Decision making, Spenser style

From Robert B. Parker’s Cold Service:

You need to know what you know, what you don’t know, and what you have to know. And you need to have it in mind. You need to know what part of what you want to do can be done now, and what needs to wait, and what it needs to wait for. Is there anything you don’t understand in this situation? Anything missing?

From Chapter 34, page 157 in my edition.

Everybody knows Parker’s detective Spenser, and I’ve quoted him before on this blog. I copied out this quote on the back of a postcard and have it propped up on my desk, next to my kid calendar. I appreciate it because it sets out a decision-making process.

I wouldn’t say that I spend my day making more decisions than the average worker bee, but perhaps it’s that I spend more time thinking about the decisions I make than the average worker bee. So any kind of guidelines to decision making are welcome; that’s why it’s propped up on the desk.

More interestingly, Parker wrote the quote, he’s a writer and was focused on putting words together, slapping covers and a generic title on them, and moving on to the next one. But the words come out of the mouth of Spenser, his detective. Consider therefore the research necessary to fully inhabit the world of Spenser. Research is more than just having a sea captain inform you about the tides in San Francisco Bay, as Isabel Allende did for her novel Ripper, which I just finished reading. It also includes research into motivations and styles of work.

Consider wondering how fully does the novel’s protagonist think like the kind of person he or she is supposed to be. This is obviously most applicable to crime novels, as the detective is often a professional detective.

“A face that seemed so sturdy as to defy even the devastating pickax of misery,” Balzac


…Godefroid examined [the stranger] closely and was surprised at his exceptional thinness, no doubt caused by sorrow, and perhaps hunger, and very likely hard work. Each of these debilitating forces had left its mark on that face, whose withered skin clung tightly to the bones, as if baked by the fires of Africa. His high, looming forehead sheltered two steel blue eyes beneath its cupola, eyes as cold, hard, wise, and penetrating as the eyes of the savages but marred by two deep and very wrinkled dark circles. His long slender nose and proudly raised chin gave the old man a certain resemblance to the popular image of Don Quixote, but this was the face of a cruel Don Quixote, a Don Quixote without illusions, Don Quixote as a formidable figure.

In spite of this severity, the old man could not entirely conceal the fear and frailty that indigence confers on all its victims. These two afflictions had created something like cracks in a face that seemed so sturdy as to defy even the devastating pickax of misery. His mouth was eloquent and serious. Don Quixote was complicated by the President de Montesquieu.


Le grand vieillard hésitait à répondre; il voyait venir Mme. Vauthier; mais Godefroid, qui l’examinait attentivement, fut surpris du degré de maigreur auquel les chagrins, la faim peut-être, peut-être le travail, l’avaient fait arriver; il y avait trace de toutes ces causes d’affaiblissement sur cette figure, où la peau desséchée se collait avec ardeur sur les os, comme si elle avait été exposée aux feux de l’Afrique. Le front, haut et d’un aspect menaçant, abritait sous sa coupole deux yeux d’un bleu d’acier, deux yeux froids, durs, sagaces et perspicaces comme ceux des sauvages, mais meurtris par un profond cercle noir très ridé. Le nez, grand, long et mince, et le menton, très relevé, donnaient à ce vieillard une ressemblance avec le masque si connu, si populaire attribué à don Quichotte; mais c’était don Quichotte méchant, sans illusions, un don Quichotte terrible.

Ce vieillard, malgré cette sévérité générale, laissait percer la crainte et la faiblesse que prête l’indigence à tous les malheureux. Ces deux sentiments produisaient comme des lézardes dans cette face construite si solidement que le pic dévastateur de la misère semblait s’y ébrécher. La bouche était éloquente et sérieuse. Don Quichotte se compliquait du président de Montesquieu.

—Balzac, The Wrong Side of Paris (L’envers de l’histoire contemporaine), Part II, Chapter 3, translated by Jordan Stump

Do we still see our fellows in the same detailed way? I wonder if this kind of descriptive language, this way of introducing a character, still exists in the language of the present day. I know that it’s often easier to look for a shorthand metaphor, a kind of picture-word that’s worth at least five hundred other words; I’m thinking of this kind of description in particular:

The headmistress was a tall, slim woman who looked a little like Charles de Gaulle.

To me Balzac’s description reeks of the past, of a different way of looking at people, of close examination of appearance as a way to better understanding of character. This kind of quote takes those old saws about how “suffering was written on his face” and walks the reader through one such face: M. Bernard’s thinness as the result of hard work and sorrow and hunger, the forehead-as-cupola, the steely blue eyes, and the reference to popular views of Don Quixote.

The larger question is this: do people even look like M. Bernard any more, especially in novels?

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“The sky is going all slatey like in a painting people say is important,” Terese Svoboda

The father comes up behind him. Furthest away the mother halts. They look up. The sky is going all slatey like in a painting people say is important. In the second they take to glance up, the rocketship retracts its legs and tail and plays dead.

—Terese Svoboda, “Leadership”

The best of Terese Svoboda’s words read themselves in your head like hearing a Steve Lacy line, perhaps from Only Monk, his solo recordings of Thelonious Monk compositions, all tight and ropy and in a single strand encompassing melody and harmony both, such as it is. They are quick and expressive and in every story in her collection Trailer Girl there is something strange, something you could call “modal” that comes about, like changing the harmonic structure of the story while the melody plays on, like listening to something new emerging out of the swamp off in the distance.

In “Leadership,” there’s a family: mom, dad, son. There’s also a rocket ship that lands on their lawn. Read the quote above, and see how in less than 30 words she’s drawn an entire poster in the Constructivist style, complete with dramatic lighting and a family unit.

Reduced rent was what the parlor floor got in exchange for letting everyone in the building roll through their window onto their bed, where they liked the light, though everyone entered snow-dusted or iced, and at any hour, often with them in it.

—Terese Svoboda, “Cave Life”

Though the sentence starts out practically and rationally to discuss household economy, the writer switches on the absurd lamp after the first clause. Then, there’s a nifty chiasmus, xy-yx, that tells you as much about the people who live on the parlor floor as their housemates. The elaborate construction, which seems to strand the phrases “they liked the light” and “with them in it” on their own little inaccessible semantic islands, signifies that something is bound to happen in the house, if only to resolve the tensions Ms. Svoboda has created in this single sentence.

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‘Iridescent bubbles of dank subterranean breath rose from the sweating sod’ Thomas Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd


Bathsheba never forgot that transient little picture of Liddy crossing the swamp to her there in the morning light. Iridescent bubbles of dank subterranean breath rose from the sweating sod beside the waiting maid’s feet as she trod, hissing as they burst and expanded away to join the vapoury firmament above. Liddy did not sink, as Bathsheba had anticipated.

She landed safely on the other side, and looked up at the beautiful though pale and weary face of her young mistress.

—Thomas Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd, Chapter XLIV


“Unpredictable soughs full of brown water threaded its endless slopes of sodden tussocky grass, and queer rocks were embedded along its rheumy skylines, eroded by the wind into vague and organic silhouettes.”

—M. John Harrison, “A Storm of Wings,” Chapter 6

I’ve trotted out another quote about swamps today, from the ‘Viriconium’ series of M. John Harrison, in order to point out by comparison just how good a nature writer Hardy is. In the few passages I’ve posted, we’ve seen how he engages all the senses through writing in order to make the environment seem more lifelike. The Viriconium stories are lively and elaborate fantasy stories, about a world at the end of time, and it’s not fair to make over-broad assumptions about books or authors through a single sentence. Here’s another, from indoors:


They stood in the shadow of a huge dead locust, or perhaps it was a mantis. Its forelimbs were folded hieratically above them, clutching something they couldn’t see. Leathery curtains of dried mucus hung down from its ventral joints and openings. Its fading telepathies trickled through Hornwrack’s skull in a reedy counterpoint to the perceptual disorganisation that swelled over him like triumphant organ music from the city’s living inhabitants. His eyes were watering in the lemon fog from the exploding atmospheric distilleries; his nose was running. A tarry fungus flourishing in the shade of the great corpse had begun to corrode the soles of his boots.

ibid, Chapter 10

Watch the master at work! Hardy first frames his scene in Bathsheba’s eyes, which emphasizes the things that she is seeing. “Bathsheba never forgot…” Then, he limits his description to one sentence (having signaled that brevity, too, with “transient little picture…”). And in that one sentence, he describes the color (“iridescent”), smell (“dank, subterranean”), texture (“sweating sod”), and sound (“hissing as they burst”). And then, to wind it up, he describes the overall impression of the bog through Bathsheba’s eyes and assumptions again: “Liddy did not sink, as Bathsheba had anticipated.” We readers know that the marsh is the kind of footing which appears to have the potential to swallow a traverser whole, because Hardy points out (in only four words, natch!) that Bathsheba held that impression.

In contrast, the Harrison quotes seem static and long-winded to me.

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‘the solitude of a mountain… the solitude of a cave’ –Thomas Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd

Bathsheba was lonely and miserable now; not lonelier actually than she had been before her marriage, but her loneliness then was to that of the present time as the solitude of a mountain is to the solitude of a cave.

—Thomas Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd, Chapter XLIII

Once again, in the chief aim of figurative language, to provide a gauge where there is no measure apparent, Hardy triumphs. The idea of a quantitative measure of solitude is perhaps a bit far-fetched, but this qualitative comparison really illuminates Bathsheba’s plight.


She is going to sleep on the night that Fanny’s body has been staged at her house for burial in the morning; naturally, the presence so close of Fanny, her husband’s great shame, has set her mind uneasy.


Yesterday I posted a passage about Bathsheba’s regrets over getting married in the first place. This quick line, a couple short chapters later, provides a kind of coda to those feelings, which from this later vantage, seem written at a different level of calm and tranquility. Obviously, part of novel-writing is to maintain the characters’ inner monologues consistently; once again, Hardy proves masterful. In the prior quote, Bathsheba indulges her native standoffishness, which the reader can easily compare to the solitude of a hermit on a mountain: she sees all around yet chooses to absent herself. With the quote above, Hardy throws this present loneliness into another domain altogether: the loneliness of someone whose soul feels truly lost.


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‘The forms of skeletons appeared in the air, shaped with blue fire for bones’–Thomas Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd

Heaven opened then, indeed. The flash was almost too novel for its inexpressibly dangerous nature to be at once realized, and they could only comprehend the magnificence of its beauty. It sprang from east, west, north, south, and was a perfect dance of death. The forms of skeletons appeared in the air, shaped with blue fire for bones—dancing, leaping, striding, racing around, and mingling altogether in unparalleled confusion. With these were intertwined undulating snakes of green, and behind these was a broad mass of lesser light. Simultaneously came from every part of the tumbling sky what may be called a shout; since, though no shout ever came near it, it was more of the nature of a shout than of anything else earthly. In the meantime one of the grisly forms had alighted upon the point of Gabriel [Oak]’s rod, to run invisibly down it, down the chain, and into the earth. Gabriel was almost blinded, and he could feel Bathsheba’s warm arm tremble in his hand—a sensation novel and thrilling enough; but love, life, everything human, seemed small and trifling in such close juxtaposition with an infuriated universe.

Oak had hardly time to gather up these impressions into a thought, and to see how strangely the red feather of her hat shone in this light, when the tall tree on the hill before mentioned seemed on fire to a white heat, and a new one among these terrible voices mingled with the last crash of those preceding. It was a stupefying blast, harsh and pitiless, and it fell upon their ears in a dead, flat blow, without that reverberation which lends the tones of a drum to more distant thunder. By the lustre reflected from every part of the earth and from the wide domical scoop above it, he saw that the tree was sliced down the whole length of its tall, straight stem, a huge riband of bark being apparently flung off. The other portion remained erect, and revealed the bared surface as a strip of white down the front. The lightning had struck the tree. A sulphurous smell filled the air; then all was silent, and black as a cave in Hinnom.

—Thomas Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd, Chapter XXXVII
I guess you could call this style of writing “supernaturalism.” In this several-page episode about a lightning storm and the damage it wreaks, Hardy, always the paragon of nature writing, amps up the drama as if it wasn’t just a lightning storm, but one of H.P. Lovecraft’s Old Ones paying the Wessex countryside a visit. “Intertwined undulating snakes of green,” indeed.
This entire extended passage about the storm is the denouement of the book. Each of the four main characters settles into their final configurations during the storm’s passage through the countryside. The way we see this is through their several relationships with the land of Wessex and its agricultural economy. Their personal relationships are one thing, but their relationships with the land will foreshadow their future.
Meanwhile, reading this passage on the lightning storm today, a week or two after my first reading, I get the impression that the entire storm is just a kind of stunning setting for the start of Bathsheba and Gabriel’s eventual reconciliation. The phrases about Bathsheba—her “warm arm tremble[ing] in his hand,” and “how strangely the red feather of her hat shone”— are neatly inserted into the general terror and overwrought stimulation that the storm causes Gabriel. This sudden switch in scale, from the macro storm down to the micro personal level, could come across as solipsistic on Gabriel’s part. It’s mitigated slightly by Gabriel’s extensive preparations for the storm in the previous pages of the chapter; for he has interpreted the impending storm from the beginning as a test of Troy’s stewardship of Bathsheba’s farm.
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‘More tales come from pale lips than can enter an ear’-Thomas Hardy, Far From the Madding Crowd

She [Bathsheba] had walked nearly two miles of her journey, watching how the day was retreating, and thinking how the time of deeds was quietly melting into the time of thought, to give place in its turn to the time of prayer and sleep, when she beheld advancing over Yalbury hill the very man she sought so anxiously to elude. Boldwood was stepping on, not with that quiet tread of reserved strength which was his customary gait, in which he always seemed to be balancing two thoughts. His manner was stunned and sluggish now.

Boldwood had for the first time been awakened to woman’s privileges in tergiversation even when it involves another person’s possible blight. That Bathsheba was a firm and positive girl, far less inconsequent than her fellows, had been the very lung of his hope; for he had held that these qualities would lead her to adhere to a straight course for consistency’s sake, and accept him, though her fancy might not flood him with the iridescent hues of uncritical love. But the argument now came back as sorry gleams from a broken mirror. The discovery was no less a scourge than a surprise.

He came on looking upon the ground, and did not see Bathsheba till they were less than a stone’s throw apart.  He looked up at the sound of her pit-pat, and his changed appearance sufficiently denoted to her the depth and strength of the feelings paralyzed by her letter.

“Oh; is it you, Mr. Boldwood?” she faltered, a guilty warmth pulsing in her face.  Those who have the power of reproaching in silence may find it a means more effective than words. There are accents in the eye which are not on the tongue, and more tales come from pale lips than can enter an ear. It is both the grandeur and the pain of the remoter moods that they avoid the pathway of sound. Boldwood’s look was unanswerable.

—Thomas Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd, Chapter  XXXI

The chapter goes on for about a dozen pages of sharp and agonizing dialogue between Bathsheba and Boldwood, but, really, just from the descriptions of the posture and stance of our two conversationalists in this excerpt we could tell exactly what’s going to happen.

Bathsheba is walking past Yarbury to visit her maid Liddy’s sister, partly in order to escape her own premises as Boldwood will be heading there to remonstrate after receiving Bathsheba’s letter stating that she cannot accept his offer of marriage. They are therefore meeting without prior arrangement on neutral ground.

What rings true to me here is how Boldwood is not saddened, or enraged, or plunged into despair by Bathsheba’s refusal of his pledge. His feelings are ‘paralyzed.’ For the rest of the book, Boldwood will be a kind of emotional paraplegic, stuck in the tragic condition of loving Bathsheba unrequitedly. Bathsheba’s mood, as illustrated by her musings over the progression of time, is reflective and centered. As our blog-enabled contemporaries put it, Bathsheba is processing.

Boldwood’s emotions, meanwhile, are beautifully limned by Hardy with a set of exquisitely mismatched metaphors: ‘the very lung of his hope,’ ‘a straight course,’ ‘the iridescent hues of uncritical love,’ and ‘sorry gleams from a broken mirror.’ His feelings are as jumbled and as out-of-cadence as his figures of speech.

‘They presented alternations of roan and bay, in shapes like a Moorish arch’ -Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd

His [Boldwood’s] house stood recessed from the road, and the stables, which are to a farm what a fireplace is to a room, were behind, their lower portions being lost amid bushes of laurel. Inside the blue door, open half-way down, were to be seen at this time the backs and tails of half-a-dozen warm and contented horses standing in their stalls; and as thus viewed, they presented alternations of roan and bay, in shapes like a Moorish arch, the tail being a streak down the midst of each. Over these, and lost to the eye gazing in from the outer light, the mouths of the same animals could be heard busily sustaining the above-named warmth and plumpness by quantities of oats and hay. The restless and shadowy figure of a colt wandered about a loose-box at the end, whilst the steady grind of all the eaters was occasionally diversified by the rattle of a rope or the stamp of a foot.

—Thomas Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd, Chapter XVIII

I adore the earthiness of this particular quote, the crafty way that Hardy leavens his use of the English language’s more rarefied words of French or Latin origin with good-sized helpings of our Anglo-Saxon vocabulary. ‘Portions’ is followed by ‘lost amid bushes of laurel.’ ‘Presented alterations’ gives rise to ‘roan and bay,’ and then ‘Moorish arch’ leads to ‘the tail being a streak down the midst of each.’ ‘Quantities’ is balanced with ‘oats and hay.’

Then, at the end of the group, another twin hit of Latin words: ‘occasionally diversified,’ which Hardy then contrasts immediately with a doubled adverbial phrase, all in Anglo-Saxon: ‘the rattle of a rope or the stamp of a foot.’ It’s not perfect, and the author probably didn’t even realize it, but it makes a difference in the rhythm of the reading to keep switching back and forth between the more florid words and their punchy and direct counterparts.

‘He would as soon as thought of carrying an odour in a net’ -Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd


‘Yes, I suppose I should,’ said Oak, absently. He was endeavoring to catch and appreciate the sensation of being thus with her, his head upon her dress, before the event passed on into the heap of bygone things. He wished she knew his impressions; but he would as soon as thought of carrying an odour in a net as of attempting to convey the intangibilities of his feeling in the coarse meshes of language. So he remained silent.

—Thomas Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd, Chapter III
Gabriel Oak has just been saved from carbon-monoxide poisoning in his
shepherd’s hut by Bathsheba Everdene. I love the simple metaphor of
“carrying an odour in a net.” It shows a deep appreciation for the
role of language and figure. It is such a simple metaphor, but it is
obliged to be, because it is standing for this simple feeling that he
cannot adequately describe in words. And odors, well, just reading the
book brings all kinds of wonderful country scents to mind.
In another touch of genius, Hardy plots to combine a near-death
experience, which naturally inspires a certain amount of reflection in
the participant, with the overwhelming time-stood-still sensation of
love at first sight. Gabriel hesitates with his head on Bathsheba’s
lap not only for the intimacy it portends, but for the catastrophe he
has narrowly averted.


‘What they had talked themselves into, they could be silent out of’ – Iain M Banks, ‘Use of Weapons’

Her finger stirred through what she had written yesterday, toying with the parchments; circling them around slowly; slowly flexing and turning, watched by her, watched by him.…


The finger moved on the desktop where she would write a short poem about him in the evening, one he would copy secretly in case she wasn’t happy with it and threw it out, and as his desire grew and her calm face saw no finger move, one of them was just a passing thing, just a leaf pressed between the pages of the other’s diary, and what they had talked themselves into, they could be silent out of.

Iain M. Banks’ Use of Weapons stands up all the way through as
a pretty good read, but when I read the good quotes over again after
having finished it, I thought it had slumped a little bit in my
recollection. His best book is probably The Wasp Factory, the
engaging story of a psychopathic child. Banks writes literary fiction
as “Iain Banks” and space-opera sci-fi as “Iain M. Banks”; Use of
is from his sci-fi side and shares the same conceit of a
galaxy-spanning impossibly advanced civilization as several of his
other books.

While I quite like the quoted passage above, what makes the book that
contains it fall short of my expectations is how the quoted passage
(and by extension, the other good passages I had highlighted) fits
into the rest of the book. I guess you can redeem a pop song with a
killer hook, but it’s hard to do the same thing with a novel. What I
learned from reading Anna Karenina last month is that a notable passage in a novel (or
at least that novel) does not coruscate by itself alone, but reflects
in its facets the structure and the themes of the rest of the novel.

In this passage, the hero is on vacation on a remote yet civilized
planet. He has commenced a love affair with the planet’s best poet.
The love affair is about to end and he will move on to another planet,
another assignment as a mercenary for the galactic civilization. The
entire chapter is set as a recollection within its overall structure
as a picaresque, and the chapter includes probably the densest
concentration of figurative language in the entire book. This quote is
the one that pulls together the best the reciprocated feelings between
the poet and the soldier. But still the chapter feels disposable
because the true vanishing point of the novel’s entire perspective is
placed somewhere else, in the relationship between the soldier and his
childhood companions. No matter what happens between the soldier and
the poet, it’s not going to change the outcome of the book or the fate
of its characters.