Reading Like a Writer: Hotel World and Words that Enact
Yes. Yes. I'm always a sucker for writing that enacts what it describes. This isn't the first time I've praised and analyzed it in this space.
So how about a passage that enacts falling? One that makes us feel a glorious (though deadly) fall? Of course, I'm going to fall in love with such a passage.
Ali Smith's Hotel World is a novel that follows five very different women, all connected to a particular hotel. My favorite of the women is the ghost.
And here's the opening:
hooooooo what a fall what a soar what a plummet what a dash into dark into light what a plunge what a glide thud crash what a drop what a rush what a swoop what a fright what a mad hushed skirl what a smash mush mash-up broke and gashed what a heart in my mouth what an end.
What a life.
What a time.
What I felt. Then. Gone.
This passage describes a fall. More importantly, I feel the fall in the language. But how does that work?
First, the " Woooooooo-hooooooo" with its excessive o's and its unconventional indentation is onomatopoetic. It sounds like the rush of air that happens in a fall. The stretch of o's tells us the fall is long. And the unnatural, mid-word break in the line even looks like a fall, as if the word itself has tipped over the edge and crashed down.
But the word is not just about the fall. It's also the "woo" of a ghost, though I suppose we don't know that yet, as we read these first words. That a ghost says "woo" is a bit of a cliché, of course. But that a ghost says "Woooooooo-hooooooo"? It's an exuberant ghost, which is more interesting. In this very first word, we're already learning something about the personality and the attitude of the character.
After the initial "woo-hoo," the sentence length creates the feeling of the fall. We get an extremely long and run-on sentence, which defies grammar and is almost nonsensical. It stretches out like those moments of falling. The long sentence ends, perfectly, with the word "end."
The sentence also feels like a long fall to death because of the different words that Smith uses for falling and soaring and dashing. It feels as though she is exhausting the vocabulary. As we run out of words, we also run out space to fall. We run out of life.
And then the three-word sentences that follow seem especially short compared to the length of the first. They are the thud at the bottom. They are sudden. They are a short stop. Thunk.
Why three short sentences instead of a single thump? It's a bit sickening, but they feel to me like bounces—like the body is hitting so hard that it bounces and hits again. Then again. Each thud shorter until the thuds stop, which we feel in those one-word sentences. "Then. Gone."
As the long sentence defies grammar in its stretched-out form, it also defies gravity. We're not going straight down, but somehow down and up. A "fall" is followed by a "soar." "Plummet" and "plunge" are definitely downward, but the "dash" and "glide" between them might not be. Then "crash" and "drop" seem to go down but "rush" and "swoop" are more uplifting.
It's not just the words that create upswing in the fall. The meter creates a similar pattern. What a X what a Y what a Z. It's anapestic—two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed one. Tap-tap-THUD. Tap-tap-THUD. It's a swoop—down-down-UP, down-down-UP. Or maybe it's up-up-DOWN. In either case, we have a rise and fall created by the meter of the words.
Why these upsurges? It could be physical. It makes me think of crashing against the walls of the chute (she has fallen down the shaft of a dumbwaiter), of getting temporarily stuck and then dropping again. It could also be that as the body falls, the stomach rises. "What a... what a... what a..." is almost like that catch in your throat as your stomach lifts on a roller coaster.
Or it could be a spirit rising. It could be that the ghost who is narrating the fall is lifting herself from the dying body.
Beyond creating rhythm, the repetition of "what a" is important because repetition of words is always like a repetition of breath. In this way, we get the sense of breathlessness, which helps to make us feel like we are falling as we read the passage.
Another thing I notice about the words in the sentence is slowly increasing violence: "Smash mush mash-up broke and gashed." Then, at the end, the violence is turned on the body: "heart in my mouth," which works literally as well as figuratively. It's a grotesque image, but perhaps realistic after such a fall.
"What a life" is certainly an allusion to the old cliché that your life flashes before your eyes as you die. It's not trite, however, because the language has changed. Smith doesn't use the word "flash" or "before my eyes." Instead, the words occur so fast that they are felt like a flash. The life is named, but not the flashing. So the cliché is both reinvented and enacted.
Beyond that, its inclusion is important because, in a subtle way, the allusion alerts the reader to the outcome of the fall. What happens immediately after your life flashes before your eyes? Well, you die.
"What a life. What a time. What I felt." The parallel construction gives equal weight to each, so it seems that all three are happening at the same time and that one is the same as the other. The narrator feels her life and she feels a good time as she falls. This fall is not presented as a tragic event, but as an exhilarating one. The upsetting of our expectations is profound and perhaps steals our breath yet again.
And then, as I look back at what I've talked about here—the glory is not just that the words describe or that they enact or that they provide crucial information about the story to follow, but that they do all of those things at the same time.
When have you encountered language that not only describes, but makes you feel? Have suggestions for future book reviews? Join the bookish conversation on Twitter with hashtag #ReadingLikeAWriter.
Allison Wyss's 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.