Tender is the Prose
And frankly, I found it very hard going. Meandering plot, puzzling metaphors, characters distorted to fit into the roles he needs for them.
Start with his take on women. The book is supposed to be about them—the girl who falls in love, the woman who goes insane—but even for a 1930s writer, he has a completely tin ear when it comes to how women actually work. For example, here about the young (17 when we meet her) actress who falls in love with a married man:
Rosemary was from the middle of the middle class, catapulted by her mother onto the uncharted heights of Hollywood. Their point of resemblance to each other and their difference from so many American women, lay in the fact that they were all happy to exist in a man’s world—they preserved their individuality through men and not by opposition to them. They would all three have made alternatively good courtesans or good wives not by the accident of birth but through the greater accident of finding their man or not finding him.
Where does one start with such a statement? Were American women in fact unhappy about existing in a man’s world, or did they just shrug and get on with things? Is a good wife like a good courtesan? How does a person preserve her individuality through another person?
They came out of the neat restored trench, and faced a memorial to the Newfoundland dead. Reading the inscription Rosemary burst into sudden tears. Like most women she liked to be told how she should feel, and she liked Dick’s telling her which things were ludicrous and which things were sad.
Really? So, girls—do we like to be told how to feel? Or do most men like to believe we’re so childlike, we need to be led into such realization?
Then there are the sentences—dozens and dozens of them—that sound clever, and feel as if the author is proud of them, but are actually baffling. Such as this, about Rosemary’s mother / stage manager:
One of her husbands had been a cavalry officer and one an army doctor, and they both left something to her that she tried to present intact to Rosemary. By not sparing Rosemary she had made her hard—by not sparing her own labor and devotion she had cultivated an idealism in Rosemary, which at present was directed toward herself and saw the world through her eyes.
Huh? Or when the man Rosemary wants to seduce first kisses her in a taxi, then turns her down:
Her face drooped with dismay and disappointment and Dick said automatically, “We’ll have to simply—” He stopped himself, followed her to the bed, sat down beside her while she wept. He was suddenly confused, not about the ethics of the matter, for the impossibility of it was sheerly indicated from all angles but simply confused, and for a moment his usual grace, the tensile strength of his balance, was absent.
“I knew you wouldn’t,” she sobbed. “It was just a forlorn hope.”
Should I know what the tensile strength of his balance means? Would any young woman actually say forlorn hope? Did he think it clever to insert, after a long interruption, the blithe phrase “To resume Rosemary’s point of view…” Is there some reason why Rosemary is sitting on the beach trying to avoid talking to one group of people while admiring another, and then suddenly she’s out in the water with one of the swimmers? “Nicole” goes from the most stable person on the page to a complete raving lunatic. Some characters we find sympathetic, then they turn loathsome—and vice versa with others.
I do realize that literary fiction tends to have different rules from genre storytelling, but please.
Anyone else out there have problems with some of the classics?