Reading Like a Writer: Mr. Fox and Several Things About a Sentence
Every time I pick up Helen Oyeyemi's Mr. Fox, it becomes something different. (Next read, I'll put it down at other moments to see what else is there.) It's known as a retelling of Bluebeard, which is one thing it becomes. It's about domestic violence—that's another. It also becomes an entanglement of the body and the imaginary, an exploration of the ways the two can trade places and enable violence and of how an "imaginary" woman fights back. It's beautiful and complex and engages with ideas that are big and profound.
Despite all that, I'm going to look at one very simple sentence from the middle of the book: "Fear pressed her tongue against her gums."
The sentence describes a small moment that is especially minor in relation to a novel about so many things. But big ideas (themes, motifs, all of story) are built of small pieces (words, sentences, sounds). And one of the big things of this book is the play with what is abstract and what is bodily. This sentence does that work on a micro level.
Because fear is abstract, right? It's not an object but a feeling. It could even be called imaginary; it certainly exists because of what we imagine, even if the imagined is based on what is real. It lives both inside and because of the imagination.
Yet it has become something else in this moment, something concrete. Fear doesn't merely urge her gums and her tongue to press together. Rather "fear presses." It's a solid thing in her mouth—it has physicality.
In the sandwich of fear/tongue/gum, all three become body parts inside her mouth. Their parallel alignment even makes them equals. What's in her mouth? Well let's see… there's a tongue, there's teeth, there's gums, and there's fear—all waggling around in there. Fear has become a tangible, hold-able object.
That's not all.
Fear is not just a concrete object but an acting participant. It's not that she presses her tongue because she feels fear, but that fear is the thing pressing. Fear is the subject of the sentence and it does something. We could even say it has agency.
And then, remembering that it's become a physical object, consider where this fear is and what it does. It's inside her mouth and pushing her body around. It's intrusive, even violent. Fear is coming to life, maybe starting to become what has inspired it.
That's the grammar. But what about the sounds of the sentence? The taste of it? The feel? I notice right away the similarity of the word gum and tongue. And the sentence has an abundance of g's and r's. These sounds and the mechanisms for creating them make the words sort of slosh in my mouth. Thus a sound shifts to a feel. And a feel that runs over a tongue becomes very like a taste. I know this happens frequently in alliterative sentences, but it's particularly fascinating here because of the parallel things that happen in relation to the sentence's meaning.
So let's look at that next.
In this sentence, does fear have a taste? Not exactly. (This is probably a good thing. It's cliché, I suppose, to "taste fear.") However, there's a definite nod to that trope in fear's placement on the tongue. We can't help thinking that she's tasting it, even if it's not stated.
When I try to think about what that taste is, I notice a taste in my own mouth. It's the taste of my gums. As I read, I mimic the gesture described in the book, and so my own tongue has pressed (or has been pressed) against them.
That taste (though I can't really call it fear) is related to the way fear takes on more than taste. It evokes the sensation of touch as well. Because—first unthinkingly but then with greater purpose—I do mimic the gesture. I press my tongue against my gums. And I feel one against the other in my mouth. The word "press" emphasizes the sense of touch, of course.
Even though it's me doing it, rather than "fear," it's as if I'm experiencing the same thing as the character.
Another sensation has to do with how my face twists as I move my tongue into place. There's almost a grimace. And here's something strange that I've noticed: sometimes feelings follow expressions, just as surely as the reverse. If I smile, I feel the shadow of happiness. A frown makes me a little sad. This grimace evokes a flicker of something else. If it's not exactly the fear that the character feels, it's at least related.
Furthermore, mimicking the gesture positions my teeth, sharply, against my tongue. Suddenly there's a tiny bit of danger—an edge!
Yet here I am, secure in my home, reading a book. I'm pressing my tongue around of my own free will.
Comparing my situation to hers only makes the character's danger more apparent to me. There's dissonance in the metaphor. While I'm like her in this tiny way, feeling the parts of my mouth, the ways I am not like her—I am safe while she is not—are suddenly more noticeable.
(I should say, it's not true that every reader will try out the tongue theatrics. But the more discreet and imitable a gesture, the more likely the reader will attempt it.)
I've rambled through several techniques illustrated by this tiny sentence—using structure and grammar to shift the way a reader understands a word, enticing a reader to mimic a character's action, how a similarity can highlight a difference. In combination, they play quite provocatively with what fear is, making it not only tangible, but tangible in a variety of interchanging ways.
Allison Wyss is teaching the following classes at the Loft this winter: Awkward Is My Superpower: Writing Sex; How'd They Do That: A Craft-Based Book Club for Writers; and Watching the Clock: The Art of Time in Fiction. 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.