Tuesday

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.

The Sublime Omniscient: Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things

In her gorgeous first novel, Arundhati Roy toggles back and forth between the lead-up to a traumatic incident in the childhood of her protagonist, Rahel, in 1960s Kerala, India, and a return visit Rahel makes as a self-exiled adult. Two representative passages illustrate the drastic changes that have overtaken the landscape of Kerala in the interim. The first passage, in the childhood timeline, is a description of a river that is a central geographical and emotional feature of the novel:

“They dreamed of their river. Of the coconut trees that bent into it and watched, with coconut eyes, the boats slide by. Upstream in the mornings. Downstream in the evenings. And the dull, sullen sound of the boatmen’s bamboo poles as they thudded against the dark, oiled boatwood.
     It was warm, the water. Graygreen. Like rippled silk.
     With fish in it.
     With the sky and trees in it.
     And at night, the broken yellow moon in it.”
And the second passage, a description of the same river three decades later when Rahel returns as an adult:

“Despite the fact that it was June, and raining, the river was no more than a swollen drain now. A thin ribbon of thick water that lapped wearily at the mud banks on either side, sequined with the occasional silver slant of a dead fish. It was choked with a succulent weed, whose furred brown roots waved like thin tentacles underwater. Bronze-winged lily-trotters walked across it. Splay-footed, cautious. 
     Once it had had the power to evoke fear. To change lives. But now its teeth were drawn, its spirit spent. It was just a slow, sludging green ribbon that ferried fetid garbage to the sea. Bright plastic bags blew across its viscous, weedy surface like subtropical flying-flowers.”

We can see the economy and artistry with which the author uses diction and syntax to paint the refracted emotion of this drastically altered landscape, a level of skill that is demonstrated again and again throughout the novel in the exhilarating beauty of Roy’s sentences and the way they "sing the meaning of themselves." 

The contrast between the two descriptions also tells us a great deal. What we might call "the lost world" is a key aspect of both the plot and the thematics of this novel—the degradation in the landscape caused not only by the passage of time but by the traumatic event at the story’s emotional core. But it is the passages’ close juxtaposition I want to take note of here, as the rejection of the fetters of chronology is typical of the freewheeling point of view Roy maintains throughout the novel.

While the guiding consciousness of The God of Small Things is strikingly free, it’s also highly organized, in ways that make it similar to an intricate musical composition. Of particular note is the way Roy repeatedly brings memorable phrases back into the story. Here’s a passage from later in the book:

“They ran along the bank calling out to her. But she was gone. Carried away on the muffled highway. Graygreen. With fish in it. With the sky and trees in it. And at night the broken yellow moon it.”

Take a moment to notice the repetition of key language borrowed from the first passage quoted above. It’s striking, actually, how these repeated words recall Rudyard Kipling, with his “great grey-green, greasy Limpopo River, all set about with fever-trees.” In both cases, the recurring language takes on the character of a musical refrain or a repeated fugue—and the effect is, as both authors no doubt intended, symphonic.

The resemblance between Roy’s guiding consciousness and those typical of the classic literature of the nineteenth century doesn’t end with Kipling, however. Roy feels no compunction about using the flexibility of the omniscient point of view, as nineteenth century novelists often did, to instruct the reader about Grand Topics:

“What Esthappen and Rahel witnessed that morning, though they didn’t know it then, was a clinical demonstration in controlled conditions (this was not war after all, or genocide) of human nature’s pursuit of ascendancy. Structure. Order. Complete monopoly. It was human history, masquerading as God’s Purpose, revealing herself to an underage audience.”

Also similar to a nineteenth century novelist, Roy lays claim to the freedom to soar birdlike over a scene, and then to dive abruptly into the mind of even the most minor player:

“The Kottayam Police. A cartoonplatoon. New-Age princes in funny pointed helmets. Cardboard lined with cotton. Hairoil stained. Their shabby khaki crowns. 
     Dark of Heart.  
     Deadlypurposed. 
     They lifted their thin legs high . . . 
     They trudged past darter birds on the tops of trees, drying their sodden wings spread out like laundry against the sky. Past egrets. Cormorants. Adjutant storks. Sarus cranes looking for space to dance. Purple herons with pitiless eyes. Deafening, their wraark wraark wraark. Motherbirds and their eggs. The early morning heat was full of the promise of worse to come . . .
     Crimson dragonflies mated in the air. Doubledeckered. Deft. One admiring policeman watched and wondered briefly about the dynamics of dragonfly sex, and what went into what. Then his mind clicked to attention and Police Thoughts returned.”

Birds, insects, policemen—nothing is too small to catch the eye of Roy’s all-seeing consciousness, and there’s nowhere that consciousness can’t go if it chooses.

It would be a mistake, however, to assume that the freedom to go anywhere and to notice anything prevents Roy from plumbing the depths of her protagonists with the insight and thoroughness that a more tightly focused point of view might allow. The God of Small Things pans wide but it also strikes deep, plunging the reader into the mysterious reaches of human consciousness. In the process, it demonstrates one of the things that fiction does best, giving us an interior vision that pushes the envelope of objective reality. Consider this passage, observed by Roy’s visionary child protagonist, Rahel, at an airport arrivals lounge:

“She turned away from the screaming steel bird in the sky-blue sky that had her cousin in it, and what she saw was this: red-mouthed roos with ruby smiles moved cemently across the airport floor:

Heel and Toe 
Heel and Toe 
            Long flatfeet.
  Airport garbage in their baby bins. 
  The smallest one stretched its neck like people in English films who loosen their ties after office. The middle one rummaged in her pouch for a long cigarette stub to smoke. She found an old cashew nut in a dim plastic bag. She gnawed it with her front teeth like a rodent.”

Later, in the by now familiar fugue-pattern of imagery and language that pervades and defines Roy’s novel, the hallucination returns:

“In the doorway of the Arrivals Lounge, a shadowy, red-mouthed roo-shaped silhouette waved a cemently paw only at Rahel. Cement kisses whirred through the air like small helicopters.”

The omniscient voice in The God of Small Things is a luminous example to fiction writers, demonstrating how the classic omniscient point of view can be used artfully in the current age to create a storyworld of great depth, clarity, and emotional complexity. After all, the human imagination is an instrument of amazing power. Arundhati Roy’s sublime opus reminds us that fiction is still the art best equipped to harness it.

Classic Omniscience Revisited: Lessons for the Modern Novelist in Thackeray's Vanity Fair


As a craft technique, nineteenth-century omniscience is mostly brought up these days for the purposes of pointing out that it’s obsolete. It’s old. It’s passé. The presumed authority of the classic omniscient voice is no longer plausible; its sweeping pronouncements no longer ring true. Less God-like points of view, such as first person and limited third—often split into the perspectives of multiple characters—provide more fitting lenses through which to portray the diverse social, cultural, and emotional realities of the present age.
It’s not my intention to contradict this view, but I do wonder if we as writers have been too quick to turn our backs on an important element of the craft. I’m not alone. In a recent The Writer’s Chronicle article (March/April 2017), Ursula K. Le Guin wrote that the omniscient “is the most flexible and useful of all the points of view. It’s the freest.” She also pointed out that first person and limited third, by far the most common points of view in contemporary literature, are also “the easiest ones, the least interesting.”
Last year, as it happens, I spent a few months immersed in William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair. While that colorful saga began to unwind, I noticed the various uses Thackeray made of the omniscient point of view—and the power of the narrative vantage point surprised me. As a matter of fact, more than anything else in the book, it was the central guiding consciousness—its supple elasticity; its expansive vision; its bitingly droll eloquence—that kept me riveted over the course of seven hundred densely printed pages. Curious as to the mechanics underlying this instance of classic omniscience, I went back to take a closer look.
Read the rest of this article at Empty Mirror.