So I’m reading China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station. The overall story is pretty good so far, but the author is just *so* impressed with himself. First, he delights in trying to gross us out; I don’t think he can go 3 paragraphs without using “shit” somewhere. Sometimes as an expletive: “Godshit” seems to be the most common curse in his world. But also the action… every living creature has to be seen shitting at least once, it seems.
I can get past that, as I just roll my eyes and mutter “Kids” when the event is worked in clumsily. But what really bothers me is his use of obscure vocabulary. It’s been more than a few years since I read a book that has so many words in it that I don’t know, and I have a reasonably good vocabulary of my own. If I had more time I’d pull out some examples, but for now I’ll just share the one that triggered this post:
Eventually, Yagharek spoke.
“And if you are right . . . I will fly?”
Isaac burst into laughter at the bathetic demand.
“Yes, yes, Yag old son. If I’m right, you’ll fly again.”
Um, excuse me… bathetic?
Now, my battered old copy of Websters doesn’t even list bathetic. It does include the pseudo-root word, bathos, but I wouldn’t have linked the two terms if dictionary.com hadn’t had a few listings for bathetic:
adj : effusively or insincerely emotional; “a bathetic novel”; “maudlin expressons of sympathy”; “mushy effusiveness”; “a schmaltzy song”; “sentimental soap operas”; “slushy poetry”
said one, while another just says:
“Characterized by bathos. See Synonyms at sentimental” [Probably blend of bathos, and pathetic.]
Now, this definition didn’t make sense in the context of the passage (and forgive me for not having quoted enough for you to make that judgement). What I think young Mieville meant can be discerned from looking at the definition for bathos. Two definitions are listed, one concerning sentimentality, which apparently is the one that ‘bathetic’ is based on, but I believe we’re looking for the other definition, which is:
a. An abrupt, unintended transition in style from the exalted to the commonplace, producing a ludicrous effect.
b. An anticlimax. In the passage, the Isaac character was spouting off about his scientific theories for a couple of pages, using lots of technical jargon and laying out some pretty sophisticated thought lines… so Yag’s simple response could be considered a transition from the exalted to the commonplace.
So, that quest laid to rest, I have to ask… “What did the use of this obscure term add to my reading experience?” And I have to answer… “Nothing. In fact, it was detrimental because by the time I tracked all this down, I’d been totally pulled out of the story and I put the book down to do something else.” I suppose one could argue that expanding your vocabulary is a good thing, but I’m not even sure that’s right. I have to stop and explain my terms often enough as things are without starting to sprinkle ‘bathetic’ into everyday conversation.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m enjoying this book. Mieville has a wild imagination and the world of his book is fascinating. I just hope by the time he writes his next one, he will have lost his fascination with poop and gotten off the ‘word of the day’ email list.