Reading Like a Writer
Samanta Schweblin's Fever Dream (translated by Megan McDowell) is a beautifully frightening novel. I don't want to give away the precise circumstances because the suspense is so well rendered, but I will say the dangers are psychological, chemical, and mystical—all wrapped together and teased to a taut and chilling terror. The first page sets the tone.
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.
When Ai-ming surprises me, I suspect that she surprises the narrator—and thus, that the narrator is not just making her up. Because her actions imply thoughts that I can't see and didn't even expect, I develop a theory of mind in relation to those actions; I infer a consciousness, a decision-making faculty, a will. The surprising act doesn't need to have meaning to the reader for it to signal that there's meaning inside the character. Even if we never find out just what makes her tick, we can see that she's freaking ticking!
The Vegetarian, by Han Kang (translated by Deborah Smith), tells of an unexpected vegetarian in South Korea and the destruction of her life and family as she turns into a tree. It's told from the perspectives of Yeong-hye's husband, brother-in-law, and sister.
It also employs some exceptional techniques for portraying strong emotion. In particular, we can learn from the brother-in-law's reaction to Yeong-hye's suicide attempt.
Toni Morrison's Jazz is about Harlem in the 1920s. There's a central incident involving love, betrayal, and violence. Joe Trace has an affair and murders his lover, Dorcas. Violet, his wife, shows up at Dorcas's funeral to cut her face. But the story spins outward from the central events and characters, encompassing the neighborhood and making secondary characters as real as primary ones. Even tertiary characters, background characters—those who often just take up space in a narrative—become real people.
So how does Morrison make the minor characters real? I'd like to look at Sweetness, a character as tertiary as they come, for some good techniques to do this.
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 Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma is about four brothers growing up in Nigeria. It's also about the ways a mind can be poisoned and how an obsession can destroy you.
The scene I'm about to discuss is not pleasant. Two children are murdering a man to avenge their brothers.
I'd love to tell you what Yoko Tawada's "The Bath" (translated by Susan Bernofsky and Yumi Seldon) is about, but I'm not sure I can. I guess it's the story of an incompetent interpreter, but that's pretty reductive. Just know it's delightfully strange at the beginning, and it keeps getting stranger.
Alexander Chee's The Queen of the Night is about an opera singer named Lilliet and her past as an orphan, a circus performer, and a sex worker. It's also about fate and the struggle to escape it.
The novel opens at a ball, where Lilliet meets Simonet, a man who describes a new opera that is—apparently unbeknownst to him—the story of Lilliet's life. He's also found something that she lost years before.
The brooch was an imperial trifle, a tiny thing to an emperor, I think, but for me at the time, so much more. Made of rubies, several to each petal, set in either platinum or white gold—I had it before I knew the difference—the stem inlaid with jade. There was even a thorn. At his mention of it, the flower had glowed in the air between us, a tiny phantom, and then was gone.
That tiny phantom, a flower glowing in the air—isn't it lovely? It does so much.
Why can't there be a "Reading Like a Writer" column about Buffy the Vampire Slayer? A television series starts with words on a page, and the study of storytelling can absolutely include the study of TV.
Why can't "Reading Like a Writer" bring in a guest co-columnist? Erin Kate Ryan writes periodically for The Writers' Block, and she's got opinions—oh, she’s got opinions!—about the show and its narrative strategy.
Together, we're going to look at "Tabula Rasa," the eighth-season episode right after the musical one. It's when they all get magical amnesia.