In his essay on Lancelot Andrewes, T.S. Eliot wrote about 'relevant intensity'. Contemporary British and American writers are in love with what might be called irrelevant intensity. In fiction, information has become the new character, and information is endless. We know the signs of irrelevant intensity: an obsession with pop-culture trivia; a love of the comedy of culture rather than the comedy of character; zany scenes interrupted by essayistic riffs - on hotel minibars, on videophones, on the semiotics of street manners in major European cities, what have you - the riffs always expertly blending the sentimental and the Cultural-Studies-theoretical; a tendency to elongate into lists whenever possible (of the 'there were ten things that Brian really disliked' kind); kooky epigraphs, mixing high and low authorities; long, feverish run-on sentences, desperately semaphoring their gross mimetic appetite, their need to capture as much of 'the madness of the times' as possible, as much of 'the way we live now'; and a frequent oiling of italics. A parody would go like this:
Brian idly fingered the minibar. It was happily 'chugging' (though was 'chugging' exactly the right word?) to itself as if it had actually already drunk its entire contents. The minibar was one of that weird genre that tells you that as soon as you move anything in it, anything at all, you will be automatically billed. Brian wondered about this: how would they - they being the Loews Hotel accountants who worked out of a large and famously hideous building in Newark, though probably in fact the information was logged somewhere like Hong Kong or Kuala Lumpur - how would they know that you had moved, say, the tiny bottle of Johnnie Walker to where the tiny bottle of Smirnoff was standing? Like, thought Brian, would an alarm go off? He plucked a bottle of Budweiser. Nothing happened. The strange pathos of cold beer bottles in lonely hotel rooms! The bottle was shaped like a beautiful woman . . . Above the minibar, the 24-inch Zenith screen was showing a Seinfeld rerun (Brian identified it as one of the shows from that strange two-month lull, September-October 1995, when the writing went soft and the jokes were bizarrely unfunny). There were three things Brian really disliked: a) Seinfeld when he was not at his peak; b) his girlfriend when, as currently, she wasn't taking his calls; c) the second half of a bottle of beer once the liquid has warmed up. Just as he was pondering these things, the phone went. It was Jason Jenson, known to the police as Wet-Dog, his old friend from Brown, former drug-pusher, cat-burglar, mail fraudster and insurance scam artist, one-time inmate of Lorton penitentiary, now a computer whizz kid with EkaSystems Inc, and earning at least half a million a year . . .
LRB 3 October 2002 | PDF Download