James Parker, reviewing Matthew Pearl's new novel The Technologists, has a question ("Science Will Save Us", NYT 2/24/2012):
Bad prose […] is arrestingly weird. It stops the clocks and twists the wires. It knits the brow in perplexity: What the hell is this? What’s going on here?
My reaction to Pearl's first novel, The Dante Club, was similar, although more charitable to the author:
The Dante Club's front matter tells us that "Matthew Pearl graduated from Harvard University summa cum laude in English and American literature in 1997, and in 2000 from Yale Law School". I ask you, is it likely that a person with that background would be so insensitive to the norms of the English language?
No, a much more plausible hypothesis is that Pearl graduated from a slightly different Harvard University, in a universe slightly different from our own, and read a body of English and American literature that is also just a bit different.
Skimming the first few pages of The Technologists, I find additional evidence for my trans-dimensional hypothesis. The book's second sentence, for example, presupposes that 19th-century American sailors received regular rations of walnuts, which they were allowed to crack under their heels on the deck:
Some of the sailors, their bearded faces browned and peeling from too much sun, cracked the last rations of walnuts in their fists or under their boot heels, singing some ancient song about a girl left behind.
I don't think that this was generally true in our current universe, if only because crushing walnut husks leaves a dark stain, and 19th-century sea-captains were notoriously fussy about the appearance of their decks. Perhaps this is meant to be a quirk of the vessel in question? We can't tell, because this ship sinks a couple of pages later, and neither it nor its sailors' walnut rations appear to play any further role in the novel.
Those sailors' walnuts were "arrestingly weird" because they violate my sense of historical plausibility, not because they violate the norms of standard English. But the next sentence of The Technologists did take me aback for linguistic reasons:
After wild March winds, stormy seas, dangerous ports, backbreaking work, and all the extremes of experience, they’d be handed a good pay at port, then freed to lose it to the city’s myriad pleasures.
"Handed a good pay at port"? Can you say that? I don't think so, at least not without crossing your readers' wires.
The noun pay occurs 13,026 times in COCA; and "a pay" occurs 875 times, but all of these are in phrases like "a pay raise", "a pay cut", "a pay phone", etc., where pay is the first element of a compound noun. The noun pay occurs 2,273 times preceded by an adjective, but again, "a [jj] pay" occurs only in phrases like "a big pay cut" or "a nearby pay phone".
In comparison, the noun salary occurs 9.725 times; and only about a third of the 835 instances of "a salary" are in phrases like "a salary increase" or "a salary cap". The other two thirds are in phrases like these — where substituting pay wouldn't work:
Grunts punch a clock and management collects a salary.
Now she is an assistant commissioner at a salary of $73,500.
…a salary in the high six figures …
Similarly, "a [jj] salary" turns up plenty of examples like these, in which pay would not work:
Even if we work long hours, we make a decent salary.
… a weekly salary of $125 …
You can still negotiate a higher salary.
Confirming this judgment distributionally, we find that "a pay of" doesn't occur in COCA, while "a salary of" occurs 171 times. Comparing the two across time in the Google n-gram viewer gives a consistent result:
On the next page of The Technologists, there's an example where the alternate history might be either linguistic or economic:
In the last few years, with so many men returned from fighting the rebellion, even modest Boston merchants had become veritable industrialists, beset as they were by excess hands.
I think of merchants as shopkeepers or traders, while industrialists are the owners of manufacturing enterprises. This impression is confirmed by The American Heritage Dictionary, which glosses merchant as "One whose occupation is the wholesale purchase and retail sale of goods for profit", or "One who runs a retail business; a shopkeeper"; and industrialist as "One who owns, directs, or has a substantial financial interest in an industrial enterprise", where industrial in turn is "Of, relating to, or resulting from industry", and the relevant sense of industry is "The sector of an economy made up of manufacturing enterprises".
So was it true that the excess labor available after the American Civil War led "even modest" Boston shopkeepers to become manufacturers? An interesting idea, and maybe true in this universe as well as in Matthew Pearl's. But I suspect that the intended meaning is different — that the flood of returning soldiers allowed merchants to expand their businesses and to become wealthier, with "industrialist" being used in an extended sense something like "stereotypically wealthy person".
In either case, Matthew Pearl's writing has again distracted me from his story.
What about that New York Times review by James Parker? What stopped the narrative clocks for him?
I was brought up short, for example, very early in Matthew Pearl’s latest novel, “The Technologists,” by the following line: “Incredulously, the captain extended his spyglass.” I wavered and then stopped. How does one incredulously extend a spyglass? And what else can one do incredulously? Incredulously, they cut down the hanged man. . . . Incredulously, she flossed her perfect teeth. . . . Incredulously, the reviewer contemplated the latest book from the best-selling author of “The Dante Club” and “The Last Dickens,” whose literarily flavored historical novels have been published in 40 countries. . . .
I don't think that this one would have twisted the wires for me. The verbs most frequently preceding incredulously, according to COCA, are ask, say, stare, look, watch, repeat, demand, listen, respond, laugh, … About 10% of the total instances involve verbs of looking; so by extension, extending a spyglass would work.
Perhaps the problem is the sentence-initial position of the adverb. This is indeed relatively rare for incredulously — there are just two examples in COCA, with 380 in other positions. This compares to 687 out of 9419 for surprisingly, 1313 out of 7716 for hopefully, More important, there's a tendency for sentence-initial adverbs to apply to the writer's reaction rather than to the manner of the verb written about, so that sentence-initial incredulously would mean something like "surprisingly" rather than "in an incredulous manner". Thus one of the two COCA sentences with initial incredulously, part of the description of a young woman's recovery from a serious mental illness, is
Incredulously , she decided to join the swim team.
So perhaps the whole muddled hopefully controversy has primed James Parker to worry about sentence-initial adverbs relating to mental states.
These WTF reactions, whether to content or to form, are interestingly different across individuals.