World Building and Defamiliarization in Historical Fiction: Paulette Jiles’ News of the World

Paulette Jiles’ News of the World is a western literary historical in the category of Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, Cormac McCarthy’s All The Pretty Horses, Philipp Meyer’s The Son, and Richard Bausch’s Far As the Eye Can See. That’s distinguished company. It’s also literary territory that has been overwhelmingly dominated by male writers, so it’s a keen pleasure to find that News of the World deserves every one of the accolades it has received, including having been chosen as a finalist for National Book Award.

For the purposes of this post, I wanted to zero in on Jiles’ highly effective use of what we might call “historical world building.” 

Here’s an example:

“He tacked his bills up at the livery stable, the school, the Feed and Provisions for Man and Beast, the wool warehouse, the post yard piled high with cedar posts, at the wagon maker’s, and at the leather repair. He handed one to a man in a black sack coat and a vest and a pair of modest side-button black shoes.”

This seems a lot of period detail to throw at a reader all at once. Yet it feels natural, and avoids the trap of the dreaded “info dump” that is so often the mark of lesser historical fiction. Why does it work so well? First, because it’s not gratuitous. The protagonist has just arrived in a new town where he’s hanging up handbills. Doesn’t it make sense that he would notice the look of the unfamiliar places he’s hanging them, and the clothing of a person he’s handing them to? And second, it’s active. Think about how much less effective this might be if the author were simply listing details in a static description of place.

Here’s a different kind of example:

“But after a while they came upon an elderly lady in a gig. He could see it from a long way off as a jiggling dark roundish thing like a beetle that resolved itself into a vehicle with the quavering legs of a long bony horse pulling it. An accordion top rose over the two wheels.”

Why is this passage so good as historical world building? Well, it’s vividly written for one thing, so our minds can’t help but go about constructing images of the scene. And it’s also defamiliarized, right? It’s not just a description from someone’s research about what a gig would have looked like; it creates this fresh, unforgettable new way for us to see this period contraption. It’s also a bit creepy, isn’t it? Without doubt, it benefits from what I’ve referred to elsewhere as “shadow description,”  imagistic writing electrified with its own charge of implicit dramatic tension.

Finally, let’s look at a passage that shows Jiles deploying an array of historical world-building techniques all at once:

“They pulled into the loading yard of a big broom and stave mill at the edge of the Bosque River. There were cottonwoods along the river and their tiny new leaves shivered even without a wind and dripped rainwater in pinhead glitters. It was the first cottonwoods he had seen in a long time. The Bosque was shallow and they had no trouble with the crossing.
            The undershot wheel that powered the machines turned and brought up bright squares of water and spilled them into the river. A man looked up from his binding work. He sat beside a broom-making machine amid a heaping of broom-corn sheaves. A pile of handles lay nearby. He and his brooms were in a big cavernous building, open on the sides, with a shingle roof. It gave some protection from the sun and rain. The sky was laddered with passing waves of low clouds. Chickens stalked around and surveyed their world with calm yellow eyes.”

Let’s break down some of the reasons this is such an effective passage. It begins with a vivid nature description of the cottonwoods along the river. The writing is good, so the scene materializes with vivid clarity in our minds: the tiny shivering leaves; the “pinhead glitters.” Then we get some nice period detail: the defamiliarized image of the water wheel with its “bright squares of water;” the broom making machine and the broom-corn sheaves. Then more clear, vivid description: the cavernous building, the “laddered” sky, and the finally the wonderfully defamiliarized take on chickens (surveying “their world with calm yellow eyes”), which cements the entire scene in our imaginations, giving us a fresh way to view the world of the story—and our own world too.

True, this is not overly complicated. It’s simply good writing. But that’s how the best historical world-building is accomplished.

If you’re at all interested in this kind of story, or in place and time period (post-Civil War Texas), don’t hesitate to pick up this book. It’s a quick read, a beautifully written page-turner with an emotional punch that is both affecting and life-affirming, peopled by fascinating, highly sympathetic characters. I don’t think there’s much more you can ask of a novel.


Tragic, But With Room for Joy: Exuberance, Redemption and Character Sympathy in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina

Anna Karenina, which Nabokov called “one of the greatest love stories in world literature,” is uniquely ambitious in that it strives to portray two separate love affairs: one successful (like Pride and Prejudice), and the other a tragic failure (like Ethan Frome or The End of the Affair).

Fiction is by necessity dark. The darker the novel, the more leeway it offers the writer who wishes to portray moments of unabashed joy and happiness. Anna Karenina encompasses such a deeply affecting tragic arc, and Tolstoy takes full advantage of the opportunity to let in the light. More than in any other novel I know, with the possible exception of the Russian maestro’s other great opus, War and Peace, Anna Karenina immerses the reader in a profusion of devastatingly joyous scenes involving skating parties, family kitchens, mushroom hunting, hayfield scything, and a multi-day bird-hunting excursion.

Tolstoy was a genius, so these happy scenes also, of course, brim with dramatic tension and the possibility—even the certainty—that even the best things in life can go wrong. But the overall mood in these moments is one of great illumination, like sunlight streaming through a long-shuttered window. They rank among the most wondrous literary portrayals we possess of the rich textures of daily life, demonstrating how even in the midst of great sorrow we can be surprised by pure, exuberant happiness.

It’s impossible to capture the full effect with brief passages taken out of context, but consider the experience of a newly infatuated Anna stepping off a train:

“She opened the door and went out. The wind seemed as though lying in wait for her; with gleeful whistle it tried to snatch her up and bear her off, but she clung to the cold handrail and, holding her skirt, got down onto the platform and under the shelter of the carriages. The wind had been powerful on the steps, but on the platform, under the lee of the carriages, there was a lull. With enjoyment she drew deep breaths of the frozen, snowy air and, standing near the carriage, looked about the platform and the lighted station.”

Or this one, when Levin and two others set off on a hunting trip:

“Levin felt now at leaving behind all his family and household cares such an eager sense of joy in life and expectation that he was not disposed to talk. Besides that, he had that feeling of concentrated excitement that every sportsman experiences as he approaches the scene of action. If he had anything on his mind at that moment, it was only the doubt whether they would start anything in the Kolpensky marsh, whether Laska would show to advantage in comparison with Krak, and whether he would shoot well that day himself.”

In a similar vein, the tragic arc of the book gives Tolstoy room to create some of the most sympathetic characters that exist in fiction. Consider Kitty’s response to finding her husband Levin’s brother on his deathbed in a skeezy hotel adjacent to a railway station in rural Russia:

“On seeing the sick man, she pitied him. And pity in her womanly heart did not arouse at all that feeling of horror and loathing that it aroused in her husband, but a desire to act, to find out all the details of his state, and to remedy them. And since she had not the slightest doubt that it was her duty to help him, she had no doubt either that it was possible, and immediately set to work. The very details, the mere thought of which reduced her husband to terror, immediately engaged her attention. She sent for the doctor, sent to the chemist's, set the maid who had come with her and Marya Nikolaevna to sweep and dust and scrub; she herself washed up something, washed out something else, laid something under the quilt. Something was by her directions brought into the sick-room, something else was carried out. She herself went several times to her room, regardless of the men she met in the corridor, got out and brought in sheets, pillow cases, towels, and shirts.”

Kitty is admirable because she’s compassionate. Because she’s calm and proactive in the face of her husband’s paralysis. The scene goes on:

“On getting back from the sick-room to their own two rooms for the night, Levin sat with hanging head not knowing what to do. Not to speak of supper, of preparing for bed, of considering what they were going to do, he could not even talk to his wife; he was ashamed to. Kitty, on the contrary, was more active than usual. She was even livelier than usual. She ordered supper to be brought, herself unpacked their things, and herself helped to make the beds, and did not even forget to sprinkle them with Persian powder. She showed that alertness, that swiftness of reflection comes out in men before a battle, in conflict, in the dangerous and decisive moments of life — those moments when a man shows once and for all his value, and that all his past has not been wasted but has been a preparation for these moments.”

In this scene Kitty and Levin both take on the dimensions of living, breathing characters, but it’s Kitty we most admire and appreciate—in much the same way we would an actual living friend.

Tolstoy had a particular gift for the difficult authorial feat of creating such characters, and for showing the possibilities for love and joy as well as tragedy in human affairs. It’s no wonder that his novels still hold a place near the top the pantheon of the greatest ever written.


Metaphor and Defamiliarization in Andrew Hilleman’s World, Chase me Down

There are many things to like about Andrew Hilleman’s recent debut novel. It’s well-constructed and suspenseful throughout, and it’s narrated in a delightful first-person voice that the cover copy provocatively and I believe accurately describes as “channeling Mark Twain and Charles Portis.” This has the feel of a particularly American historical novel, and I think it's most worthy contribution to a rarified genre that one might call 'the literary western,' in the distinguished company of authors such as Ron Hansen, Patrick deWitt, Peter Carey, and Richard Bausch. In short, this is a highly recommended novel, and well worth the read!

What I want to focus on here though, for the benefit of the fiction writers out there, is Hilleman’s skill with an essential element of novelistic world-building: defamiliarization.

For a writer of historical fiction this technique involves really going beyond research detail, and using our own experience to give us a description of something our readers recognize as true but have never seen in quite the same way. For example:

The home sat on a pronounced slope of upland above the southwest corner of the city, just beyond the South Omaha limits. The hillside leading up to the sandy drive was covered in dead wildflower so parched from the winter that it broke apart underfoot like dust.

The first sentence is a research detail. The second is what we might call a universal or recognizable detail that’s been defamiliarized.

Hilleman is particularly gifted in the use of this technique, and it’s interesting to note that the defamiliarized detail most often comes in the form of a particularly striking metaphor.

I don’t have much more to say about this, other than to point out that it’s a very useful thing for any novelist, and particularly a novelist working with an historical setting, to observe. I leave you with several more examples:

I sprinted through the cloudburst and entered the hotel soaked down to my nightclothes. I stood dripping on the lobby carpets like I’d fallen out of a fishing boat.
Parked on the curb at the edge of our yard was an uncovered wagon filled with a random assortment of things from inside our house: framed paintings, dresses, pots and pans, stacks of books, a reading lamp with the silly physique of a gooseneck, a rocking chair.
The smell of new snow had been in the air all day. When it finally arrived, it fell all through the night like a featherbed ruptured.
I peered out my window as the train jolted to a stop. A handprint from long ago smeared on the glass. Brake steam hissed. The locomotive a giant kettle on wheels.
I studied the empty gravel avenida in both directions, cast in pale pitch from a gorged moon. An ash can burned waste next to an old hunk of furniture scorched past recognition. Perhaps once a couch or a bedstead that smoldered like an animal carcass rotting under a pounding sun.