Reading Like a Writer: Long Division and Creating Depth with Paradox
Kiese Laymon's Long Division is a wild book about time travel, racism, and impossible decisions. It's trippy and meta-fictional and fantastic.
The protagonist is City, but there are two versions of him who appear in alternate chapters. I'd like to look at a passage from the perspective of the City of 1985. He's describing his good friend (and love interest):
When I looked at Shalaya Crump's face and eyes, I could see how I thought she looked during every year of her life. I swear that I could look at Shalaya Crump and see her as a four-year-old girl straight running all the kids in Head Start. And thinking about it right there, and watching her, I understood that it was Shalaya Crump's eyes that showed me her age more than her face. Sometimes, Shalaya Crump's eyes stayed as big as dirty silver dollars and they didn't blink for minutes. When they finally blinked, you would think you were in a tiny bathtub with a ton of hummingbirds 'cause they blinked so fast. Other times, Shalaya Crump's eyes looked right at me, blinked slow, and made me feel like I was jumping off a space mountain onto a trampoline of clouds drawn by the baddest artist in the world. It's hard to explain but I swear a lot of it had something to do with Shalaya Crump's eyes and how slow and fast they blinked at the same time.
It's a fascinating physical description—one that's more about the whole of the person than her superficial appearance. It's also about the voice of the narrator and the way his mind works. We get the particular rhythms of his speech as well as an idiosyncratic viewpoint. The bathtub of humming birds! The trampoline of clouds! Not everyone thinks this way. City's voice is interesting and compelling, one I'm very willing to spend time with.
So the imagery is lovely, strange, and intriguing. But is it picture-able? Honestly, it's hard for me to turn the various images into a single likeness of Shalaya, at least not a sharp one. Maybe the point is that City can't contain the way he feels about Shalaya and thus can't quite describe her appearance. But it's also more than that. The description is not trying to create a flat picture of Shalaya—still and static—but a full, even three-dimensional, experience of her.
First, remember that the description is about"Shalaya Crump's eyes and how slow and fast they blinked at the same time." It's not that we don't know how fast Shalaya's eyes blink, or that they average to something in between fast and slow. Instead, they are both fast and slow. The battling images are specific and contradictory and—even though the speeds are explained one at a time—that last sentence makes sure we understand them as occurring simultaneously.
When the mind is made to contemplate the paradox of opposite actions happening in the same time and space, one image lies on top of the other and expands the space needed for a single moment of thought. In this way, a carefully contradictory description creates a sense of depth. The fast and the slow happen together and the reader's mind expands to encompass it.
Then look at the other images. The paradox of simultaneous opposites happens again and again. Deliberate contradiction in the images leads to more depth and complexity.
"Dirty silver dollars" is key. Of course, it's common for silver dollars to get dirty, and "silver" is not just an adjective, but part of the name of the coin. Yet it's still paradoxical to hear a thing described as both silver and dirty. If the dirt covers the silver, do we see it? The word "silver" gives us a flash or sparkle, even though we know that dirt hides the shine. The description collapses on itself so fast that the brain imagines both ways at the same time. These coins, and thus Shalaya's eyes, are simultaneously shiny and dull.
And look at that "tiny bathtub with a ton of hummingbirds." The concepts of small and large both appear and get twisted. A bathtub should be large, but this one is tiny. A hummingbird is tiny but in this instance there's a ton of them. Then think of what is associated with each aspect. Bathtub: Solid, still, mineral. Hummingbird: fluttery, delicate, organic. Opposite images condense into a single picture—a picture with contradiction, and thus depth.
Then it gets even wilder: "jumping off a space mountain onto a trampoline of clouds drawn by the baddest artist in the world." This sentence evokes nature and art and science then smashes all three together. We get bad that means good. We get jumping, which is usually an upward motion, yet in this case is clearly down. But even though the jump is down, it leads to clouds, which are usually up. Because "Space Mountain" is the name of a roller coaster, it reinforces the up-and-down motion.
It's also intriguing that the trampoline is made of clouds. Clouds look firm and soft, as if they'd stop City as he jumps into them, cushion him. Yet we know they're made of mist and would actually let City slip right through. It's a surprise, then, when this description makes them something else entirely. Since we can't quite shake the first two ideas of what a cloud is, we imagine the clouds all three ways at once.
A different, though related, paradox is contained in the idea that "I could see how I thought she looked during every year of her life." One face contains a series of faces, all at the same time, one image laying atop another and another and another. It's an additional way to expand the reader's brain space and increase the depth of a single moment.
And then, what about the experience of multiple paradoxes in a single description?
When we try to put Shalaya's face together, we don't just get the depth of one impossible layering, but all of them at once, flashing throughout the description—the fast and slow, dull and shiny, up and down, young and old. There's this brain space explosion that happens when all of the contradictions pop at the same time.
One image at a time is simple and easy to picture. But when the images layer so that two or more must exist—impossibly, paradoxically!—in the same moment, the linear rope of word after word is exploded, and the reader experiences something much more profound.
Allison Wyss is teaching the following classes at the Loft this summer:Eight Weeks, Four Drafts: Advanced Topics in Revision and The Ins and Outs of Publishing in Literary Journals. 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.