Saturday, May 24, 2008

Transpa(rentheses)cific P(arenthetic)rose

While ingesting my first morning dose of caffeine, I encountered this sentence:

Riddled with ethnic tensions and racial battles that go far back in history, at least to the contact of Captain James Cook's untimely three explorations (cum apotheosis) in 1778 and the American Board of Commissioners of Foreign Missions' offshore project in white cultural redemption (cum indigenous demonization and racial abjection) in 1820, which dragged Hawai'i into the battle of imperial nations, postmodern Hawai'i is still struggling with these (uneven) global/local dialectics (ongoing) dependency syndromes a la some Pacific Caliban seeking for a blessed pidgin voice, and searching for some capable theory, economic sufficiency, and path to counterimperial survival as people and place.

At first I thought more caffeine might help, but no: after my second cup of tea, the sentence still looks bad. And that's because it is bad. Its badness springs from several sources: too many ideas elbowing for attention, too little concern for the finer points of syntax, and too much indulgence in distracting verbal tics. I see "Riddled with ethnic tensions" and I immediately wonder who or what is so riddled, but I have to wade through four more lines of type before I encounter the answer ("postmodern Hawai'i"), and in the meantime I'm expected to absorb a boatload of historical references, jargon, and parenthetical comments (cum self-indulgent, showoffy, distracting digression). A similar syntactic mess occurs at the end of the sentence, where I read that "some Pacific Caliban" is "seeking for a blessed pidgin voice," which is fine, but then am I expected to believe that this same Caliban is "searching for some....path to counterimperial survival as people and place"? Caliban is neither a people nor a place. But wait! Maybe the search is being conducted not by "some Pacific Caliban" but by "postimperial Hawai'i"! Now I have to go back and re-read to see if the sentence works that way, but I once again stumble over all those parentheses

I have nothing against parentheses per se, but this author (Rob Wilson in Reimagining the American Pacific, Duke University Press, 2000) sprinkles them liberally throughout his prose in places where parentheses are patently unnecessary. Here is another example from the same page:

Nowadays in "postlocal" Hawai'i, at least within the tormented cultural politics of the literary scene, a dream of first possession, cum local entrenchment in ethnicity and place-based identity, at times refuses to join in the global flow; resists (understandably) national assimilation of self and culture; wants to start over (as it were) by going back to a time when the island economy was not so much caught up in the flows, mongrel mix, and struggles of imperial powers.

I can understand the desire to place "understandably" in parentheses so as to suggest that its awkward placement in the sentence is intentional rather than accidental, but why "as it were"? If the phrase is necessary, why not use commas? The parentheses simply draw attention to the relative emptiness of the phrase. Here's another example two pages later:

As the U.S. state of Hawai'i now undergoes its ninth year of economic turmoil in the 1990s, it yet again searches for a (lost) sense of place and (fleeting) vision of the future.

And another:

Longing to be the new Jack Lord of the bistros, tourist resorts, and beef-laden beaches, at least Hasselhoff's instinct for story was in the right place, if a bit naive as to the lurking problems and tormented history of Hawai'i (as U.S. outpost in the Pacific) that cannot be gleaned in a tourist's week skimming books and videos on his new Diamond Head verandah.

In this sentence, the distracting parenthetical phrase is perhaps the least egregious problem. Am I expected to believe that "Hasselhoff's instinct for story" is "Longing to the be the new Jack Lord of the bistros"? And who, exactly, is skimming all those books and videos in Diamond Head?

Reading Wilson, I'm so distracted by the infelicitous prose that I'm having trouble absorbing the argument--and I haven't even made it through the Preface! I know academic publishers everywhere are having problems, but this book wasn't published by Nowheresville State College of Welding: this is Duke University Press! Please, people, find a competent copy editor and beat that tortured prose into shape! It's too late for Wilson's book, but it may not be too late for others! Anyone who writes or publishes prose that awkward ought to be sentenced to solitary confinement in a parenthetical digression (cum on!).

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Dear Prof Hogue,

You have to stop reading that kind of stuff because it will eventually cause your neurons to fire in real crazy ways. Trust me.

Former Reader