Reading Like a Writer: Heap House and Words that Enact
Edward Carey's Heap House is a young adult novel about a Victorian trash heap and objects gone wild. It's dark and funny and fascinating. It also contains a heap of words that create, rather than simply describe, an experience of intense fear:
And all went suddenly and entirely dark.
I am dead.
I am dead now.
I am dead now, I thought.
I am quite and very dead now, I thought, and yet, I thought, and yet, I reasoned, and yet, I fathomed, I'm thinking this. And yet I feel myself breathing on and yet I seem to be in the same place, and yet there are my feet before me, and yet here are my legs and yet here is my chest, still waistcoated, and yet then, am I not dead?
I love writing that makes me feel instead of just describing the feeling. In this one, I feel death, emergence from death, and the untangling of consciousness, all overlaid with intense then subsiding panic. How does it work?
"I am dead," of course, is highly dramatic. But in this instance, it's also realistic. The speaker, Clod, is running from something very dangerous and he's just been caught. It's exactly what the character would think and believe.
However, Clod's emergence from deadness is more interesting to me because that's what I feel as I read the passage.
Deadness, here, is rendered not as feeling, but as lack of feeling. That's why it is uttered in the fewest possible words, "I am dead," which are set apart. But as the deadness dissipates, thought and feeling return. So the thought of the deadness grows longer. "I am dead" turns into "I am dead now," expands to "I am dead now, I thought," and then to " I am quite and very dead now..." The pattern of lengthening thought is then repeated in the clauses of the longer sentences.
It's not a description of a return to consciousness. Instead the return is enacted in the words. We feel it as the thinking grows longer and more complex.
And it's not just any consciousness we return to, but one of panic, enacted by the pattern of words.
The word "yet" is repeated nine times in a single paragraph. The word is quick and punchy, yet (ha!) slightly breathy. In its repetition, the word mimics the sound and feel of hyperventilating. As we read along, especially if we read aloud, we feel that panic of breathing in our own lungs.
And as the character begins to calm down, we feel the calming as the "yet"s grow further apart and the breathing seems to slow.
Grammar, of course, contributes to the effect. The clauses get longer, which causes our own breaths to be longer as we read them. This is, again, more obvious when read aloud. (I often breathe with clauses when I read silently—but maybe that's weird.)
Commas are often said to stand in for breaths, too. And I'm sure Carey's comma placement is careful. But, in this passage, I don't think the commas are making the rhythm—I think the words are. The words, especially the repetition of "yet" become a more forceful punctuation. The commas just guide us, keep us from losing the meaning amidst the rhythm.
And I know, as I feel myself breathing in this peculiar way, along with the character, that I'm supposed to be doing so and that I'm supposed to be noticing it, because there I am "breathing on" just as Clod remarks on it.
In the final sentence of the passage, Clod transitions from observing his breath to observing his body. He notices the place and then his feet, legs, chest, self. It's a quick movement up his body from distant to near, from outside to inside. It's essentially a recounting of his transition from there to here. From dead to alive. He starts as a nothing, but a progression of observations bring him back into a something, into himself.
"Waistcoated," to me, is the only out of place word. But it must be doing something. It's more specific than feet and chest. That's why it seems odd, but also why it's important. The world has suddenly become a particular one again, colored, focused. That one word in its strange specificity brings us—Clod as well as the reader—back to a particular place and time.
Also significant to the way consciousness emerges is the revision that's left on the page. The character adjusts his thoughts as he thinks them.
I thought, and yet, I reasoned, and yet, I fathomed...
In this active refinement of vocabulary, the narrator tries to find exactly what he means, or perhaps what he means is changing—from thinking to reasoning to fathoming. We feel the struggle to understand the experience. We feel thoughts swirling in chaos then slowly circling back, calming down, making sense again. It's this! No it's this! Finally, it is this.
The different words for thinking make us question, with Clod, which way of thinking it is. We're made aware of a consciousness that is becoming aware of itself.
And isn't that a delightful paradox? I'm writing about this passage as one that takes me beyond thinking to feeling and experiencing, but it turns out that thinking is the thing I'm feeling after all!
But maybe that's how it has to work. Maybe that's the feeling that words can best enact. In any case, I love it.
When have words made you feel instead of just describing a feeling? Have suggestions for future book reviews? Join the bookish conversation on Twitter with hashtag #ReadingLikeAWriter.
Allison Wyss is teaching "Reading Like a Writer: The Best Book Club Ever" (online) starting this February at the Loft. Her stories have appeared in [PANK] Magazine, The Southeast Review, The Golden Key, Metazen, MadHat (Mad Hatters' Review), The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review, and Juked. She has an MFA from the University of Maryland. She tweets, mostly about writing, as @AllisonWyss.