Reading Like a Writer: Rooms & Crossing the Senses
Lauren Oliver's Rooms is a novel about a house with two ghosts, then one more, and about a troubled, living family who returns to the house after the death of a member.
The novel is narrated, in part, by the ghosts, whose existence is not like that of the living. The difference is felt particularly in the language, as in the following passage narrated by Alice, the oldest of the ghosts.
"I like making bets with Sandra. It breaks up the space—the long, watery hours, the soupiness of time. Day is no longer day to us, and night no longer night. Hours are different shades of hot and warm, damp and dry. We no longer pay attention to the clocks. Why should we? Noon is the taste of sawdust, and the feel of a splinter under a nail. Morning is mud and crumbling caulk. Evening is the smell of cooked tomatoes and mildew. And night is shivering, and the feel of mice sniffing our skin."
A ghost is uniquely believable when she describes time so strangely. Without impending death, time has no meaning for Alice. Yet she still tries to fit her memory of time with her current experience of it, and so she ends up with soup and sawdust and cooked tomatoes.
Oliver uses this this unusual perspective and experience of time to do some interesting things. It's a sort of "permission" to be strange—not that a writer ever needs permission.
So how does it work?
First, the ghost treats time as space: "It breaks up the space—the long, watery hours, the soupiness of time." Calling time "soupy" and "watery" makes us understand that the ghosts are living inside of it, stewing in it, rather than moving through it in a predetermined direction. Time for Alice is not linear but three-dimensional. And if there's room to wallow, there's room for other things.
It's also important that the hours are named out of sequence. Listing noon before morning reinforces the idea that Alice is not describing the movement of time but the feel of being inside it. Every noon is sawdust. Every morning is mud. To Alice, the hours are not forward marching, but in their recurrence they seem always there. These hours have stopped moving and are realigning—shape is possible.
Once time has shape, it can also have texture. It's more substance than abstraction to Alice and so it can be "different shades of hot and warm, damp and dry." It can even have a taste and smell. We're used to hearing that hours are long or short, tedious or tumultuous, but this is something else entirely.
But it's not the only way Oliver toys with the senses. She uses a technique that I think of as related to synesthesia. It's a crossing or mismatching of the senses. Sound is given a taste, for example. Or a smell is given color.
She gets us ready for the sense crossing in the following sentences. "Noon is the taste of sawdust, and the feel of a splinter under a nail. Morning is mud and crumbling caulk." In the first sentence, we're told of a taste and a feel, but in the second, we don't know which sense we're getting. To me, the ambiguity suggests both. The mud and caulk are both in my fingers and on my tongue. The language is expanding my idea of those senses, perhaps blending them.
Then Oliver goes further. "Evening is the smell of cooked tomatoes and mildew." "Tomato," is used to describe a smell, but the word evokes color and taste, too. Because it's "cooked," it even suggests texture and heat—the sense of touch. "And night is shivering, and the feel of mice sniffing our skin." This line ostensibly describes touch, but it references "sniffing" so we think about smell, too.
The crossing of the senses makes particular sense in this context. In this book, the house stands in for the body of a ghost. Can a house taste and smell and hear? Maybe the house mixes up the senses because it's a house and it has different ways of experiencing the world. Or maybe, to Alice, the senses are also ghosted, only memory, and therefore getting soupy—just like time itself.
In any case, the cross-wiring of senses has a particular and useful effect. When two or more senses are evoked simultaneously, it mimics a sort of depth in our experience of the language. Instead of word after word, we feel two things at once. When the descriptions move from nose to tongue to fingertips, they draw lines within us, building a structure and therefore creating the feel of three-dimensional space.
It's also a great example of showing through telling—a technique I particularly adore. The ghost is telling us things about her existence. But in the telling, she's showing us the way her mind works, her strange sensibilities. And so, like the best sort of description, it informs us about the describer as well as the described.
How strange to be a ghost!
Allison Wyss is teaching these upcoming classes at the Loft: Reading Like a Writer; How'd They Do That: A Craft Based Book Club for Writers; Eight Weeks, Eight Drafts; and Beyond Point of View: The Art of Perspective. 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.