Some people’s hearts beat faster when handed a bursting bouquet of flowers. For others, it’s chocolate. But for me, it’s metaphors. When I read one, something inside alights, as if a spark flew off the page. There’s a sense of surprise and also recognition, as if I’m simultaneously seeing something new and also recognizing something I’ve always known.
Gertrude Stein once wrote about the difficulty of writing in a period of late language, when readers have inherited so much good writing. It seems to me good metaphors are a way to address this late language problem.
A metaphor consists of an object (A) and an image (B), likening A to B, with B heightening the reader’s sense of A. “Simply stated, a metaphor is a riddle, since if the object is clear, the reader always asks how is A like B,” writes Stephen Dobyns in Best Words, Best Order. And who can pass up a riddle? Before you know it, your mind is scrambling to find the answer. To write a successful metaphor is to engage the reader and enlarge the story. Metaphors “float a rival reality,” writes James Wood in How Fiction Works. “Every metaphor or simile is a little explosion of fiction within the larger fiction of the novel or the story.”
I like to think we all begin as little metaphor-makers; we understand the unknown by comparison to the known. Daily, my young son hands metaphors to me, as if they were as ordinary as a glass of water. “He looks like a rabbit, the way he crinkles his nose,” he said the other day about the grocery clerk. I like to think we all began life as metaphor machines because that means they once came easily to me, and perhaps with practice, they will come easily again. Although they delight me, I’m not good at making them. But that doesn’t mean I give up—how could I when they give me so much pleasure?
Elizabeth Rosner is a superb metaphor maker. She likes to say her foreground is poetry. In her most recent novel, Electric City, you hear her poetry infuse her prose, and that infusion includes metaphors and similes. Electric City is set in upstate New York, at the confluence of the great Hudson River and its tributary, the Mohawk. In one storyline, which takes place in 1919, German-born Charles Proteus Steinmetz, a brilliant mathematician and recent European immigrant, befriends Joseph Longboat, a native Mohawk. Joseph builds canoes. The following sentence comes from a scene early in the book, in which he delivers to his friend a handmade canoe.
Joseph thought his friend was a wonder, not unlike the formations on the bark of injured pines, hardened resin lasting for millennia. Persevering in the face of so many obstacles, Steinmetz floated on the river the way amber floats on saltwater.
Rosner’s simile beautifully captures Joseph’s sentiments toward his beloved friend. What makes this simile so effective—and perhaps it’s a fundamental principle to crafting good figurative language—is surprise. A person is not like hardened resin. Yet the simile works. Steinmetz has had a hard life; disfigured, he stands slightly over four feet tall and has a hunched back. His life has been marked by obvious “abnormality” and physical pain.
Hardened resin carries negative connotations, but Rosner purges the negativity with the word wonder. Joseph looks at his friend with wonder. By the end of these two sentences, not only do I see Steinmetz differently, I see a certain beauty in hardened resin.
The simile of Steinmetz and tree resin extends to the next sentence, with Steinmetz compared to amber: fossilized tree resin that has been valued since antiquity for its warm yellow color, almost like golden light. It’s a perfect image, since Steinmetz’s research laid the groundwork for the electric power industry.
How does Rosner avoid the pitfalls of using style for stylish purposes only? By making the simile character-centric; she chooses the kind of imagery that Joseph would use, because he is steeped in the natural world.
“The natural world seems an infinite source of wonder to me, and also a constant reminder of beauty even where we might least expect it,” says Rosner. “I have some gorgeous pieces of amber that my mother’s family managed to keep when they fled Russia, and I love studying the way this very old substance holds both light and mystery. Writing about trees healing their own wounds, and so-called deformed bodies being supported by water—these images manage both to surprise and console me.”
Rosner’s favorite sentence comes early in the book, from the other story line. In 1965, Sophie Levine, a young Jewish girl, is struggling to find her place in the world.
The sky lightened so imperceptibly it was the first time in her life she understood that the stars were always there, and it was only the brightness of the sun that blinded her to the other luminous bodies scattered throughout space.
“I chose this one for a few reasons,” says Rosner. “Because I have such a strong memory of my own experience of this realization. Because it strikes me as a sensory description as well as an epiphany. Because I love all the different words that refer to the visible/invisible universe. Because writing it made me feel somehow connected to the vastly curving expanses of time and space—then and now and every time I re-read it.”
The sentence also creates marvelous subtext, with the suggestion that there is so much more to life than the visible world. This is what metaphors and similes do. They point us to the withheld information that the comparison tries to uncover. We begin to unravel the mystery, finding connections where, a moment ago, we thought there were none. Rosner knows this well. Her pages are full of sparks.
Nina Schuyler’s latest novel, The Translator, was published by Pegasus Books. Her first novel, The Painting, was published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.