James Parker’s recent article on Joe Strummer in The Atlantic features one of the finest opening paragraphs I have ever read:
American shrinks know him well: the English boarding-school boy. Privately educated, privately damaged, culturally overstocked, and twanging with the knowledge of his own separateness. Having made an emigratory thrust westward, he washes up, middle-aged, in the therapist’s chair, head in hands, complaining of a sound, a sound: tires on gravel, and the swish of the family vehicle as it slides off the institutional forecourt, abandoning him to Matron, and cold toast, and the other boys.
Look at that prose. Understated, suave, elegant, intricately constructed – down to the individual comma. It purrs like a top-rate Jaguar. Instead of opening with a bang, the first sentence sidles into the reader’s psyche, the colon assuming the subtlety of the appositive comma rather than its usual consequential bluntness. Then, with the mention of the “English boarding-school boy”, we are in the realm of stereotype – a dangerous place to be with the wrong guide. But Parker is wily, absorbing all the force of the cliché (similar in affective tenor to gossip) but shaping it to his own ends.
“Privately educated” is official in tone; it would be at home in any old obituary or newspaper profile. But Parker undercuts the reader’s expectation with “privately damaged”, combining the stylistic curio of the anaphora with the continued cliché of the content (after all, it is part of the stereotype of English boarding-school boys that they are psychologically damaged). “Twanging” is a touch of genius; we have entered the sphere of Wallace Stevens (“I know my lazy, leaden twang/ Is like the reason in a storm”) but here it is not ratio that sounds out: it is knowledge of his own separateness – a lesser writer would have chosen “solitude”.
The paragraph continues in this guise, each phrase sculpted to semantic and tonal perfection: “emigratory thrust”, “washes up” and so on. And then we enter for the briefest of moments a stream of consciousness, “complaining of a sound, a sound”, the repetition of which is crucial for the vitality of the psychoanalytic scene. We are there with him, staring down at this helpless but enormously privileged man-boy. It ends as it begins: in the realm of stereotype. The distinct joy of reading this last sentence is a combination of cultural recognition – Matron! Of course! I remember that figure from all those terrible films! – and stylistic exactitude. The tires don’t roll or move, they swish off the forecourt, onomatopoeically reproducing in our mind the thousands of episodes of Famous Five or Midsomer Murders we’ve had the (mis)fortune of watching over the years. It is an exercise in stylistic perfection.
But now, initial excitement over, we must recover ourselves. For prose which produces such heightened cathexis must have something of the night about it, something embedded deep in the political unconscious. What might that be?
Let us look again. The overriding tone of this style is self-confidence. One rarely encounters it these days, for those who attempt it usually mistake arrogance for stylistic virtue (Martin Amis’s clichéd anti-clichés spring to mind). Yet, read the personal accounts of the “great individuals” of history and you will find it there: cf. Trotsky, passim. It is the tone of the victors, those to whose will reality ultimately conformed and whose triumphs echo in the sinews of their writing. It is a rhythm which implies a clear beginning, middle and an end; we are not, here, in the realm of Virgina Woolf, one who lingers on the abstract detail at the expense of the narrative totality. No, we are marched through the paragraph, hand in hand with a man (and that it is a man is crucial) who is sufficiently au fait with the cultural enthymemes of our time to draw on their ideological acuity, yet who by very subtle mockery implicitly raises himself above them. Quite whether we are raised with him is a question of who is reading.
In short, as unlikely as it may seem, I claim that what appeared initially to be a purely aesthetic excitement over Parker’s prose style is in fact socially and politically specific. The joy I felt on reading this prose was the form momentarily assumed by the Utopian (or Dystopian) desire for historical triumph in combination with my identification with an ideological construction of bourgeois masculinity: I wanted to be the man who knows what he wants, gets what he wants, but does so with the all the suaveness that stylistic capital has to offer.