July 12, 2004

Citing to riot

Janet Maslin has a rave review of Carl Hiaasen's new book "Skinny Dip" in today's NYT. She calls it "a screwball delight so full of bright, deft, beautifully honed humor that it places Mr. Hiaasen in the company of Preston Sturges, Woody Allen and S. J. Perelman." I'm a fan of Hiaasen myself, but I'm writing about the review because I can't figure out what Ms. Maslin thinks the word syntax means.

Beyond its lean, clean prose and riotous syntax (" `I did not feed Bert Miller's dog to my snakes,' he said, almost adding: But accidents happen"), "Skinny Dip" has the advantage of a well-populated plot that doesn't go overboard.

There's also a question here about riotous. Given the Sturges-Allen-Perelman set-up, I took Maslin to mean that Hiaasen's syntax is "riotously funny", but maybe she just meant that it's "uproarious, boisterous", or "abundant or luxuriant".

I'm not sure that I share Maslin's opinion that anything about the Hiaasen quote is riotous, either in the sense of being very funny or in the sense of being out of control in a chaotic way. Here's the quote again:

`I did not feed Bert Miller's dog to my snakes,' he said, almost adding: But accidents happen.

Riotous? Maybe. But riotous syntax? What does that mean?

Is the riotous part  "'I did not VERB NOUNPHRASE to NOUNPHRASE, he said"? Not likely.

What about the adjoined participial phrase "ADVERB VERBing: CONJUNCTION NOUNPHRASEs VERB"? No riot here, officer.

Could it be that participial phrase ("almost adding...") stacked up after the attributive tag ("he said")? No, Elmore Leonard does that kind of thing all the time, and his prose is as sober as you can get.

I'm not trying to give Janet Maslin a hard time here, I'm genuinely puzzled about what she was trying to convey about Hiaasen's style. The example she gives does illustrate something that I like about his writing, namely his ability to suggest cultural and emotional depths by presenting striking and even outrageous details in a deadpan way. You can find this on just about any page -- I just took Basket Case down from the shelf, opened it to a random place (page 40), and read:

    Janet Thrush -- who else could it be? takes the stool next to me and says, "First off, nobody calls me Jan."
    "It's Janet. My ex once called me Jan and I stuck a cocktail fork into his femoral artery."
    I am careful to display no curiosity about the marriage.
    "So, Janet, exactly how to did Cleo Rio scam me?"
    "She lied about her new record -- 'Waterlogged Heart' or whatever. Jimmy's not producing it."
    Janet has freckles on her nose and unruly ash-blond hair and green bulb earrings the size of Yule ornaments. She's wearing Wayfarers and a pastel tube top over tight jeans, and looks at least five years younger than her brother.

Funny, yes. Intriguing, yes. Riotous syntax? I'm still baffled.

Last November, William Ivey Long (Harvey Fierstein's dress designer) commented on the diverse construals of Harvey's Mrs. Santa Claus outfit by observing that "the semantics are confusing". I pointed out that "Long is clearly using semantics in the ordinary language sense of 'what things mean'. I explained that linguists and philosophers find this usage inappropriate, in terms of the historical origins of the word semantics as well as its present-day meaning as a term of art, especially in contrast to pragmatics, but it's an understandable and unavoidable generalization. We just have to accept that most people use semantics for layers of speculation about communicative intent, exploration of associative nuances, and anything else that's part of a meta-commentary about interpretation. It makes no more sense for linguists to complain about the technical meaning of semantics, at this point, than it would for physicists to complain about the technical meaning of force.

So I'd be happy -- or at least willing -- to concede syntax as well to Janet Maslin. If only I could figure out what she wants it for.


[Update: if you're not already familiar with it, Ron Hogan's Maslin Watch feature at beatrice.com is well worth reading. On a quick scan, I don't find anything that helps me to understand the intended meaning of riotous syntax. However, I do begin to get the feeling that perhaps it was a mistake to assume in the first place that "the intended meaning of riotous syntax" is a referring expression...]

[One final aside: I can certainly imagine what riotous syntax might be like, at least in the "boisterous" or "luxuriant" sense of riotous: the structure of highly interactive extemporaneous discourse, which "as sudden torrent in time of speat in the mountain / Hurries six ways at once, and takes at last to the roughest", to quote Arthur Hugh Clough. But that's not Hiaasen.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at July 12, 2004 09:22 AM