Charles Baxter, “Lush Life” craft lecture (part 2)

baxter_flute-playerC.B.’s own bad example of superimposing the past on the present was bad, he said, because it didn’t involve any kind of superimposition at all, merely an interjection. A “flash back” if you will:

Ramona was bored by Baxter’s presentation in the Little Theater. What was he talking about? Lushness, or something. Outside, the grass was fragrant. Sitting back in her uncomfortable chair and gazing first at the grass and then up at the ceiling’s crisscrossed wooden beams, Ramona thought back to the previous week, when she had visited the Vermont State Fair. [. . .] Suddenly startled, Ramona came back to the present. Baxter was still droning on about lushness.

The problem with such a passage is its implication that the past resides in a place separate from, or beside the present. That we exist in both times at separate occassion, whereas, Baxter argues, quoting Faulkner, “the past isn’t dead; it isn’t even past.” If the past resides in the present, then writers looking to capture that experience need to render both simultaneously.

Here’s one example, from Lowry’s Under the Volcano:

So the bar, open all night for the occasion, was evidently full. Ashamed, numb with nostalgia and anxiety, reluctant to enter the crowded bar, though equally reluctant to have the taxidriver go in for her, Yvonne, her consciousness so lashed by wind and air and voyage she still seemed to be travelling, still sailing to Acapulco harbour yesterday evening through a hurricane of immense and gorgeous butterflies swooping seaward to great the Pennsylvania—at first it was as though fountains of multicoloured stationery were being swept out of the saloon lounge—glanced defensively round the square, really tranquil in the midst of this commotion, of the butterflies still zigzagging overhead or past the heavy open ports, endlessly vanishing astern, their square, motionless and brilliant in the seven o’clock morning sunlight, silent yet somehow poised, expectant, with one eye half open already, the merry-go-rounds, the Ferris wheel, lightly dreaming, looking forward to the fiesta later—the ranged rugged taxis too that were looking forward to something else, a taxi strike that afternoon, she’d been confidentially informed.

Here you’ve got a total superimposition not just of the past on the present, but the future as well, indicated most clearly through the bulk of previous-day imagery stuck between the sentence’s subject (“Yvonne”) and verb (“glanced”). Here we have the distillation of the story’s “present”: Yvonne glanced round the square. And rather than flash back to the past before or after this sentence, and rather than flash forward, Lowry sews it all right into the sentence’s grammar.

Further examples came from Robinson’s Housekeeping and Lolita, and Baxter used as a counterexample DFW’s “Good Old Neon”, which he sees as lush style with “the heat taken out of it.” This results in a “speaker riffing himself to death,” Wallace trying to “replicate the overheard manic rhythms of self-desperation.” Here, “style is a vast destruction machine,” with “no relief from skepticism and doubt,” and no place for “the precious to come through.”

It seemed an unfair and irrelevant counterexample, one thrown in there lest people assume lushness means only “long sentences full of stuff.” It doesn’t seem as DFW is ever interested in the superimposition of the past on the present, with nostalgia, with memory even, but rather in depicting a new kind of sadness that has no particular referent and yet a very visceral effect. A sadness more urgent and universal. A sadness that, like a string section, insists that we are now all lonely in the exact same way. It’s like taking Stephanie Meyer to task for not writing about bullfighting.

In general, I was suspicious that all Baxter’s examples of lushness came from the period 1947 to 1980 (with one Shakespeare soliloquy thrown in for good measure—one read by Fitzgerald). He admitted early on that most writers today are not interested in lush styles; could it be because lush styles no longer work? That we should take as models for our own writing the works that gained recognition decades before we were born was never really accounted for, and yet doesn’t it need to be? What does it mean for the future of creative writing to encourage apprentice writers to write like their predecessors?

“Fiction writers are in two timeframes,” Baxter argued toward the end of the lecture. “We are in the here and now, but we are also in the back then.” I’m not sure whether this is true. Even if I buy it, and I might, surely this is an indication of age. Surely certain writers are more fully in the “back then” than I ever could be right now.

Disinterested in most evocations of the past, what’s left for me in terms of lushness? I thought I was interested. I thought my own style verged on it. But maybe I was wrong. Maybe it lacks any kind of warmth. How can we write from a fever while looking at the now and the days thereafter?

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