When my book group read the novel, The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng, we were surprised at how breathtakingly beautiful it could be, yet how “boring and muddled” at the same time.
Eng’s book was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2012 and won the Man Asian Prize and the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction. This seemed incredible to us.
“What were they thinking?” members of the group asked about judges of these awards — and about critics who praised the novel but never mentioned its serious flaws.
This is why I love book groups — we get to take the book apart put it back together again. We talk about what works and what doesn’t, and by the end, so many points of view are expressed that the book changes — deepens, opens, enlarges — before our eyes.
On the Good Side
One of Eng’s talents lies in capturing a moment so vividly that you can almost hear the camera click. This is one, set in the stillness of a Japanese garden deep in a Malaysian forest:
“In the shallows, a gray heron cocked its head at me, one leg poised in the air, like the hand of a pianist who had forgotten the notes to his music.”
Reading quotes aloud lets us sink collectively into the gorgeousness — pardon my teenage hyperbole — of the author’s writing style.
This one below prompted gasps of admiration, even though everyone had already read it. On a makeshift runway at the end of World War II, when Japan knows it’s lost the war, a reluctant kamikaze pilot revs up the engines for a suicide mission.
“The plane began to move, held back by the bomb hanging underneath, a bird carrying a cancerous growth.”
These quiet reflections can be missed in the heat of a violent story, but what pops out over and over is Eng’s unbelievable vocabulary. He seems to have a gift for inserting a single, sometimes exotic, always completely unexpected word in an otherwise matter-of-fact sentence.
Here, for instance, is what happens when Yun Ling, the narrator of the novel, takes a breath in cold weather:
“I fill my lungs to the brim and exhale. Seeing my own breath shape this cobweb of air that only a second ago had been inside me …”
There’s nothing unusual about watching one’s breath take shape in the chilly air, but the word “cobweb” is so visual and unusual that it transports us right into the scene.
Eng tosses these linguistic bon-bons into sentences all over the place — “the kitchen chimney scribbling smoke over the treetops,” for example. Or “the lights in the garden came on, dizzying the flying insects.” Rather than refer to the sides of mountains, the narrator chooses a more tactile, even voluptuous word:
“The mountains are as I have always remembered them, the first light of morning melting down their flanks.”
Here’s the last glimpse of a morning sky: “The world was growing brighter, bleaching away the moon and stars.” At twilight, “above the trees, the line of mountains serrated the sky.” Water pouring over a cliff “broaden(ed) into a white feather as it fell ….”
Sometimes Eng changes the point of view — as below, from human to insect — before we realize what’s happening:
“At dusk a moth, its wings as wide as my palm, staggered around the verandah’s light bulb, searching for a way into the heart of the sun.”
At other times, Eng deliberately confuses visual and audible words so that the sound of a bird’s wings, which humans almost never hear, inspires the sight of natural forces we never see. This occurs when a pair of storks fly off a treetop as the narrator watches:
“It was so quiet I could almost hear every downward sweep of their wings, fanning the thin mists into tidal patterns.”
On the Bad Side
So while we admired Eng’s artistic precision, it was a huge disappointment to watch this potentially stunning work of fiction turn clumsy, amateurish and awkward. Eng’s characters are at times stiff and wooden, the story ragged, the dialogue inauthentic and the writing so heavy-handed that it drags the whole novel down.
Most irritating to me, the stickler of the group, is Eng’s dependence on sentences that begin with present-participle phrases (the “ing” version of a verb), like this:
“Going behind a stand of bougainvillea trees, I enter a bower of low-hanging branches … ”
“Wincing at the pain in my knees, I kneel at the oldest gravestone … ”
There’s nothing wrong with one or two of these “ing” phrases in a novel, but Eng has developed a kind of addiction to them that lands two or three on a page.
“Soaking my hands one evening, I heard..”
“Wrapping a hand towel around my left hand, I went…”
“Gesturing them to the rattan chairs, I went …”
I’m not saying that readers throw up their hands and say, “Oh no, participial phrases, shoot me now!” Quite the opposite — most people don’t see the problem and just keep reading. In time, however, a sing-songy rhythm emerges that makes the best writing sound childish. Our eye grows weary of sameness of style; even poetic writing will sound as sluggish as mud.
For Eng the problem gets worse when he breaks the rules of grammar by creating that bad boy of English grammar, the DDM (Dreaded Dangling Modifier). This is simply the “ing” word describing the wrong thing, as in this sentence: .
“Turning (the envelope) over, a thin wooden stick…fell out onto my desk.”
Well, it ain’t the stick that’s turning the envelope over, it’s the narrator. A simple fix, following the author’s sentence construction, might read like this:
“Turning (the envelope) over, I saw a thin wooden stick fall out onto my desk.”
Again, most readers aren’t conscious of the Dreaded Dangling Modifier, but they’ll stumble over it just the same, and after a while, confusion will register. The sad part here is how easily Eng’s sentences could be corrected, perhaps like this (again following the author’s sentence construction):
Mistake: “Entering Tanah Rata, the sight of the former Royal Army Hospital filled me with disquiet … ”
Suggested fix: “Entering Tanah Rata, I was filled with disquiet at the sight of the former Army Hospital … ”
Mistake: “Being the only child…my father’s main purpose in life was cultivating the fortune… ”
Suggested fix: “Being the only child, my father discovered that his main purpose in life was to cultivate the fortune… ”
Mistake: “Sinking lower into the tub, the stiffness in my body slowly dissolved… ”
Suggested fix: “Sinking lower into the tub, I felt the stiffness in my body …”
Some book group members looked at these sentences and said, “Sheesh! Where was the editor?” Who could blame them? DDMs are fixable problems that a professional should spot and correct immediately.
Still, I’ve always felt that question isn’t appropriate because in a way it’s none of our business. As critics and readers, we don’t know how bad the manuscript was when the author turned it in. It could have had a thousand DDMs, most of them caught and fixed by heroic editors, but a few allowed to remain since they were cherished by the author, who refused to have them corrected. Hard to believe but this happens.
Or it could be that the publishing house just doesn’t care. In the midst of huge upheavals facing the book industry, especially the corporate-takeover era that initially cut editorial budgets and inflated marketing departments, fewer and fewer editors get to read the manuscript all the way through, let alone try to maintain editorial standards. Typos should never exist in a published book. But in the paperback edition with an Author’s Commentary in the back, this sentence makes to sound as though nobody’s even decided on British or American spelling:
Yun Ling realises realizes this when she leads a group of visitors ….
To me, the greater tragedy is the trickle-down effect. In the current issue of Essence, a magazine for young African American women that I’ve admired for years (it’s way too commercial now but that’s another story), two bylined columns about the subject of “body love” begin with DDM mistakes:
Mistake: “As a kid, my feet seemed to grow faster than my body.”
Suggested fix: “As a kid, I noticed my feet growing faster…”
Mistake: “At 5 feet 10 inches barefoot, people naturally assume I’m an athlete.”
Suggested fix: “At 5 feet 10 inches barefoot, I am often mistaken for an athlete.”
These are the lead sentences in an important feature for the magazine, and sure, readers may not notice the tiny bit of confusion created by DDMs, but the lack of clarity will have an effect. In magazines, you have no time to horse around! If you don’t sweep every story clean of mistakes, readers will go off and play Candy Crush in a second.
The great joy of the Internet, I think, is that we’re all writers of record somehow. We send out a tweet or text or an article or a book as do millions of others, and one way to separate our message from the chaos around is to write clearly and accurately, even gracefully, with our readers’ needs in mind.
For book industry observers, this brings up a related problem concerning judges of literary prizes who want to encourage young writers by giving them prizes too early. These judges forget that awards exist to celebrate excellence, not to help authors get better.
In fact the reverse is what happens. You can’t expect promising writers to improve if they’re given the kind of accolades that Eng received when his first book, The Gift of Rain, was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize. Maybe that’s the reason The Garden of Evening Mists is such a mess — a glorious mess, mind you, and well worth reading, but in terms of literary awards, a mess that shouldn’t even be in the running.
And yet, how my book group rooted for Tan Twan Eng! We loved his potential so much that we’d like to sit him down and say, “No more dangling modifiers for you! Get rid of those participial phrases and concentrate on your friggin’ gifts!”
P.S. I can’t leave The Garden of Evening Mists without providing one delicious chunk of Eng’s stunning narrative, warts and all (with a real beaut of a DDM in the middle). It’s too long at the end of this already too-long column, so i’ll post it next time.