Edmund Wilson's Words of Ill-Omen: Massive

The American man of letters gives guidance to writers and journalists on both sides of the Atlantic.

Three: Massive.

This word has become one of the worst bores and nuisances of both British and American journalism, and what seems to have been its sudden and rapid emergence is a phenomenon which ought to be studied. It has no doubt been given special prestige by the declaration of Mr Dulles in his speech to the Council on Foreign Relations of 12 January 1954 that "Local Defence must be reinforced by the further deterrent of massive retaliatory power", but the word had already been gaining momentum.

It is now to be found everywhere, and one even has an uneasy feeling that it may announce the presence of radioactivity. In the course of a few weeks I have been able to pick up a whole pile of examples.

Let me establish the word first in its earlier sense by some quotations from David Copperfield:

...an office that ought to have been on the ground floor of the Tower of Babel, it was so massively constructed ... sundry immense manuscript Books of Evidence taken on affidavit, strongly bound and tied together in massive sets ... His hold watch-chain was so massive, that a fancy came across me, that he ought to have a sinewy golden arm, to draw it out with, like those which are put up over the gold-beaters' shops.

These apply to inert materials, but you have also a human massiveness not devoid of moral implication: "There was a fine massive gravity on his face, I did not venture to disturb". The definitions of the word in the OED mostly deal with this sort of mass, though there follow examples of massive applied to "immaterial things" (massive thought, massive swellings), and to volume of sound (massive bass, massive chorus). Ruskin, it seems, spoke of clouds as "massive or striated", but added, "I cannot find a better word than massive, though it is not a good one, for I mean it only to signify it is not a good one, for I mean it only to signify a fleecy arrangement in which no lines are visible". Note Ruskin's apology for extending the meaning.

Now, the single use of massive among the recent examples I have gathered which comes under the first of the old definitions occurs in an article by S J Perelman in the New Yorker of 7 June. He speaks of "a massive fireplace"; but this is probably to be explained by his penchant for writing parodies of various old-fashioned styles. Sir Harold Nicolson, in a review of Belloc's letters in the Observer of 18 May, just manages to remain within the old definition when he writes of Belloc's "querulousness - so distressing in a massive, mighty man"; and T S Eliot, in his introduction to a volume of selections from Joyce, Introducing James Joyce, is also just within the old defition when he refers to Finnegans Wake as "that massive work". Finnegans Wake is not massive by reason of bulk - a novel by Dickens is much longer - but its density does perhaps make it massive. The Times Literary Supplement of 23 May provides another example of massive applied to books: "All these biographies are monumental in a sense beyond the merely massive and the physically weighty"; and Pamela Hansford Johnson, in the book already mentioned, applied the word to style: "He informed her, in a style as steady and massive as Cicero's".

But isn't Nicolson stretching it a little when he speaks, in a review in the New York Times Book Review of 18 March, of "the fourth volume of Winston Churchill's massive History of the English-Speaking Peoples"; and, in the Sunday Times of 6 July, of de Tocqueville's "massive studies of the ancien régime in France or the development of young America"? Maybe not: it is a matter of relative scale. But what adjective have you left for Gibbon? In a second use of massive in the Churchill review, this writer does, however, depart from the older uses of the word: the American Civil War, he says, was "a cosmic clash between strong men and massive principles". (I do not care for 'cosmic' here either. I have always regarded this loose use of cosmic as a particularly undesirable Americanism.)

The tendency to make massive a substitute not merely for enormous, immense and huge but even for large and extensive as applying to all sorts of phenomena, social, financial, political and psychological, is illustrated by the following examples.

It is easy and proper for the American Ambassador to Canada ... and for Canadian economists to argue that massive American investment, at this stage, is essential to Canada's growth. (An article in Harper's Magazine on 'Why Canadians Are Turning Anti-American'.)

The Marxists claim, of course, that colonialism invariably represented a massive and cruel exploitation of the colonial peoples. . . It is small wonder that it has all added up to a massive anti-Western complex. (George Kennan: Russia, the Atom and the West.)

No one, certainly not Lord Altrincham, we feel, would decry the massive difficulties confronting the young woman who is called upon to combine the personal and institutional qualities demanded of the Monarch today. (Lord Altrincham and Others: Is The Monarchy Perfect?)

... for several minutes the three of us waited with bowed heads ... while he built up a massive edifice of bad language. (John Wain: The Con-tenders.) (The use of massive here is possible under the old definition but provides another example of the fashionable addiction to the word.)

He could then argue that the Russians with their massive conventional forces and their interior lines cannot be contained without nuclear weapons. (Walter Lippmann.)

... he felt that his work was misunderstood on a massive scale. (Adventures of a Pacifist in the New Yorker, 22 March). In around a thousand pages, Max Lerner ... has undertaken ... a massive attempt to describe the main characteristics and currents of American life and thought ... (Review in New Yorker, 22 March).

Instead of the weekly issue of Punch or the New Yorker, subscribers will receive a small phial (wrapped, of course, in massive quantities of advertising matter), with instructions on how and when to inject its contents, thereby giving rise to fits of healthy, invigorating laughter. (Malcolm Muggeridge in April Esquire.)

There was a massive creation, consumption, and disposal of goods. (Dan Jacobson in June Encounter.)

Here are a number of examples - all from recent issues of the New York Times - that have been obviously inspired by Dulles:

A massive wave of Soviet, Chinese Communist and East European criticism has been directed at Yugoslavia ... Under Virginia's so-called "mas-sive resistance" laws, no Negro has been integrated in a public school. ... While somewhat inconclusive, the first report of the United Nations observers in Lebanon failed to support the Lebanese Government's charges of massive intervention. ... The United States Embassy here an-nounced early today that "a massive airlift" of petroleum products for Jordan would be started within the next few hours. ... Dr Malik replied a few days later that "massive intervention" was continuing. ...

You find also now a frequent use of the adverb: in the Times Literary Supplement editorial already quoted above, for example, "the realism of massively accumulated detail", and in the novel by John Wain, "'I've had my breakfast,' I said, bringing his organizing power massively into play". In a notice of a volume of reporting pieces in the Times Literary Supplement, the anonymous reviewer writes, "individually, they are massively observant". In Inside Russia Today, John Gunther says of Marx that he "was massively influenced by several French thinkers". (The May issue of Vogue referred to this volume as "a massive book".) In the Letter from Paris in the New Yorker of 31 May, one finds, "This is a call for the saviour that has not been massively heard in the Paris streets".

Some of these phrases - John Gunther's, for example - seem to me inexact, even if the meaning of massive is extended. Russia might perhaps be said to have been massively influenced by Marx; can you say that Marx's thought was massively influenced by earlier thinkers? But even when the words are properly used in the more limited old-fashioned senses, they are certainly used far too often. Massive and massively occur only four times in the whole of David Copperfield, but in short articles like the Nicolson review and the TLS editorial, the writers have slipped into using them twice.

Now, why has the word become so popular? It may be that the Marxist masses, in the sense of the working classes, has - in the last case above, for example - a little something to do with it. But what are undoubtedly most important, from the strictly material point of view, are the immense modern buildings and power plants, our machines for transportation and industry and war; and from the point of view of range or effect, our modern commercial enterprises and military operations. And there are also, of course, the great power units. Mr Dulles's "further deterrent of massive retaliatory power" is also an inexact use of the word, but it is evident that Mr Dulles was thinking both of the power of the United States and of the effect of the modern bomb. We are awed and yet stimulated by our awareness of size, weight, explosive force and expanding governmental domination, and these feelings have their expression in our use of massive.

6 September 1958.

Next up: Superb and Fabulous. Previous: Religionist.

Massive books in massive Russia. Photo: Getty.

Edmund Wilson (1895-1972) was a noted American writer, critic and social commentator who contributed occasional reviews and essays to the New Statesman.

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Paula Hawkins: a pulp-feminist follow-up on The Girl on the Train

Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion in misogyny. 

A couple of years ago, Paula Hawkins, an Oxford graduate with a run of chick-lit novels to her name (well, to her nom de plume Amy Silver), became the latest example of various splashy phenomena. Most obviously, The Girl on the Train, her first thriller, made Hawkins an out-of-nowhere, book-clubtastic, “movie rights gone in a flash” sensation, on the model of E L James. It also made Hawkins, who had formerly worked at the Times, one of those journalist-turned-juggernaut figures, like Robert Harris and Gillian Flynn, a beacon of light to every deadline-haunted hack.

Not so publicised was the kind of writer the book showed Hawkins to be. The Flynn comparisons were perfunctory, the overlap limited to shared use of multiple narrators and that not uncommon word, “girl”. A puff from Stephen King was a little more in tune with Hawkins’s sensibility, a taste for the Gothic intensities that lurk beneath the everyday; but King’s praise – it kept him up all night – still missed her strangest virtue: not the gift for making people turn a lot of pages and feel foggy on the next day’s commute, but for using the mystery thriller form as a back-door polemic, every revelation bringing an adjustment of world-view, every twist of the plot putting a spin on what we thought she thought. More striking than Hawkins’s late success or old career was her emergence as a new practitioner of feminist pulp, the sub-subgenre in which men destroy and women suffer, whose most recent classic had been Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones and whose presiding genius – its queen for fifty years and counting – is the hydra-headed literary combustion engine who usually signs herself Joyce Carol Oates.

Hawkins’s new novel, Into the Water, serves to make things clearer. It enables her readers to sketch a Venn diagram to identify what was incidental to The Girl on the Train – what merely helped to grease the wheels – and what she is obsessed with. Why call it an obsession and not a crutch, a formula, the hardening of habit? Not because what Hawkins is up to conflicts with readability – clearly that isn’t the case – but because she is building novels more intricate, more packed with implication, than readability demands.

Like The Girl on the Train, the new novel centres on a female victim with alleged deficiencies as a woman and mother. The body of Danielle “Nel” Abbott, a writer and photographer, is discovered in the part of a lake known as “the drowning pool”. Nel wasn’t much liked by the other local women. She had ideas above her station. She was a “slattern”. In fact, Nel’s death goes unmourned by everyone except her wild 15-year-old daughter, Lena, who is convinced her mother jumped, but for a good – withheld – reason. To Nel’s unmarried sister, Jules, who ignored a number of phone calls and messages, and who has travelled from London to watch over Lena and identify the body, Nel’s death is the final insult, another way of upsetting her existence.

Into the Water follows its predecessor in applying laser scrutiny to a small patch, but there are signs of growth and greater ambition. Last time the setting was a pair of houses on Blenheim Road, Bucks. Here it is the community of Beckford, a village in or near Northumberland, several hours’ drive from anywhere civilised – “if you consider Newcastle civilised”, in the words of one character. The Girl on the Train had three female narrators describing events, in mildly jagged order, that occurred across a single summer. The new novel features testimony from five characters, including Jules, Lena and the brother of Lena’s dead best friend, and provides close access, in the third person, to another five, including the best friend’s mother. Alongside these ten voices are sections narrated by Jules in 1993 – her experiences carry echoes of Stephen King’s Carrie – as well as passages from Nel’s unfinished manuscript: a photographic history of the Beckford lake called The Drowning Pool, containing a prologue and descriptions of three previous deaths, dating from 1920, 1983 and 1679.

The book isn’t free of cliché – the phrase “out of the woods” is not a reference to the rural setting – and some of Hawkins’s devices border on cheating. At various points a narrator starts talking about a previously shrouded incident soon after it has been revealed elsewhere, as if the characters were in cahoots, conspiring how best to frustrate the reader. There’s much recourse to the undefined event, the word “it”. (What?!) The outsider figure, Detective Sergeant Erin Morgan, is severely restricted in her role as a conduit for backstory. “Have you not seen any background on this?” her superior asks. No, she hasn’t. But Erin “should have been given the files”. Well, she wasn’t.

But most of the time, the novel is plausible and grimly gripping, and Hawkins plays fair. Characters aren’t only lying to us, they are often lying to themselves, or else they’re misinformed. The reader always knows more than any one character but never knows all that a character knows, and Hawkins trusts that the promise of enlightenment is sufficiently seductive to deliver information by the drip.

So, Into the Water is on a par with The Girl on a Train – and of a piece with it, too. Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion not just in patriarchal structures, but in misogyny. The blame lies with men, who react with violence and psychological abuse to the perceived threat of a woman’s independence. But one of the main products of this mistreatment is that the female characters overlook the role played by such damage when considering other women’s behaviour and subscribe instead to a male-sanctioned narrative of stubborn irrationality or wilful coldness.

Hawkins seems more engaged with the second part of the equation, the way that women see themselves and each other. The radicalism of The Girl on the Train and Into the Water depends partly on the persuasive depiction of figures such as (in Girl) the pathetic drunk and the unrepentant home-wrecker, and in the new novel the money-grabbing mystic, the joyless spinster, the trouble-making man-eater. Then Hawkins exposes the truth behind the cardboard, the way these images have been constructed and perpetuated. Her plotting works as an ambush and also as a rebuke. “You didn’t believe that nonsense, did you?” she seems to be saying. “Oh, you did – and here’s why.”

The effect is less patronising than perhaps it sounds. The rebuke is aimed at the reader not as a citizen but as a participant in the thriller tradition. After all, the victim who deserved it is a familiar character: we have little trouble believing the type. Hawkins has set herself the challenge of adding a third dimension to the dramatis personae bequeathed by Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler. We are accustomed to characters shifting shape as a story develops. The obvious suspect – twitchy, tattooed, alibi-less – was all along a Good Samaritan; the spotless widow has a cellar full of skulls. Hawkins goes further, showing how narrative presumptions betray unconscious beliefs, upending clichés of other people’s making. You might dismiss her as a killjoy if she wasn’t so addictive. 

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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