Reading Like a Writer: HER BODY AND OTHER PARTIES and Dynamic Description
I've already written about Carmen Maria Machado's Her Body and Other Parties, but, as I'm rather smitten with the collection, I am going to write about it again. This time I want to examine a long list of food from the story, “Mothers.” It seems like it ought to be kind of boring, but it's not. I think it's because she manages to make the description dynamic, when another writer might treat it as static.
In the fridge: pickled cucumbers and green beans crowding ridged jars, two glass containers of milk, one good, one sour, a carton of half-and-half, birth control from the age of men that I still haven’t thrown away, an eggplant, almost black, a pitcher of chilled water, a jar of horseradish the shape of a bar of soap, olives, sweet Italian peppers tense as hearts, soy sauce, bloody steaks hidden away in the dry fold of paper, leaking shamefully, a cheese drawer with balls of fresh mozzarella floating in their own milky-water broth, and salami with a dusty white tubing that smells, Bad swears, like semen, rotting leeks that will be added to the compost pile, candy onions, shallots the size of fists. In the freezer, cracked plastic ice trays with cubes swollen past their banks, pesto made from the basil plants in the garden, coffee, cookie dough that will be eaten raw despite health warnings. The cupboards, when opened, are cluttered as both our heads: extra virgin olive oil, half a dozen bottles, some full of forests of rosemary and fat bulbs of peeled garlic, sesame oil whose glass bottle never seems to lose the greasy sheen on its outside, no matter how many times it is wiped clean, coconut oil half a waxy white solid, half like plasma, cans of blackeyed peas, refried beans, and vegetable stock, cream of mushroom soup, boxes of almonds, a small sack of raw organic pine nuts, stale oyster crackers. Eggs on the counter, brown and irregular in size. One of them has gone bad, but you’ll only figure it out if you put it in a glass of water, and it floats.
The first thing anybody is going to notice about this description is that it's way too long! But that's part of what makes it interesting, the too-much-ness of it. It's a joke, sort of, as the overloaded sentences mimic the refrigerator itself. It feels like food is spilling out of both the appliance and the sentences. So that's the first way it moves—it spills.
Long sentences have disadvantages—you might get lost in them—but they also save you from unnecessary repetition (ironically, this example saves us from verbs), so you can just gobble up the meat of it. When Machado shifts into list form, we lose the need for connecting words and other grammatical niceties. So even though it's a lot of words, the words are quite efficient. But, again, without the connecting words, only commas hold the listed items together, which increases the sense of instability, so it feels even more like the nouns are about to break free.
So what kind of words are these that keep spilling everywhere? Most of them are highly sensory. Every object has a visual. But because almost every item is food, it also has a taste and a smell. Some even have associated sounds or textures: "cracked," "greasy," "waxy." And it's simply more enjoyable to experience a word that brings a bodily sensation than one that is merely abstract or cerebral. But beyond that, the fact that these words contain multiple sensory experiences means the description expands to be even more overstuffed. The words jostle each other because they're too big for the space they're allowed on the page.
It's also fascinating the way time works into this description. One of the reasons we often lose interest with physical descriptions in writing is that they tend to be inert. There's this sense of a narrator standing still to tell you about all of the motionless objects in a place. However, most of these foods are dynamic because they are aging or decaying: sour milk, a black eggplant. We feel the specificity of the moment in time, as well as the movement of time passing. We even move to the future in some descriptions: "that will be added to the compost pile," "that will be eaten raw."
We also get movement through subtext in many of the situation words. When an item is "crowding" or "floating" we ostensibly learn the placement of it in relation to other objects. But the "-ing" creates a sense of action and of agency. I know it means the green beans are smooshed against something else, but I also see the act of crowding, as if the vegetables can't quite see and so push closer and deeper. There's motion there and also tension.
Similarly, the water is not cold but "chilled," suggesting the dynamic process of chilling, rather than a static state of being. It also implies an agent acting upon the water—perhaps just the refrigerator, or perhaps the person who put the water there. I can say the same about those "pickled cucumbers." (A foodie might quibble that they're distinct from pickles, but come on: this word choice emphasizes the action of pickling—not just the food.)
Another key to the descriptions’ vibrancy is that Machado is very careful to include character. We've got all sorts of personality in this voice, which is sometimes judgmental ("shamefully"), and sometimes conversational ("you'll only know"), often quirky ("from the age of men"), and never forgets the relationship of the people to the food "cluttered as both our heads."
The narrator’s personality infuses with the food, so it also feels alive and thus more interesting. But it's also true that we're learning about her personality as we go, which gives weight to the descriptions of what’s in the refrigerator. Even if we don't care about the horseradish, we care who the narrator is and are interested to learn her sensibilities. We wonder what kind of person thinks that hearts are "tense" or that leaking is "shameful"? Not only does she keep these things in her kitchen, but she thinks about them in particular and revealing ways.
Those are all pretty simple, yet smart, ways to bring vibrancy to a description—sensory explosions, time, motion, personality.
There's another strategy that's a bit more difficult (and a little trippy). Look at the "bloody steaks hidden away in the dry fold of paper, leaking shamefully." First the blood is wet, then the paper is dry, and then we get the wetness of a leak. So we have wet-dry-wet—a layering of contradictory description. Sensing them simultaneously—a paradox—is a way that the description deepens. When they are folded together, as we're told they are, the scenario becomes a bit impossible—if wet and dry are sandwiched together, there's no way that dry stays so. It's not a major thing, but our brain might get stuck on the strangeness for just a moment—and that creates a good kind of tension in the reading experience.
But there's more to the mental acrobatics.
Through the sequence of the words, the sentence suggests that the wet wraps the dry, even though the meaning is that the dry wraps the wet. So the brain first receives the images and then sort of flips them, creating another tiny brain explosion. It's a neat trick for creating tension, depth, and complexity.
Some writers argue against such formulations. They worry about tripping up the reader and pulling them out of the story. The concern is valid. But just a little bit of impossible choreography—carefully placed, carefully managed, and pinned to the real world with concrete imagery—can be worth the risk.
There are so many great techniques here. I'll sum them up by saying, if you have to describe something, put it in motion.
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. Check out the Loft's Spring 2018 class offerings for her upcoming class: Once Upon a Time: Writing the Modern Fairy Tale.