HOW NOT TO WRITE A SENTENCE: On THE CONTORTIONIST’S HANDBOOK by Craig Clevenger
Of all the many attempts to clone and cash in on “Chuck” Palahniuk’s popularity among high-school dropouts, perhaps the silliest is Craig Clevenger’s. Clevenger would be at his happiest if teens chirped and cawed out “Craig!” every time he walked into his local YMCA or video-game parlor (if any such still existed). To call Clevenger’s fiction “juvenile,” however, would be to raise his discourse to the level of respectability. It is worse than juvenile. It is worse than adolescent. It is horrifically infantile. It is goo, goo, goo, and gaa, gaa, gaa.
Nonetheless–and this is why I am reviewing his mucksterpiece The Contortionist’s Handbook–Clevenger’s “work,” such as it is, is highly instructive to fledgling writers. His supremely idiotic fiction exemplifies how NOT to write fictionally. The Contortionist’s Handbook is, seen from this perspective, the photographic negative of Stanley Fish’s How to Write a Sentence. If you parse the sentences of the Great Infantilist, as I will now do, you will learn how NOT to write a sentence (though Fish’s book is illustrative, not prescriptive).
Here are three representative sentences from The Contortionist’s Handbook:
1. “They were old, watching a religious talk show blare from a black-and-white television the size of a mailbox opening” . “They” are an old couple, proprietors of a run-down hotel. Am I truly the first person to notice that “blare” is the wrong word? “To blare” refers to sound only. And is the television itself really the size of a mailbox opening? If so, that is a state-of-the-art black-and-white television set!
2. “The cobwebs and noise in my head are gone, the word is quiet” . Let us be charitable and assume that Clevenger knows what a comma splice is. Why tell us that all is nice and mellow in our Antihero’s head twice in one sentence, especially since the narrator notified us that the “world feels so RIGHT” one sentence before? Do I need to mention that it doesn’t require very much talent to use “cobwebs” and “head” in the same sentence?
3. “Rasputin yowled for attention and licked my face until his sandpaper tongue burned through my stupor” . Now this is a perfectly ghastly sentence. Do not mix abstract nouns (“attention,” “stupor”) with concrete imagery. Do not confuse images: the tongue either feels like sandpaper or it burns, unless it feels like a piece of sandpaper on fire.
The Contortionist’s Handbook is a transcendently awful book. This gives the book a certain importance in a negative galaxy: a galaxy in which everything that is bad in our galaxy is good. I praise Clevenger for pressing and even surpassing the limits of badness, for inventing a book so hideously bad that it is the exemplar of bad fiction. It is the very ideal of illiterature, the “literature” of the illiterate, for the illiterate, the ideal Book of the Brain-Dead, for the brain-dead, the ideal lexicon of the hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobic, for the hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobic.
Craig Clevenger would not have existed were it not for “Chuck” Palahniuk. And “Chuck” Palahniuk would not have existed were it not for J.D. Salinger, who wrote the most toxic novel ever published. The Catcher in the Rye has exerted a baleful influence on American literature that continues to this day. Thanks to J.D. Salinger, now every dolt in America thinks that s/he can be an author.
Dr. Joseph Suglia