2023.08.14 by Josh Erb; 788 words.
I recently started reading Don DeLillo's early 90s novel Mao II. Like all DeLillo's writing — even his minor work - the prose itself is musical and transfixing. The novel itself, however, is not the impetus for this post. Rather, I want to express my fascination with the blurb that is included on the back of the paperback copy I own:
This novel's a beauty. A vision as bold and a voice as eloquent and morally focused as any in American writing.
— Thomas Pynchon
The fact that the blurb is from Thomas Pynchon is, of course, the first thing that caught me eye. Why shouldn't it be? First of all, one of the novel's protagonists is a reclusive author. So there's a fiendish cleverness in the decision to include a blurb from America's own "notably reclusive" author. What's more, Pynchon providing a blurb for another author's work is a rare enough event that it merits it's own mention on a book's Wikipedia page.
But what kept my attention — and what continued to hold my fascination for longer than it should have — is the final complement of the blurb:
[...] as any in American writing.
I've added emphasis here on the part that's caused me to spiral. The tone of Pynchon's blurb is certainly laudatory, but the use of this qualifier seems to imply that DeLillo's recent novel is comparable to any other American writer publishing at the time. Pynchon has a sharp wit and a seemingly endless well of knowledge about language, history, you name it — was this an attempt to make a quick joke at the expense of a fellow author?
This question, of course, sent me off on a little journey. I soon discovered that the blurb on my paperback is actually abridged. If you look up examples of the first edition, you'll see that the original blurb was actually a bit longer:
This novel's a beauty. DeLillo takes us on a breathtaking journey beyond the official versions of our daily history, behind all easy assumptions about who we're supposed to be, with a vision as bold and voice as eloquent and morally focused as any in American writing.
— Thomas Pynchon
I note this in passing, purely because it seems to imply that publishers will yank the guts out of a blurb without any indication that they've done so. Still, the "as any" remains in the original.
In a final fit of desperation, I was forced to spend 30 minutes fighting with various internet search engines to try to find a usage post on the idiom "as good as any." Which, if you have any experience with modern search engines and phrases with high-frequency, low-cardinality words (words like "as," "good," and "any"), you'll know it can feel like sifting gold from a muddy stream.
Ultimately, I was rescued from my utter confusion by the tangentially related entry in Merriam-Webster, "as anything". According to those blessed descriptivists over at M-W, the phrase can be used idiomatically not as a comparative, but as a qualifier to make a previous statement more forceful. Pynchon's blurb is intended to say that DeLillo's vision and voice are not just good, but they are exceptional. Though, I do still maintain that the addendum of "in American writing" mangles the idiom and causes the confusion I experienced.
Essentially, my spiral was probably the equivalent of someone a couple hundred years ago puzzling over the novel use of "damned" to mean "very" (e.g. "damned good") and wondering why a writer would curse something while also describing it positively.
This was a fun jaunt down some atypical English usage that appears that I found confusing on first read. Here at the end of the journey, I do still hope that Pynchon's intent was to purposefully inject a bit of playful ambiguity into his endorsement. That's just more fun for all those involved for an industry practice that is otherwise a bit of marketing tedium.
1991, if you were curious.
a great example of which, I found here
I'm basing this comment off the fact that there are several forum posts for the phrase "as good as any" that assume it's an equivocation and represents neither a positive nor a negative (exhibits: a & b)