Can One Word Spoil a Beautiful Novel?

I love the work of Emily St. John Mandel. I love to get on a plane with one of her books, because then I do not have to put up with modern air travel but can live instead inside of her head. I like living in her head. She writes really good novels. 


One of the best is Station Eleven (Knopf, 2014). And it roars along in dazzling fashion until some two hundred pages in. I hit a couple of clunkers along the way but nothing that would cast the whole project into shadow. 


The central device of the plot is a community that has sprung up in an abandoned airport after an apocalyptic influenza virus destroys most of the human race. It appears that Emily has done quite a bit of research in other areas, so it would seem fair to assume that she researched airports and aviation for this crucial part of the book. 


The pacing of the story is beautiful and the suspense powerful. We don’t actually get to the airport until page 224. And then we begin to stumble into Emily’s confusion. And that confusion persists for another 78 pages while anyone who knows about aviation winces with embarrassment and unease.


The trouble begins on page 233 when she writes, “This was how he arrived in this airport: he’d boarded a machine that transported him at high speed a mile above the surface of the earth.” A mile is 5,280 feet. His flight was scheduled from New York to Toronto, so its cruising altitude would have been at least 25,000 feet or almost five miles. Okay, well, we can shrug and forgive mistake number one. 


But in the very next paragraph, she writes, “Clark… was struck by the variety of planes on the tarmac.” Clark is the character above, a key figure, who arrived at the airport in question. The trouble here is that tarmac does not exist on any airport in the world. No airport has ever embodied any surface called tarmac


According to the Federal Aviation Administration (and to all of us pilots who use airports), the surfaces at airports are called runways, taxiways, aprons, and ramps. No tarmac. Never. No air traffic controller has ever said, “Taxi to the tarmac.” No pilot has transmitted his desire to be on or near a tarmac of any sort. Apologies to all of those misguided journalists who use this mistaken term every day. No tarmac. 


The Oxford English Dictionary says this: 


“Tarmacadam…. A mixed material for making roads, consisting of some kind of broken stone or ironstone slag in a matrix of tar alone, or of tar with some mixture of pitch or creosote.”


It then cites some engineers from the 1800s talking about using this mixture to try to pave “Dustless Roads,” the title of a paper in 1909 by J.W. Smith. He strongly recommends tar as the paving of the future. He was right. Two-lane blacktop roads are everywhere. 


The OED goes on: “Hence Tarmac, the registered trade-mark of a kind of tar macadam consisting of iron slag impregnated with tar and creosote.” This all took place before 1910, at a time when no airports existed as such. And so no airport embodied a component that could rightly be called Tarmac or tarmac. And the lower case version of this word would be in violation of the trade-mark, which today no longer exists. Hence: No Tarmac.


So the sad conclusion that I, eager and enthusiastic, come to on page 233 of Station Eleven, is that Emily didn’t care to research the main location of her story.


I pressed on. Maybe things would get better. 


Alas, page 237: “… parked end to end on the tarmac.” 

238: “…jet on the tarmac.” (A side note: Strictly speaking, modern airliners are powered not by jets, but by turbine engines.) 

239: “Beyond the tarmac…”

241: “…alone on the tarmac.”

243: “…bonfire on the tarmac…”

246: “…a crowd gathered on the tarmac…”

248: “…looking out at the tarmac.”

254: “…armchairs with the views over the tarmac.”  

276: “…from which he could see almost the entire tarmac.” 


How can we know the difference between the regular tarmac and the “entire tarmac?” How can we envision what “he could see” if we can’t define tarmac? So much of a narrative involves allowing the reader see what our characters see. Emily occasionally uses such terms as runway, so she must know that some places on the surface of an airport are NOT tarmac…. Where then is tarmac as distinct from runway? Where did she get the word tarmac? How did this monster zombie grow so large and destructive in her otherwise lovely text?


It gets worse.


277: “Garrett was absorbed in watching two children playing on the tarmac….” 


280: “Thinking of a boy standing on the tarmac….” 


309: “A liquid movement below on the tarmac….” And this instance is particular sad, because the paragraph containing it was otherwise beautiful and fell to pieces on this word alone.


So yes, one word can destroy a book. The last third of her novel was ruined by the fact that she had snatched a word out of common parlance and never thought to ask what (if anything) it meant. George Orwell wrote about this failing in his lovely little book Why I Write. Here’s some of what he said:


“… modern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug. The attraction of this way of writing is that it is easy. It is easier–even quicker, once you have the habit–to say In my opinion it is a not unjustifiable assumption that than to say I think. If you use ready-made phrases, you not only don’t have to hunt about for words; you also don’t have to bother with the rhythms of your sentences, since these phrases are generally so arranged as to be more or less euphonious.” He concludes by saying that this writer’s “brain is not involved as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself.”


So you can’t talk about airports and airplanes if you don’t know the words that apply to airports and airplanes, the knowledge of which would allow you to choose to say what you mean instead of gumming together words you simply happened to overhear somewhere. Journalists say tarmac to make it sound as if they know something about aviation when, in fact, they don’t. Emily is relentless in her pursuit of this false delight and seemingly unaware as she does so.


Page 281: “From the tarmac, the concert was a smudge of light in Concourse C.” 


Next page: “…four people with binoculars watching the tarmac….” 


Ahh, one or two tarmacs, perhaps. But this book, ostensibly about a community in an airport, crashes after a hopeful voyage of more than 200 pages on the shoals of the one word by an author who has the potential to be terrific at her craft. 


Yet the injury seems endless. Page 332: “Clark looks up at the evening activity on the tarmac….” 


We can perhaps gain some insight into how the editors at Knopf missed this catastrophe in such a good novel. They also missed the low-hanging fruit in other areas as well. Emily mistakes presently, meaning soon, for at present, meaning now: (page 46) “with the location of the sixth presently in question…”


And on page 191: “a makeshift structure that would cut the wind and hopefully look like a pile of trash….” My conclusion is that no one at Knopf read the book very closely.


Likewise on page 290: “…but she was too nauseous to move.” The mistake is repeated again on page 321: “He felt nauseous.” She means, of course, nauseated. 


Again (page 317) “He’d laid awake until sunrise….” He’d lain awake is correct. 


I make such obvious mistakes myself. All writers do, no matter how skillful. I used to think the word enormity referred to size, not wickedness. We hope our editors and friends will catch and correct us in these blunders. We need eternal vigilance. Writing is not for the faint of heart. We have to look at every word. Look and then look again.