Sunday, February 24, 2008

On Awkwardness

Awkwardness abounds. The awkward age, angle, moment, position, construction, time. Even the word, with its consonantal congestion, its harsh medial K, is awkward. I usually have to set aside the book or reach for the pause button when things get too awkward in fiction -just to take a breather, to steel myself for the home stretch. Unfortunately, life is harder to put down.

I do try. I freeze. I stop talking. Or maybe I start talking. Or maybe I pretend, strenuously, that nothing is awkward, that everything is fine, until the pretense seizes the world by the scruff of the neck and shakes.

I've been contemplating awkwardness, awkwardly, for the past several months. It's been hemming me in, locking me up, sending me forth to wander in the wilderness of avoidance. My God is a cruel God, a God prone to acne and bad jokes and ducking out the back.


I resort, naturally, to the most powerful weapon at my disposal: the close read. What is awkwardness, exactly? Synonyms that work for one facet of the word (e.g., graceless, as in a graceless construction) tend to fall short for others (well, that was a graceless moment!). Is awkwardness like obscenity: you know it when you see it? (Apologies, Justice Stewart.) You do, of course: I can name, off the top of my head, three awkward moments to which I've been a party in the last 24 hours. But "I know it when I see it" is, as definitions go...awkward.

Besides, the essence of awkwardness can be articulated. It's a negative, rather than a positive quality; antithesis as opposed to thesis. To be awkward is simply to go against the grain of taste. Aesthetics, social conventions, the implicit rules of language: move against these and you're entered the magical world of awkward.

And here, skulking on the underside of my question, is my answer. If awkwardness means to move against taste, then all I have to do, to move against awkwardness, is change my taste. I will become a connoisseur of awkwardness! I will learn and appreciate the subtle distinctions between gaffe and gaucherie, between awkward silence and restful pause, between the poorly timed entrance and the long goodbye. I will develop an aesthetic of awkwardness so comprehensive, so penetrating, that I will finally be able to attend family reunions.

An awkward end, but I like that.

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