Category Archives: metaphor

Swamped by ‘Infinite Jest’

On failing to finish David Foster Wallace’s masterpiece novel.

 Beach Stick x

Carry nothing even remotely vegetabalish if in the path of a feral herd.

Infinite Jest

To paraphrase Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven, “It’s a terrible thing to quit a book. To take from it less than it has to give.” I don’t believe that about books—we should quit any one that’s not working for us and start another—but David Foster Wallace’s 1,079-page novel Infinite Jest is a special case. And I’ve just failed to read it for the second time.

How many sail around the world on their first try? Still, there’s a sense of failure involved in quitting any one of the world’s acknowledged Great Novels. (I have a secret list.) And a special poignancy for me in giving up yet again on Infinite Jest since I love Wallace’s nonfiction and wanted to join those who’ve beaten on against the current to the bitter end. It appears, as well, to be a novel, like Catch-22 and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance were for my generation, that’s an important marker for twentysomething readers and writers. Alas, I am not young. Just dropping Infinite Jest on my toe, even in this paperback version, might be tragic at my age.

I’ve had plenty of reading time between semesters, down here in Florida in my sister’s beach condo. Even so, I feared the cetaceous bulk of Infinite Jest. And once you open it and see its pages covered in a smaller-than-usual font, with sentences at tighter than usual spacing—and I’m not talking about the 96 pages of tiny single-spaced endnotes—you instantly know one thing for sure. Reading Infinite Jest is an opportunity cost. Because you could read at least six good novels in the time it’d take you to read it. Just sayin’.

Wallace's Infinite Jest

But that’s not relevant if it’s worth six good novels. There’s testimony it is, though in all honesty I made it only to Page 109 so how would I really know? Yet Wallace’s genius, energy, and belief in his work are palpable from the start. He could do anything as a writer, and he seems to do everything in Infinite Jest; of course he’s got all the basic chops, from sentences to scenes, from point of view to voice. Incidentally, Wallace, both a grammarian and someone who could write circles around almost anyone, had no problem with breaking the heart of his frenemy Jonathan Franzen by using the “, then” construction that drives Franzen crazy. Franzen’s hatred of this common and useful usage pattern has made me weirdly sensitive to it; I see it everywhere, and I see his point. But his point, in his way, is also annoyingly overstated (and partly specious). (Watch Wallace cruelly dominate Franzen on Charlie Rose’s show.)  A minor quirk in Infinite Jest is Wallace’s use of single quotation marks; reviewing another book of his, Oblivion, for The Modern World, Marie Mundaca said they “seem to indicate that the entire story is enclosed in a set of double quotes.”

But to stand back. Wallace had the genius’s way with metaphor—at the sentence level, sure, but pertinently here in the overarching sense: how he sets up a bleak exaggerated future America. One in which our prosperity and beloved diversions (video, drugs, sports, advertising) turn hellish as richly flawed people struggle amid ascendant corporations and an environmental holocaust. New England is a toxic waste dump called the Great Concavity and roamed by Québécois separatist terrorists.

Blessedly I made it to Page 93, and so to the horde of rampaging hamsters:

     It’s a herd of feral hamsters, a major herd, thundering across the yellow plains of the southern reaches of the Great Concavity in what used to be Vermont, raising dust that forms a uremic-hued cloud with somatic shapes interpretable from as far away as Boston and Montreal. The herd is descended from two domestic hamsters set free by a Watertown NY boy at the beginning of the Experialist migration in the subsidized Year of the Whopper. The boy now attends college in Champaign IL and has forgotten that his hamsters were named Ward and June.

 

The noise of the herd is tornadic, locomotival. The expression on the hamsters’ whiskered faces is businesslike and implacable—it’s that implacable-herd expression. They thunder eastward across pedalferrous terrain that today is fallow, denuded. To the east, dimmed by the fulvous cloud the hamsters send up, is the vivid verdant ragged outline of the annularly overfertilized forests of what used to be central Maine.

 

All these territories are now property of Canada.

 

With respect to a herd of this size, please exercise the sort of common sense that come to think of it would keep your thinking man out of the southwest Concavity anyway. Feral hamsters are not pets. They mean business. Wide berth advised. Carry nothing even remotely vegetabalish if in the path of a feral herd. If in the path of such a herd, move quickly and calmly in a direction perpendicular to their own. If American, north not advisable. Move south, calmly and in all haste, toward some border metropolis—Rome NNY or Glens Falls NNY or Beverly, MA, say, or those bordered points between them at which the giant protective ATHSCME fans atop the hugely convex protective walls of adonized Lucite hold off the drooling and piss-colored bank of teratogenic Concavity clouds and move the bank well back, north, away, jaggedly, over your protected head.

One of the funniest passages I’ve read, it thrums with a deep sadness, maybe like all humor. Like Wallace’s, anyway. Like watching reruns of Leave it to Beaver and aching for your lost youth and for a more innocent America. Maybe you’ve not read Infinite Jest or, like me, have failed so far to finish it (in my case for largely unknown reasons but probably involving a reading hangover from my personal best reading year just ended, work I lugged with me, and a stupor induced by ocean waves breaking a stone’s throw from my pillow). If so, remember you read it here first: Carry nothing even remotely vegetabalish if in the path of a feral herd.

In 2009, my son, Tom Gilbert, reviewed Infinite Jest for Narrative.

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Filed under experimental, fiction, humor, metaphor, MY LIFE, punctuation, reading, REVIEW

My wild summer reading & revising

I took this photo in June in the ruins of Muckross Abbey, Killarney, Ireland. The tree, planted by Franciscan monks almost 600 years ago, is a common yew—used for shrubbery in the U.S.

Writing lessons from Cheryl Strayed’s great memoir, Wild

Find the work that moves you the most deeply and read it over and over again. I’ve had many great teachers, but the most valuable lessons I learned were from writers on the page.—Cheryl Strayed’s third writing precept, from her website

This summer’s blockbuster memoir

I’m sure it’s no accident that right after reading Wild I got the insight to feather memories of my father throughout my memoir in progress. In previous drafts I’d used a couple of chapters to depict him. Dumb. Especially since, years ago, before I even started writing my book, a wise old editor I told about my farming adventure and how it came in the wake of my father’s serial farming adventures said, “Don’t write a whole chapter on him. Have him appear now and then. Like you’re walking across your pasture and you think of him.”

Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, currently number one on The New York Times nonfiction bestseller list, is long and meaty, a traditional yarn; it feels both nakedly sincere and confident in its unguarded honesty, a book with a lot of heart. Just what I’m aiming for myself. But I couldn’t see how Strayed pulled everything off when I first read it in May, though I did see that she wove in her backstory instead of stopping the narrative with chunks and slabs of Vital Background.

Wild depicts a grueling 1,100-mile solo hike Strayed took, in 1995, from southern California to Oregon, dodging bears and rattlesnakes and reading great literature in her tent at night, burning the pages in the morning in her campfire. She’d grown up outdoors but had never backpacked, not once, until she loaded her pack and tried to lift it just before setting out. She couldn’t pick it up, couldn’t budge it from the floor, having stuffed the large pack with so much that it probably weighed north of seventy pounds. She had to squirm into it on the floor and lift with her legs. And her boots were too small. That’s the strong foreground story, a young woman bent with a physical weight and carrying intolerable emotional baggage.

Her backstory about that baggage includes memories of her abusive father, whom her mother divorced when Strayed was six; of being raised by her hippy-ish back-to-the-land horse-loving mother and a crunchy carpenter stepfather in Minnesota; of suffering through her mother’s illness and unexpectedly quick death from lung cancer at age forty-five, when Strayed was a senior in college; of being devastated by grief and by her subsequent affairs, heroin abuse, and divorce; of her picking that new last name, Strayed; of her impulse when at rock bottom to buy a book on hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, which she’d never heard of and which was thousands of miles to the west of her home in Minneapolis.

Other than noticing that Strayed’s riveting life story was woven into the hike, what struck me the first time I read Wild was how Strayed depicted her affairs in comparison with a gritty essay about them she published in The Sun. At first I thought she wasn’t as graphic because she needed to be more likable for a 315-page book—her couplings went beyond rampant promiscuity into self destruction, considering the damaged and predatory men she picked to pummel her in the depth of her toxic sorrow. But now I’m sure, after reading Wild a second time, that her more elliptical treatment of her affairs was about a choice she made not to bog down the narrative. In the book, she only depicts one, with the man who started her using heroin and who was her and her long-suffering husband’s final straw. After that, Strayed, adulterer and neophyte heroin user, made an extreme and impulsive but life-affirming decision to take a hike to clean herself up.

As a writer she really knows what to delve into and what not. Here’s her entire summation of what happened after she discovered she’d gotten pregnant by the junkie boy—during post breakup sex, alas:

I got an abortion and learned how to make dehydrated tuna flakes and turkey jerky and took a refresher course on basic first aid and practiced using my water purifier in my kitchen sink.

That’s it on the abortion, no depiction—because it wasn’t needed (and knowing that as a writer can be so hard; it can take hundreds of pages to see what should have been one line)—though Strayed does recall the abortion on the trail when she realizes one day that it would have been her mother’s fiftieth birthday and that she’d have had her baby about then. She knew she had to become a different woman first, she reflects, and not one trapped by children like her mother was. Strayed then spends much of the day painfully raging at her mother for dying. As a writer she’s unafraid to show herself in a bad light, and we get on her side, root for the straying orphan.

Her plucky persona, that good-girl-gone-bad-trying-to-be good, really worked for me. I marveled at how fast I was devouring Wild—I’ve since heard others say they read it compulsively—even though the thought of donning a backpack made my spinus erectus muscles threaten to spasm, as if trying to protect my farming-ruined and thoroughly age-desiccated vertebrae. I might have been able to carry a pack when I was Strayed’s age when she did it, twenty-six and turning twenty-seven, but I doubt I would have endured the body chafing and pulped feet and six lost toenails that went with it.

She was one tough chick.

Next: Rereading Wild to unlock its intricate construction.

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Filed under honesty, memoir, metaphor, REVIEW, revision, working method

Ray Bradbury on Shakespeare

How long he stood he did not know, but there was a foolish and yet delicious sense of knowing himself as an animal come from the forest, drawn by the fire. He was a thing of brush and liquid eye, of fur and muzzle and hoof, he was a thing of horn and blood that would smell like autumn if you bled it out on the ground. He stood a long long time, listening to the warm crackle of the flames.

—Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

Ray Bradbury’s work transcended genre, as shown in the above lyrical passage from his classic tale of a dystopian future in which books are banned and burned. He was a great poet in all senses of the word because he was a genius, because he was original. And he was original because what underlay his science fiction—its origin—was the best literature. As a boy he was transfixed by The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera. But he especially credited Shakespeare and the Bible for providing the metaphorical underpinnings of his visionary prose.

At least that’s what he told Terry Gross in a 1988 interview. Gross asked him how he got to write the screenplay for John Huston’s version of Moby-Dick, which he hadn’t read at the time:

Ray Bradbury’s photo by Steve Castillo/AP

By staying true to my own sense of the poetic. Again, here’s the influence of Shakespeare on my life, the influence of the Bible, which I was raised on. And by staying true to my own sense of poetry and my love of metaphor, which you learn from the Old Testament and the New Testament and you learn from Shakespeare. To speak in tongues, which are so vivid that people will remember the metaphor. And also by staying in love with dinosaurs. I fell in love with dinosaurs when I was five. I was walking along the shore with my wife one night down in Venice, California, this was 1949, and we found the ruins of the old Venice pier, all the bones and the skeleton, the tracks and the ties of the roller coaster, lying there in the sea. And I turned to my wife and I said, “I wonder what that dinosaur is doing lying here on the shore.” She was very careful not to answer. And three nights later I heard something in the middle of the night, I sat up in bed, looked at all the fog out beyond the window, and way out in Santa Monica Bay I heard the braying, the calling, the oconing of the foghorn. Over and over and over again. I said, “Yes that’s it.” The dinosaur heard the foghorn blowing, thought it was another dinosaur calling from a billion years of slumber and swam for an encounter, discovered it was only a damned lighthouse and a damned foghorn, tore the whole thing down and died of a broken heart on the beach. I got out of bed the next day and wrote “The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms,” sent it to the Saturday Evening Post. It was published.

John Huston read that one story, and that changed my life forever, because he thought he smelled the ghost of Melville in that story. What he smelled in it was the ghost of Shakespeare and the ghost of the Bible, huh? And so he called me on the phone and offered me the job and a year later when I was working on the screenplay one night I said, “John, how did I get this job? You know, everyone thought you were crazy.” He said, “Well, I read that story about the dinosaur.” And I said, “Well, I was very honest with you. I told you when I met you, I had never read Melville.” But once I got into Melville, I discovered he had been inspired by the same people who inspired me. So we were twins. He had been called upon by Shakespeare to cough up the white whale.

Bradbury, who never learned to drive a car, wrote about 1,000 words a day on an electric typewriter. He hated negative people, negativity—for all his warnings and dark imaginings, he believed in our species, in its potential and in its latent greatness.

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Filed under Author Interview, fiction, metaphor, NOTED, symbolism, working method

Lane redux: ‘Tower Heist’ & VOD

The wit of Anthony Lane, like the sex life of Grace Kelly, is one of those refined but rustic matters that we can admire readily, and dissect in detail, but never really hope to understand.

Or emulate, alas.

But he’s fun to imitate.

Here’s the lead of Prince Anthony’s review of Tower Heist in this week’s New Yorker (November 7):

At the risk of invoking Freud, you have to wonder why movie stars are attracted to big, long films about towers. “The Towering Inferno” had Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, Faye Dunaway, and William Holden; it also had Fred Astaire and O. J. Simpson, a pairing so exquisite that Luis Buñuel must have wished he’d thought of it first. Now we have “Tower Heist,” which features Ben Stiller, Eddie Murphy, Alan Alda, Casey Affleck, Téa Leoni, Matthew Broderick, and Judd Hirsch. None of these, I concede, are up there with Fred Astaire, but, then, who is? What counts is safety in numbers—actors mustering together to lend bulk and momentum to a tale that they know to be dumb. The difference is that in 1974 they got away with it.

Lane does credit Tower Heist with one “pleasingly brazen image”—of a car dangling off the high rise—and concedes that “this cruddy movie” has one perfect moment: Mathew Broderick’s scene after he’s lost his job at Merrill Lynch, and his apartment, and ends up, in a cheap motel, pondering becoming a male prostitute. The director, Brett Ratner, late of the Rush Hour trilogy, has a style, Lane writes, in which “early Fellini is less easy to detect than that of Cuisinart.”

He’s a bit arch, I’ll give you that. But Lane gets as sincere as he gets, and as passionate, when he next takes on the spectre of video on demand (VOD). In an experiment, Tower Heist is being offered to half a million households weeks after its theatrical debut—for a mere $59.99 each.

Lane:

One’s immediate reaction to this news was: sixty bucks! For a Brett Ratner movie! It’s like one of those cafés in Weimar Germany where a glass of beer cost you four billion marks. The stakes were raised considerably by reports that NATO was incensed by this latest move in the battle of VOD. For one heady morning, I was under the impression that air strikes would be launched on Universal. Only then was it explained to me that NATO stands for the National Association of Theatre Owners, who regard the “Tower Heist” experiment, and similar ventures, as the thin end of a deadening wedge. Download a Ben Stiller movie in Atlanta, and you wind up, a few years later, with a nation of vacant auditoriums. Moviegoers will still watch movies; they just won’t go.

Lane agrees: VOD is the death of cinema, and he explains what will be lost. Were I in my old haunts I’d surely mourn with him. For years I’d leave our farm and drive twenty minutes to our small town’s Cineplex beside the mall, or even more cheerfully shoot downtown to a cozy boutique theatre. What was wunderbar was to teach and then amble across campus and catch an early movie and then wing back to our hilltop. My experience of watching Charlie Kaufman’s Jungian masterpiece Synechdoche, New York owes everything to seeing it, two or three times, in that little art house.

But now I’m in the city, actually somewhere amidst hundreds of acres, maybe thousands, of suburban sprawl, and haven’t got my bearings yet. There’s a Rave16 fifteen minutes away, but the heavy, fast-moving traffic often gives me pause.

So I cocoon, happily.

Because for once this late adopter, thanks to our daughter, suddenly possesses a “smart TV,” not only with high def flat-screen but capable of streaming from Netflix and Amazon, plus CinemaNow, whomever that is. And I can listen to Beatles Radio, or Dylan Radio, or Alison Krauss Radio, whatever’s my whim to create, on Pandora. So I’m consuming lots of movies, and while it isn’t cinema, Tony, it beats a couple years of scarce moviegoing while this country mouse adjusts to the city.

Yet, I know, by the time I join Anthony Lane in his VOD boycott, cinema will have shrunk—actually I don’t think it will die completely—knocked off its loop by the aimless bombardment of streaming digital technology.

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Filed under film/photography, humor, Lane—Prince Anthony, metaphor, MY LIFE

Gail Caldwell 3: more to admire

I.

The way, as I said, that Gail Caldwell employs metaphor in Let’s Take the Long Way Home: A Memoir of Friendship is remarkable. Almost every page includes one.

“No, you’re not,” said Caroline, her face as deadpan as a coach’s in a losing season. “No, you’re not. Keep your hands together. Stay still—don’t look at the water, look at your hands. Now look at me.” The voice consoled and instructed long enough for me to straighten into position, and I managed five or six strokes across flat water before I went flying out of the boat and into the lake.

II.

Here’s metaphor with another virtue, well depicted: female friendship, which as a man I can only envy, having found most of my friendships with men marred by competitiveness or seeming reluctance to be as vulnerable as Caldwell and Caroline Knapp were with each other.

From the beginning there was something intangible and even spooky between us that could make strangers mistake us as sisters or lovers, and that sometimes had friends refer to us by each other’s name: A year after Caroline’s death, a mutual friend called out to me at Fresh Pond, the reservoir where we had walked, “Caroline!”, then burst into tears at her mistake. The friendship must have announced its depth by its obvious affection, but also by our similarities, muted or apparent. That our life stories had wound their way toward each other on corresponding paths was part of the early connection. Finding Caroline was like placing a personal ad for an imaginary friend, then having her show up at your door funnier and better than you had conceived. Apart, we had each been frightened drunks and aspiring writers and dog lovers; together, we became a small corporation. . . .

All of this seems as though it were yesterday, or forever ago, in that crevasse between space and time that stays fixed in the imagination. I remember it all because I remember it all. In crisis with someone you love, the dialogue is as burnished as a scar on a tree.

III.

Caldwell’s frankly expository style—she relies on a strong, sure voice first, and blends into scenes—works with her flair for describing the world’s feel and its beauty. This opening echoes The Great Gatsby, with Fitzgerald’s effortless elegance, wistful tone, and intimate voice:

After I had lived in the East for a decade, long enough to winnow the realities from the dreams, I was driving down Brattle Street one winter night at the start of a storm, when the snow was surfing the currents of a soft wind, and I had the dissonant thought that I could grow old here—something I had never thought anywhere before, and certainly not during a New England winter.

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Filed under memoir, metaphor, NOTED, syntax

More metaphors & Gail Caldwell

Still thinking about Gail Caldwell’s deft metaphors in Let’s Take the Long Way Home, I was struck by these remarkable lines by John Steinbeck from The Grapes of Wrath:

 Can you live without the willow tree? Well, no, you can’t. The willow tree is you. The pain on the mattress there—that dreadful pain—that’s you.

I sure didn’t remember that passage, and it makes me want to reread the novel, which also has—I do remember this—an amazing scene of several pages of a turtle trying to cross a highway. The lines above are the epigram of Tom Piazza’s passionate recent novel City of Refuge, about two New Orleans families blown out of their frames by hurricane Katrina, which caused the greatest human dislocation in America since the dust bowl. Piazza was influenced by Steinbeck, and in Piazza’s novel, right before the storm hits, one of his characters, the editor of an arts weekly, approves a review of Philip Roth’s latest book with this headline: “The Gripes of Roth.”

I laughed out loud.

And I came across a great interview with Gail Caldwell in Smith in which she said she writes in longhand:

I used to write on the computer for The Globe book review deadlines every week for many years. Whenever I had writer’s block as a young critic, I’d go sit on my kitchen floor with a pen and a legal pad–I could write myself out of it in 30 seconds. So I learned very quickly to use that as a trick to relax my brain. I wrote my first book in longhand and transcribed, and that’s what I did with this book, too.

I never delete in a Word doc, either. If I know I’ve made a mistake, I write WW for “wrong word” and keep going. You can’t delete when you’re in that state, because it might take you somewhere important. When I transcribe it, I understand what I was trying to do, and it often takes on a second form on transcription. It sounds laborious, but for me it is what it needs to be.

What she said about structuring her book also was interesting, and it confirmed my impression while reading that she was gradually paddling me toward a chronological unfolding. Isn’t it fascinating that even when we know, as readers, the basic story—her friend died—we want to receive the experience? The story is never really the events but our response to them, how they looked and felt, and this is why time-tested narrative endures. Caldwell:

 I sit down and without any thought–I’m not trying to write, I’m trying to herd my thoughts into one place. And then from there I make notes on my notes, and I start to see if I can make maps about the beginning of the relationship, and where we both come from, and specific points in it.

I knew that I wouldn’t have to do much to organize it once I got to Caroline being sick. The heartbreaking ease with which I was able to write the last half of the book–it was like writing a police report, because it was so heartbreakingly matter of fact: and then and then and then. There was a part of me that said, I know this is heartbreaking and devastating to me; it is presumptuous to think that it is going to be to a stranger until you make it that way.  . . . After the first draft, I did have to go back and work very hard to distill into the story it is now.

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Filed under emotion, memoir, metaphor, narrative, structure, working method

Gail Caldwell’s memoir & metaphors

The use of running metaphors in a piece—all related in some way to indigestion or water or loneliness or roller skates, or with a surrealistic or violent cast—will guide the reader in a particular direction as surely as stock can be herded.—Annie Proulx

I’ve been skimming John Irving’s newest novel, Last Night in Twisted River. I started out reading, but it asked more of me than I can give right now. With classes looming, immersed in my own rewriting struggle, I’m too jangly, I guess, to settle into a thick old-fashioned plotted novel with lots of big fat sentences. So when I got a notice the other day from my library that a memoir I’d requested was in, I put Irving aside yet again.

I’d forgotten about the memoir, Gail Caldwell’s Let’s Take the Long Way Home: A Memoir of Friendship, about her bond with the late memoirist Caroline Knapp. The book, a svelte 190 pages, sucked me right in with the beauty of its sentences and the immediacy of its story. I devoured it in two days, and I’ll reread it. When it opens, Caldwell is dealing with Knapp’s death, and slowly a narrative storyline emerges amidst reflection as Caldwell goes back, showing their friendship ignite—over shared passions for dogs, rowing, and swimming—and moves through the years toward Knapp’s untimely death from lung cancer. The poignancy of this loss, and what makes it harrowing for Caldwell, is that this friendship between two single, gifted writers, both recovered alcoholics, was uncommonly deep. They were true soul mates, closer than many lovers.

The memoir’s opening page, an unlabeled prologue, showcases its strong, quiet voice, elegant syntax, and interesting use of metaphor:

It’s an old, old story: I had a friend and we shared everything, and then she died and so we shared that, too.

The year after she was gone, when I thought I had passed through the madness of early grief, I was on the path at the Cambridge reservoir where Caroline and I had walked the dogs for years. It was a winter afternoon and the place was empty—there was a bend in the road, with no one ahead of or behind me, and I felt a desolation so great that for a moment my knees wouldn’t work. “What am I supposed to do here?” I asked her aloud, by now accustomed to conversations with a dead best friend. “Am I just supposed to keep going?” My life had made so much sense alongside hers: For years we had played the easy, daily game of catch that intimate connection implies. One ball, two gloves, equal joy in the throw and the return. Now I was on the field without her: one glove, no game. Grief is what tells you who you are alone.

Let’s Take the Long Way Home is so rich with metaphors, and they’re so pleasing and surprising. Aren’t we always seeking apt comparisons? I tell my students that we reflexively pursue symbols to define people and situations—and we must, since words themselves are metaphors. Your ex was just like those cheap cracked boots he left in your closet, wasn’t he? Admit it: she was that mess she left in your bathroom. And Caldwell’s perfect title, what Caroline Knapp used to say to prolong their outings, epitomized their friendship.

When I was a young writer, I’d likely have attributed Gail Caldwell’s frequent metaphoric phrases to sheer genius, and probably some writers do think metaphorically more easily. But now I’m more inclined to see metaphors also as just another aspect of craft, even though they can seem magical. Metaphor “is the language of the angels,” says author and metaphor maven Silvia Hartmann, using a metaphor for a metaphor. “Religion, society, thought, science are all based on metaphor and to be able to speak the language of the angels allows a human being to shape reality for themselves, and for others.”

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Filed under memoir, metaphor, symbolism, syntax

Playwright David Hare on reality art

David Hare, known as a “verbatim playwright” for his plays taken from news events, gave a lecture on the relationship between nonfiction and art to the Royal Society of Literature in which he drew the distinction between what he does and ordinary daily journalism. In a nutshell, “without metaphor we have no art,” he said. The Guardian printed an edited version, under the headline “David Hare: mere fact, mere fiction.”

In turn, I excerpt it here:

Journalism is reductive. This is not always the fault of journalists. It is in the nature of the job. At its best and worst, journalism aims to distil. It aims to master, even to subjugate, a particular topic. In this ambition, the journalist will always run the risk of tipping over into contempt. As soon as something can be summarised it can also be dispatched. Anyone who has ever attended morning conference at a national newspaper will know the form: everyone taking part in the human comedy is a fool. What was once the humorous stance of Private Eye has become the humourless stance of the entire press. The gap between what people are and what they are treated as in journalism has never been wider. Only the very best journalists know how to suggest that a person, theory or event is not just what the journalist believes it to be. It is also itself. Holding that balance between your account and a proper respect for the truth of what something or somebody is outside your account involves a level of self-awareness hard to achieve in 600 words.

In the west a journalistic culture which takes in both the internet and television has now become both tiring and ubiquitous. It has also led to a curious deformation in society. As citizens, we consider our family, our friends and, most of all, our children as likeable and virtuous. But we are encouraged to consider everyone we don’t know—and most especially those we know only through newspapers – as ridiculous or vicious. To this tendency, this desire to bundle people and thereby to dismiss them, art and death are the most powerful antidotes. Art frequently reminds us that things are never quite as simple as they seem. Nor are people. Journalism is life with the mystery taken out. Art is life with the mystery restored. Put people on the stage, in all their humanity, propel them into a course of events, and in even the most savage satire or preposterous farce, characters may acquire a sympathy, a scale, a helplessness, all of which draw forth feelings eerily reminiscent of those elicited by people you actually know.

Meanwhile, to the objection that plays and novels about contemporary events are too hastily conceived to be profound is added the confident counter-objection that such works are unlikely to endure. Shakespeare’s plays may be crammed with incomprehensible Elizabethan references and jokes which amuse nobody, and these have hardly damaged his continuing popularity. But the example of literature’s highest achiever does little to blunt the popularity of this line of attack. How on earth, it is asked, can either foreign cultures or generations unborn ever be interested in such local doings? On this question, I can only say I am willing to take my chances. Like most writers, I have at best a sceptical attitude to posterity. But wherever playwrights gather, you will find them telling stories of plays, performed in far-off places and years after their premieres, which have somehow acquired what seems like an accidental shimmer.

Of a recent revival of Stuff Happens in Canada—six years after the National Theatre first conceived a then-topical account of the lead-up to the Iraq war—the director wrote me a letter: “I find the play infinitely sadder than a few years ago . . . I think there is something potent about these people now officially out of office and firmly set in their historical place. At the same time, the references to both Afghanistan and Iraq are eliciting vocal responses from the audiences that I don’t recall having happened in my previous production.” In response to such a letter, any playwright will argue two things. First, no proper play is ever just “about” the events it describes. The whole intention of a play in describing one thing is to evoke another. Bush and Blair, after all, are not the only warmongers in history. But, secondly, in celebrating this play’s bewildering success in Toronto six years on, the director was, in fact, celebrating the special nature of theatre itself. In Stalinist Russia the most powerful protest you could make was to stage Hamlet.

The Power of Yes dealt with issues that might well have been batted back and forth on a lively edition of Newsnight. Because the play portrayed real people, the dish arrived hotly spiced for journalistic carving. But then, interestingly, a second wave of reaction followed which addressed not so much the play’s ideas as its techniques. Many things were expected of a play about high finance, but it was not foreseen that it should resemble Michael Bennett’s production of A Chorus Line. Friends reported that they found the sight of 20 suited bankers lining up beneath the proscenium arch curiously moving. From then on, nothing was as they’d anticipated, least of all their own responses.

Plenty of people get their poetry from science, from the physical universe, from the contemplation of mathematics, or of animals, or of solitude or of the stars. An audience arrives fearing the theatre will be one more medium like any other. If the subject of the play comes from political life, then they anticipate a form of animated journalism, journalism on legs, the usual mud-soup of opinion and sociology. But the performing arts can deliver high-flying bankers who are at once contemptible and deeply sympathetic. If we accept the simple distinction that factual work asks questions for us, whereas fictional work is more likely to ask questions of us, then why can some work not do both?

We are living through curious times and they demand curious art—in both senses of the word. “Aren’t you telling us what we already know?” is the last question, always aimed between my eyes, potentially lethal in the questioner’s view, but not even causing a skin-wound when fired. “No, I am not. You may think you know about something. But it’s one thing to know, and another to experience.” The paradox of great factual work is that it restores wonder. Thinly imagined work takes it away. “I never knew that, I never realised that, I never felt that” is what you hear from the departing audience when their evening has been well spent. Because we think we know, but we don’t.

Hare’s complete essay in The Guardian is here.

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Noted: Annie Proulx

from an interview in The Missouri Review, Vol. XXII, No. 2

“The research is ongoing and my great pleasure. Since geography and  climate are intensely interesting to me, much time goes into the close examination of specific regions—natural features of the landscape, human marks on it, earlier and prevailing economics based on raw materials, ethnic background of settlers. I read manuals of work and repair, books of manners, dictionaries of slang, city directories, lists of occupational titles, geology, regional weather, botanists’ plant guides, local histories, newspapers. I visit graveyards, collapsing cotton gins, photograph barns and houses, roadways. I listen to ordinary people speaking with one another in bars and stores, in laundromats. I read bulletin boards, scraps of paper I pick up from the ground. I paint landscapes because staring very hard at a place for twenty to thirty minutes and putting it on paper burns detail into the mind as no amount of scribbling can do.”

“The use of running metaphors in a piece—all related in some way to indigestion or water or loneliness or roller skates, or with a surrealistic or violent cast—will guide the reader in a particular direction as surely as stock can be herded.”

“For the sake of architecture, of balance, I write the ending first and then go to the beginning. . . . In working endings for stories and novels I try simply for a natural cessation of story. . . . I try to understand place and time through the events in one character’s life, and the end is the end. The person, the character, is one speck of life among many, many. The ending, then, should reflect for the reader some element of value or importance in the telling of this ending among the possible myriad of stories that might have been told.”

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Noted: Tony Earley

from an interview with Tony Earley conducted by Hattie Fletcher for Nidus

“I can’t write any piece, fiction or nonfiction, until I come up with a metaphor. I hate the idea of writing on only one level. Often just walking around through the world, I’ll see something and think, damn, that is a great metaphor—for what? And so I have a metaphor, but I have no thing to hook it to. And so, a piece usually results when I find I have both sides of the equation. I love metaphor. I like metaphor better than I like narrative. I’m a whole lot more interested in writing in between the lines than I am in what’s accomplished in the lines themselves. Exposition, you know, moving characters through space, getting a character to the airport on time so he can catch the plane —I hate that stuff. I would much rather do a metaphorical construction than character development. . . .

“I’ll have enough of a voice to get started, and often I discover the metaphors while I’m working. I think my subconscious is rapidly trying to connect things, and once I actively start writing then I discover the metaphors in the piece. Usually it’s where I say, this looks like that. And once I’ve had that realization, I can go back through and put in the textual stuff to link them. But often I won’t understand until I’m well into a piece that I have in fact constructed a metaphor, and then I’ll go, there it is!

“I love that moment. When I teach to my students, I call it the “thing” and the “other thing.” The “thing” is what the story is about, and the “other thing” is a parallel narrative, something that looks like the “thing” but isn’t. Like, in my story “Here We Are in Paradise,” there’s a pond that has snapping turtles in it, and the snapping turtles eat these painted ducks, and the people who own the pond, the wife is dying of cancer. So the turtles eating the ducks looks like cancer, but it isn’t. It’s “thing” and “other thing.” And I try to do that in fiction and in nonfiction both. Actually, I think that’s the classic American short fiction template.”

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