Excellent, deserving of an encore.
One way to tell slick genre prose from really interesting writing is to look, in the former case, for the absence of different registers. An efficient thriller will often be written in a style that is locked into place: the musical analogue of this might be a tune, proceeding in unison, the melody separated only by octave intervals, without any harmony in the middle. By contrast, rich and daring prose avails itself of harmony and dissonance by being able to move in and out of place. In writing, a "register" is nothing more than a name for a kind of diction, which is nothing more than a name for a certain, distinctive way of saying something—so we talk about "high" and "low" registers (e.g., the highish "Father" and the lower "Pop"), grand and vernacular diction, mock-heroic diction, clichéd registers, and so on.
We have a conventional expectation that prose should be written in only one unvarying register—a solid block, like everyone agreeing to wear black at a funeral. But this is a social convention, and eighteenth-century prose, for instance, is especially good at subverting this expectation, wringing comedy out of the jostling together of different registers that we had not thought should share the same family space. We saw how well Jane Austen made fun of Sir William Lucas, by writing that he built a new house, "denominated from that period Lucas Lodge." With the phrase "denominated from that period," and especially the fancy verb "denominated," Austen uses a grand register (or pompous diction) to mock Sir William's own pomposity. More subtly, in Emma, Mrs. Elton, on the trip to Donwell Abbey to pick strawberries, is described as dressed in "all her apparatus of happiness, her large bonnet and her basket." The phrase "apparatus of happiness" is of course absolutely killing, and, as in the Lucas Lodge passage, the comedy emanates from the little lift in register, the move upward, to that word "apparatus." Suggestive of technical efficiency, the word belongs to a scientific register that puts it at odds with "of happiness." An apparatus of happiness sounds more like an inverted torture machine than a bonnet and basket, and it promises a kind of doggedness, a persistence, that fits Mrs. Elton's character, and which makes the heart sink.
Austen's tricks can be found in modern writers as different as Muriel Spark and Philip Roth. In The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, one of the little girls, Jenny, is confronted one day by a flasher; or as Spark wittily has it, "was accosted by a man joyfully exposing himself beside the Water of Leith." That adverb, "joyfully," is marvelously unexpected, and seems to have no place in the sentence. It robs the incident of menace, and makes it a kind of fairy tale. The capitalized "Water of Leith" introduces an absurd mock-heroic register that Pope would have applauded. The Water of Leith is a small river; to insist on identifying it makes further fun of the incident, and the aural suggestion of Lethe is very funny. You can hear the comedy in these different dictions—and laugh—without necessarily knowing why.*
Philip Roth does something similar in this long sentence from Sabbath's Theater. Mickey Sabbath, Satanic seducer and misanthrope, has been having a long, juicy affair with a Croatian-American, Drenka:
Lately, when Sabbath suckled at Drenka's uberous breasts—uberous, the root word of exuberant, which is itself ex plus uberare, to be fruitful, to overflow like Juno lying prone in Tintoretto's painting where the Milky Way is coming out of her tit—suckled with an unrelenting frenzy that caused Drenka to roll her head ecstatically back and to groan (as Juno herself may have once groaned), "I feel it deep down in my cunt," he was pierced by the sharpest of longings for his late little mother.
This is an amazingly blasphemous little melange. This sentence is really dirty, and partly because it conforms to the well-known definition of dirt—matter out of place, which is itself a definition of the mixing of high and low dictions. But why would Roth engage in such baroque deferrals and shifts? Why write it so complicatedly? If you render the simple matter of his sentence and keep everything in place—i.e., remove the jostle of registers—you see why. A simple version would go like this: "Lately, when Sabbath sucked Drenka's breasts, he was pierced by the sharpest of longings for his late mother." It is still funny, because of the slide from lover to mother, but it is not exuberant. So the first thing the complexity achieves is to enact the exuberance, the hasty joy and chaotic desire, of sex. Second, the long, mock-pedantic, suspended subclause about the Latin origin of "uberous" and Tintoretto's painting of Juno works, in proper music-hall fashion, to delay the punchline of "he was pierced by the sharpest of longings for his late little mother." (It also delays, and makes more shocking and unexpected, the entrance of "cunt.") Third, since the comedy of the subject matter of the sentence involves moving from one register to another—from a lover's breast to a mother's—it is fitting that the style of the sentence mimics this scandalous shift, by engaging in its own stylistic shifts, going up and down like a manic EKG: so we have "suckled" (high diction), "breasts" (medium), "uberare" (high), "Tintoretto's painting" (high), "where the Milky Way is coming out of her tit" (low), "unrelenting frenzy" (high, rather formal diction), "as Juno herself may have once groaned" (still quite high), "cunt" (very low), "pierced by the sharpest of longings" (high, formal diction again). By insisting on equalizing all these different levels of diction, the style of the sentence works as style should, to incarnate the meaning, and the meaning itself, of course, is all about the scandal of equalizing different registers. Sabbath's Theater is a passionate, intensely funny, repellent, and very moving portrait of the scandal of male sexuality, which is repeatedly linked in the book to vitality itself. To be able to have an erection in the morning, to be able to seduce women in one's mid-sixties, to be able to persist in scandalizing bourgeois morality, to be able to say every single day, as the aging Mickey does, "Fuck the laudable ideologies!" is to be alive. And this sentence is utterly alive, and is alive by virtue of the way it scandalizes proper norms. Is it Drenka or Juno or Mickey's late mother who is being fucked in this sentence? All three of them. Roth brilliantly catches the needy, babyish side of male sexuality, in which a lover's breast is still really mommy's suckling tit, because mommy was your first and only lover. Drenka, then, inevitably, is both Madonna (mother, Juno) and whore (because she can't be as good as mommy was). In classic misogynistic fashion, the woman is adored and hated by men because she is the source of life—the Milky Way flows out of her breasts, and children come from between her legs ("the Monster of the Beginning Womb," as Allen Ginsberg calls it in Kid-dish). Men cannot rival that, even as they, like Mickey or late Yeats, rage on about male "vitality." And notice the subtle way that, with his verb "pierced" ("pierced by the sharpest of longings"), Roth inverts the presumed male-female order. Mickey, who is presumably piercing (in a sexual sense) this mother-whore by entering her, is really being pierced or entered—fucked back in turn—by the woman who gave birth to him. All this in one superb sentence.
*It is partly by shifts in register that we gain a sense of a human voice speaking to us—Austen's, Spark's, Roth's. Likewise, by dancing between registers a character sounds real to us, whether Hamlet or Leopold Bloom. Movements in diction capture some of the waywardness and roominess of actual thinking: David Foster Wallace and Norman Rush exploit this to considerable effect. Rush's two novels, Mating and Mortals, are full of the most fantastic shifts in diction, and the effect is the creation of a real but strange American voice, at once over-educated and colloquial: "This jeu maintained its facetious character, but there came a time when I began to resent it as a concealed way of short-circuiting my episode of depression, because he preferred me to be merry, naturally." Or: "I was manic and global: Everything was a last straw. I went up the hill on passivity and down again."
How Fiction Works, James Woods 2008