There’s a game I play with my five-year-old son. I give him the line “Once upon a time” and a handful of words—say, “donkey,” “cheetah,” and “rock.” In a flash, he launches in: “The donkey went over to the field and it was looking for something to eat and it found a cheetah sitting there and it was near a big rock, but it was eating and….” With an abundance of conjunctions, he hurtles into the story, sweeping us both up and carrying us along to the end.
In my early drafts of stories, when I’m writing without much self-awareness, my sentences are long, twisting and turning with subordinate clauses, phrases, conjunctions and parentheticals. But during revision, I begin to chop them up or cross them out, as if I don’t trust their power to hold the reader’s attention. As if I don’t trust myself. I have to go through another revision to put them back in and remember the pleasure that a long sentence offers, with its sounds and rhythms and suspense and tension. When I teach Style in Fiction, I ask students to bring to class a favorite sentence from a published work, a sentence they wished they’d written, and most—I’d say 95%—bring long sentences.
With my son’s fifth birthday a mere five months away, he is frantically putting together his wish list of presents. For days, I’ve heard, “Please, I want a LEGO Batmobile. Please, I really want a LEGO Batmobile. Mom, I really, really want a LEGO Batmobile,” like a refrain, or an uninspired Greek chorus.
It doesn’t take long for the voice of my sixth grade English teacher to kick in, ripe with certitude and rules: “No repetition. In the English language, we have an abundance of wonderful words. Let’s use them.” We were required to buy and bring to class a thesaurus, and every essay, every memoir, every argumentative piece had to overflow with new and unique words. This was how we earned an A. Continue reading
Why do I keep re-reading Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland?
I just finished it for the third time. By now, the plot is well-known to me. After 9/11, Dutch banker Hans van den Broek and his wife separate, with Rachel taking their son from New York City and moving back to London. Hans stays in New York, where he rediscovers cricket, and in the process he meets Trinidadian Chuck Ramkissoon, who dreams of an America that embraces its cricket-playing roots. “Cricket has a long history in the United States, actually,” says Chuck. “Benjamin Franklin himself was a cricket man.” The book opens with Hans receiving a call in London from a New York Times reporter, telling him Chuck is dead. The news causes Hans to reflect on New York and his relationship with Chuck.
A plot can sustain you for one reading, offering the buzz of what happens next? But after that is spent, where does a book’s energy come from? And why do I keep reading Netherland? Continue reading
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.”
Nearby there’s a house half standing. Most of the roof is gone, there are no front stairs. The windows are smashed and ivy has claimed a wall. When I drive by, I always slow down. Last time I saw among the weathered gray planks specks of bright yellow—the color that the house used to be.
The half-existing house captivates me. I’m reminded of Louise Gluck’s essay, “Disruption, Hesitation, Silence,” in which she talks about the power of the unsaid in poetry. “The unsaid, for me, exerts great power: often I wish an entire poem could be made in this vocabulary. Such works inevitably allude to larger contexts; they haunt because they are not whole, though wholeness is implied: another time, a world in which they were whole, or were to have been whole, is implied.”
Many aspects of writing my novel The Translator were hard, but one of the most difficult was depicting the ancient Japanese theater art of Noh. Most Western readers have never watched a Noh play, with the actors hidden behind wooden masks and moving in a refined, stylized way, speaking a stilted, almost unintelligible language.
I threw myself into that scene, trying to write the sensation of sitting through hours of Noh—some productions last all day. Because it’s a pivotal moment for my main character, Hanne, she had to watch the same plays twice. Not only did I grapple with depicting this foreign art form, but I also had to convey the experience differently, the second time round.