Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Michiko Kakutani, messy

New York Times book-reviewer Michiko Kakutani is known for her frequent (some might say too frequent) use of the verb limn. Far more frequent is her use of the adjective messy. Indeed, it was the appearance of the two words in close proximity in Kakutani’s review of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom — “limning their messy inner lives” — that made me wonder whether messy appears with any frequency in her writing. It does. And how.

Messy first appears in 1979, in a description of the Gotham Book Mart: “a messy profusion of literary magazines, journals and booklets arranged in alphabetical heaps and rows.” Then, a slight drizzle:

“Ruth Gordon was apologizing for her messy apartment.” [1979]

“[T]he messy ambiguities of life.” [1980]

“[A] messy sexual tryst,” “messy lives and aimless talk.” [1982]
Then, a steady rain:
“[T]his messy affair,” “a noisy, somewhat messy interruption in their daily lives,” “the messy fortunes of four young people coming of age in a small, unnamed English town,” “declaring on the witness stand that their house is very messy.” “Whereas fictional events may be orchestrated and shaped into a pleasing pattern, real events tend to be messy and resistant to the tidy, idealized designs favored by the imagination.” [1983]

“[L]ots of messy relationships and compromising positions,” “increasingly messy,” “messy wisps of ‘maybe’s.’” [1984]

“[M]essy entanglements,” “the messy entanglements and conditional values of humdrum daily life.’ [1985]

“[M]essy coincidences,” “messy convolutions,” “messy narrative,” “messy human emotions.” [1986]

“[A] messy affair,” “messy affairs,” “messy housekeeping.” [1987]

“[A] messy seduction scene,” “messy to begin with,” “messy private life,” “small, messy lives.” “If this sounds messy, things are to get considerably more complicated as the novel proceeds.” [1988]

“[M]essy life,” “bizarre three-way relationships and messy complications.” [1989]

“Julie's messy life,” “the messy world of human emotions,” “messy dangling ends.” [1990]

“[T]he messy facts of his father’s life,” “the messy facts of Poe’s life.” [1991]
Then, a downpour:
“[A] messy hodgepodge of a book,” “incongruous and messy relationships,” “messy relationships with men,” “the messy, often incomprehensible facts of life,” “change, confusion and messy emotion.” [1992]

“[A] messy maelstrom of emotions,” “messy moral dilemmas,” “Naomi Wolf’s messy new treatise.” [1993]

“[T]his lax, messy book,” “the random, messy business of life,” “a messy hodgepodge of familiar complaints and hyperbolic assertions.” [1994]

“A Novel About a Novelist and His Messy Life,” “messy involvement,” “the messy details of real life,” “a messy series of adventures,” “a finely observed but messy novel.” [1995]

“[Howard] Stern’s messy, free-associative new tome,” “messy, entangled lives,” “this messy and prosaic book.” [1996]

“[A] messy tangle of contradictions,” “messy human emotions,” “this otherwise messy, discursive novel,” “so messy that its refusal of closure feels less like an artistic choice than simple laziness.” Time itself becomes a big hot mess: “The solar year is made up of a messy 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes and 45.96768 seconds; the moon takes an inconvenient 29 1/2 days (or to be more precise, 29.53059 days) to circle the earth.” [1997]

“[T]he messy process of artistic creation,” “the messy, spoiled world of civilization,” “this messy, discursive book,” “a messy, shaggy-dog tale.” [1998]

“[T]his messy volume,” “the messy world,” “the messy fallout of an art forgery scam,” “messy romantic entanglements.” [1999]

“[M]essy confirmation hearings,” “messy emotions,” “the messy ingredients of life,” “a messy hybrid of a book,” “a messy adventure.” [2000]

“A messy hodgepodge of styles and ambitions,” “a messy kitchen sink of a book,” “messy and wildly ambitious epics,” “disclosures about Luke’s messy life,” “the messy web of extortion, payoffs and election fraud that afflicted Jersey City and its neighbors in Hudson County,” “a scintillating, if messy, tapestry.” [2001]

“[A] messy hodgepodge of ideas, experimental dream sequences and leaden leitmotifs,” “simultaneously schematic and messy,” “a messy, unconvincing assemblage.” [2002]

“[T]he messy 2000 election standoff in Florida,” “a messy one,” “lazy craftsmanship and a messy, improvised story.” [2003]

“[T]he messy cacophony of city life,” “a messy pastiche,” “a messy, musically structured hodgepodge of a novel,” “his own messy, even felonious inner life,” “messy and predictable at the same time.” [2004]

“[A] messy love triangle,” “a messy hodgepodge of case studies,” “the whole messy story,” “the whole messy sprawl,” “their own messy stew of emotions.” [2005]
Slowing to a drizzle:
“[A] messy, doomed affair,” “a smart, saavy [sic] but messy hodgepodge of a book.” [2006]

“[B]ig, messy, controversial issues,“ “the useful if messy new book.” [2007]

“[A] messy agglomeration,” “his messy, increasingly implausible plot.” [2008]

“This messy, longwinded [sic] volume,” “an entertaining, if messy and long-winded, commentary on the fiction-making process itself.” [2009]

“[A] messy divorce,” “limning their messy inner lives.” [2010]
And the new year is thus far tidy. You can literally eat off the floor, figuratively speaking.

Every writer has stock bits of diction and phrasing. It’s good to become conscious of them, lest they develop into writerly tics. Me, I have to watch out for wonderful, which I’ve used fourteen times in Orange Crate Art posts — it’s probably a Van Dyke Parks influence.

[All quotations from the New York Times. I’ve rearranged some material within individual years for cadence.]

A related post
Eric Schmidt, literally

comments: 3

Diane Schirf said...

Have you seen The Christie Code on PBS, in which researchers say Agatha Christie often repeats the same word in successive paragraphs (e.g., "interesting")? The effect is (allegedly) to put readers in a somewhat hypnotic trance so they read and read, unaware of the passage of time.

Matt said...

Another interesting post, thanks.

I'm a librarian, but I also write reviews of reference books for an Emerald publication. My writing tic was the word otiose. It's such a lovely word, and is so rarely used that I started to find delight in using it. Going so far as to restructure whole paragraphs so I could include it! Odd behaviour, I know.

My last couple of reviews have been otiose free. But I've found an excellent place to include it in the next one. And I'm going to get limn in there as well.

Thanks again!

Michael Leddy said...

Diane, I’m not familiar with it, but I just found a BBC article that mentions “can you keep an eye on this,” “more or less,” “a day or two,” and “something like that” as among the phrases that make AC’s writing “literally unputdownable.” (I’m not making that up.)

Matt, that’s wonderful. :)