible prose. NO. 
Maybe an example of Stark or of Lush prose, just to round out the categories. 

NO NO. 

But where do we go from here? I think I’ve gone as far as I can into what “invisible” means and what “visible” prose looks like. While I’m still a little unclear on “invisible,” I can admit that Butler’s prose is simpler, easier to read, certainly calls less attention to itself than Bouanani’s. But is it really invisibility she’s after? 

Maybe it is. 

That’s a good segue into why. WHY. 

FINALLY
Why even attempt to write “invisible” prose? I want to find something Butler’s own words as explanation, but my searching has turned up little–except that she believed in good stories, compellingly told. Perhaps that lines up with part of the definition of “invisible” prose in WONDERBOOK, particularly that “Immersive reading is usually the goal.” She wanted readers to be immersed in her world, and to be able to easily understand her works. 

That’s a laudable goal, I’d say, whether or not I think prose can actually be invisible in any sense. 

There’s not much more I can say than that. 

But let me ask you. What is invisible prose? Do you have any of your own favorite examples you turn to? Or any favorite examples of what you’d consider Conspicuous prose? Why do you write either of the two? 

 

Relating Hallucinatory Imagery with Ahmed Bouanani

Written by  mglyde in 


So, I just started reading Ahmed Bouanani’s THE HOSPITAL, which was recently released in English, translated from a uniquely-Moroccan dialect of French. This novella is wonderful, mesmerizing, strange, and moving–it begins with the words “When I walked into the hospital, I must have still been alive.” And it leaps immediately and confidently into an absurdist fairy tale. 

THE CHALLENGE
At the age of fifteen, I ate a steak at some dime-a-dozen restaurant on a date with a girl who is now a woman and my wife, and later that night I came down with a dreadful case of food poisoning. First the fever and the sweat and shaking. Then a pointless heaving and gasping, my body trying to eliminate the source of its distress. Staying home from school the next day, as my symptoms continued, I had the house to myself. Unable to sleep, unable to eat, likely also suffering from some kind of anemic episode (caused by a then-undiagnosed chronic illness), I wandered the two story home, the three bedrooms, the kitchen tile cold against my feet, simultaneously sure that I was not a man but a space–a space filled with fast-moving lights that blasted across my distance like shooting stars, but brighter and multi-chromatic. Blues and reds and greens. They smashed into each other and they exploded! Each bursting bright and sending my body reeling at the white light. With every explosion, I felt physical pain. Pain that was all-too real. Brought on by hallucinations? Or just working in tandem with them? 

I write a lot about characters experiencing altered states of consciousness and I read about it a lot too. I love characters who wander in a stupor, who see the world in a twisted light, who experience hallucinations as a matter of course. It’s a constant struggle to orchestrate these moments in a way that is not only compelling but also relatable and discernible. I watch other authors, sometimes very skilled, very experienced authors, struggle similarly. 

And then there’s Bouanani. 

THE STORY
In this story, a man who is vaguely ill leaves his city and enters a hospital, where he interacts with other patients and rapidly deteriorates. Clearly, even explicitly, he is doomed to remain at the hospital for eternity. The story operates, on some level, as a parable, speaking about certain kinds of men and their experiences in an ostensibly post-colonial Morocco. It’s also a lengthy thought-experiment about reality and perception. On its surface, it’s a semi-autobiographical tale about the author’s experience in a Moroccan hospital while being treated for Tuberculosis. 

Although it took about ten pages to really capture me, THE HOSPITAL by Ahmed Bouanani now has me thoroughly enthralled. In part this is because the translator did a wonderful job–the prose is unbelievably beautiful. I can only assume that the original text is as wonderfully sonorous and precise. It includes this sentence: 

“One doesn’t enter a sleeping man’s brain with impunity, not unless you’re a brave head louse or a moonbeam.”

Damn. 

Now, I haven’t yet finished the book, so I can’t speak much to the plot. So far, most of it the book has just explored the depths of the narrator’s delusions and the general routine around the hospital. But Bouanani makes it fascinating. And, anyway, I never expected it to go anywhere plot-wise, because of it’s genre. It’s written in a similar vein as Kafka’s THE TRIAL (but with much more polish, power, and skill), and Camus’ THE STRANGER, an absurdist tale that relates its absurdity and moves on. Thus the brevity of it. 

But man, does it relate its narrator’s hallucinations in such a compelling and powerful and digestable way (that is, when Bouanani aims for compelling and powerful and digestable). Just a note, for clarity: Rover and Guzzler are both other patients. 

Here’s an example of what I mean, from page 69:

I sink into the bed as if it were a viscous trough. My body, trapped between two slopes, doesn’t move. I can’t turn onto either side or the pains will return. In an effort to amuse myself, while I wait for sleep, I often localize each ache and assign an individual color to it. The shooting pain gnawing at my right side is a deep crimson; the one on my left, turquoise blue; the twinges budding in the hollows of my armpits are alternately yellow, pale green, India red, ocher, purple, and indigo; the areas that endure multiple syringe injections each morning are monochromatic landscapes, one single color in infinitely varying tones. Over time, I transform into an immeasurable palate unabsorbed by the night. I glow bright as a star, I rise above the room to a place where I can barely hear my companions’ breathing or snoring, I gently flatten myself against the cold ceiling, turn around so that I can look down upon the beds; the void that grows between the ground and trough. I sink into my memories in search of my youthful corpse. All I need for the past to shed its shroud, to slip on the rags of my six-year-old self, is a whiff of Brazilian coffee, a tune from a music box, or a fine drizzle falling in bright sunlight like at a jackal’s wedding. But there are not scents anywhere, no scents of childhood, no scents of once abundant fruits (mulberries, carob pods, pomegranates, black night-shade berries), of wild flowers, of the sacred plants from our stories (thyme, basil, henna, laurel). Where can I find, even in my dreams, a field of poppies and ripe cornstalks gently shaken by an autumn wind? Rover emerges from a silent thunderstorm. He laughs and slaps his thighs: “You want to know if the ocean is nearby? Nothing could be easier! You follow this path of cacti until you reach palm trees, you turn left and you start down a dusty trail, which leads to the head doctor’s residence. It’s a large windowless villa surrounded by fir trees. If by extraordinary chance his guard dog doesn’t rip off your leg or ass cheek, then that can only mean one thing: there’s no longer a head doctor at this hospital. You keep tearing down the hill, and you’ll arrive at the edge of a fifty-foot cliff. Then you can, if you insist, go for a nice little dip!” Guzzler appears in his turn, shoving Rover, who crumbles like dried clay: “You think that people like us can afford the luxury of memories, a past with clean diapers, notebooks, a pencil case, and a backpack? I was barely out of my mother’s vagina when my childhood went up in smoke. My old man broke so many rods over my skull that it was impossible for me to get through primary school; I became an apprentice tailor, an assistant repairman of every machine ever created, I even secretly married a widow so I could have cigarettes and pocket money like a proper daddy’s boy. Then, after an eternity of unemployment and begging, I started the back-and-forth hospital cycle . . . So what do you call childhood or adolescence? A fancy Sunday suit, that’s What!” Meanwhile, Rover has pulled himself back together, piece by piece. He coughs, vomits blood, laughs and wipes his eyes. Guzzler hands him a Marlboro, and suggests “Try and get yourself some good hash!” He turns to me: “Do you want Rover dead?” 
     “No.”
     “Then don’t ever stop him from lying! Lies have become second nature to him. Did he already tell you the story about the old fool who chopped up everyone in his bathhouse? You haven’t heard anything yet. Go head, Rover, how does it go again, the one about the guy who buys Al-Buraq at the Medina flea market? Not a two-bit engraving, mind you, but the real thing, the Prophet’s steed, go on, tell him.”
     “Come on, Guzzler, another time. Can’t you see that our friend is already asleep? Leave him be.” 

THE SOLUTION
He contained all of that in one paragraph! And it makes total sense! Of course you would want one long extended hallucinatory moment to be constrained within one fictive logical unit. Duh! 

I think it’s easy to understate the importance of paragraphs as a unifying force. Even when I wasn’t sure that the narrator was still hallucinating (in that middle bit where he returns to his “trough”), I was pretty confident he was still hallucinating, because no new paragraph

That has to be it. There were not really any other signs. 

Another something I notice, right off the bat: these two hallucinations don’t really go in the order I would have put them in. It goes from pretty abstract to pretty mundane, and that’s interesting in itself. Like Bouanani intentionally wanted us to wonder if he was still hallucinating or not–while subtly giving us a clue that he was still hallucinating. In the end, though, is he? I’m living for this ambiguity. 

One last final moment before really diving in; one final moment to celebrate the metaphors and adjectives just in this one paragraph. No future simile will ever be as evocative as “I sink into the bed as if it were a viscous trough.” Not for the rest of my whole life. As the narrator transforms himself into a painter’s palette, I’m so struck by the detail and specificity of the injuries and the colors: not brown, ochre; not just green, but pale green; twinges versus shooting pains versus the dull aches evoked by “syringe injections” which exist not in an area or on a stretch of muscle but on a landscape. And, finally, Rover, who “crumbles like clay” when pushed. Beautiful. 

But now, down to brass tacks. 

There’s one really key insight in this nugget of story for me. This hallucinatory scene is a complete scene, and it begins with the character setting a goal, or at least a plan, a way to “amuse” himself until he falls asleep. We can even, to a certain degree, outline it using Swain’s methodology for scenes. 

Goal: to get to sleep
Conflict: he’s in too much pain, so he labels all the pain with colors; but then he dissociates and has to fight to return to his bed; finally, either he hallucinates an argument, or dreams it, or his friends are in the room (and are only peppered with hallucinations). Either way, it’s keeping him from restful sleep. 
Resolution: his friends go, and based on evidence from the next segment, he appears to sleep. 

This being said, my point is that Bouanani makes this such a compelling, engaging hallucination because it’s structured around desire and a plan that’s been justified to us with a certain kind of logic. Labeling his body with colors is just the narrator’s way of distracting himself–it’s one of the things that’s we take for granted. But that distraction goes to far and he is distracted to the point of dissociation but it’s a logical step, in part because we are already aware of the narrator’s propensity to do this, but also because in the labeling of his pain, he’s evoked such a psychedelic image of himself as a colorful, cosmic landscape, that we’re just waiting for it to escalate. He sets up an expectation that it will. 

Expectations built by a character stating and enacting what seems to be a habitual method for dealing with his pain!

And he just takes his time to first build the psychedelic image, then drive it deeper into the narrator’s (and our) psyche, and then expand it out to the whole room. 

How deceptively, wonderfully simple.  

And Bouanani continues this tactic even as his narrator spreads out across the ceiling: he seeks some sensation to plunge him into memory, to further distract himself. But this effort is thwarted by the appearance of Rover, who tries to guide him to the ocean but just captures too much attention. And then Guzzler comes and de-rails the entire conversation. 

This moment, too, is anchored in desire. It’s a desire to get away from it, a desire to get to sleep, to his past, to his dreams. The hallucination is the obstacle that stands in the way of the narrator finding his peace. That’s what makes it so compelling. That’s what grounds it, too. 

But that’s not the only thing grounding it. The other thing is the dialogue itself–it’s a sound on the page, it’s imagery–and the detail being described in the dialogue. Both Rover and Guzzler speak in such concrete and specific terms that it’s easy to overlook the strangeness, the hallucinatory nature of the interaction. 

FINALLY
Let’s stop here. Brevity can be wonderful, especially after a couple of long posts the last few weeks. In summary, Bouanani seems to be using two key techniques: 

1. Ground the hallucinatory moment in desire and conflict, give it a “logic”
2. Ground the hallucinatory moment in specific, detailed nouns 

These two things work in tandem to really evoke these moments and to relate them in an interesting way. 

When you want to write a moment that’s hallucinatory, what examples in literature or film do you turn to as a guide? What do you think about, as you put the scene together?