Word Wonders

old-fashioned typewriter

Writers harvest words like sun-ripened fruit, a bite into succulence. We collect them like jewels,  for their beauty or their oddities. We juggle them into cadences, sliding the pieces until they fit, just right.

We collect sentences too sometimes, elegant combinations — what James Baldwin describes as language that is “as clean as a bone”. I tend to gravitate towards language with a twist, seeds of its own unraveling. I like contradictions, surprises, words that turn on a dime. The unexpected. I love a writer who can give me pause.

Lately, I love John Irving.  Irving is a master at language that simultaneously dresses a character and strips him bare.  You can imagine the people of his novels sitting on your couch, drinking coffee or belting down scotch — though you might not always want them there.

In The Cider House Rules, Irving presents the St. Cloud’s stationmaster, a man wavering between self-righteousness and paranoia who manages to remain heartbreakingly-ordinary all the same.  The stationmaster spends his time split between mail order catalogs and newsletters from an apocalyptic religious sect.  The fusion of those two preoccupations fills him with dread, and with troubling dreams.

In particular, “The flying dead in bras and girdles especially frightened the stationmaster.”  Although we are, at this point, just getting to know a character whose main utilitarian function in the novel is his unusual death, Irving’s sentence gives us a clear picture of a man both drawn to and terrified of strange combinations — “the flying dead in bras and girdles.” It is a deft stroke that sums up a character who is a neat antithesis to Wilbur Larch, the novel’s backbone, a man adept at juggling contradictions. In a single line, Irving shows us what he’s aiming at — and what he’d like to miss. He accomplishes so much with so little — a meager eleven words conjure harbingers of the apocalypse in mail-order lingerie.  This is a sentence with sticking power, certainly.

In a completely different genre and age, Hans Christian Andersen uses a brilliant parallel metaphor to illustrate his main character’s undoing.  In “The Snow Queen,” a young boy named Kay gets a splinter in his eye, a splinter from a magic mirror that shows people good where there is evil and evil where there is good.  Another splinter pierces his heart and turns it into a lump of ice.  Kay is then vulnerable to the seduction of the Snow Queen, who steals him away.

As he is being rushed toward her, “Terror seized him; he tried to say the Lord’s Prayer, but all he could remember was multiplication tables.” The strength of the sentence lies in the juxtaposition of the Lord’s Prayer and multiplication tables — the difference between the faith that Kay has lost and the mindless repetition of “facts” that will not sustain him. In “The Snow Queen”, it is Gerda’s faith that leads her to travel the world, find Kay, and release him.

Both sentences, Irving’s and Andersen’s, work so well because they are built upon unusual linkages — “the flying dead in bras and girdles”, or the slippage between the Lord’s Prayer and multiplication facts. Those wavering connections make us pause, rethink where we are going and if we’re quite sure of the map. Are we, like the stationmaster, afraid of detours? Will we rely on presumption, like Kay, or faith, like Gerda, to guide us? In very different tales, we end up in a similar place: inside a smattering of words stitched together to unravel what we think we know. That’s good stuff.

Ultimately the power of words lies in how we see them and where we let them take us. I’d love to hear about your favorite language gems, and the journeys they have inspired.

7 thoughts on “Word Wonders

  1. For sheer linguistic pyrotechnics, I defer to ee cummings and his one novel, The Enormous Room, an account of his imprisonment at the Ferté Macé during WW1 (cummings had apparently angered French censors with something he’d written in a letter home). His descriptions of the place, guards, and other inmates are among the most crisp, detailed, evocative, and whimsical I’ve ever read, or am likely to read.
    For example, cummings’ description f a prisoner he calls “the Schoolmaster”:
    “A little fragile old man. His trousers were terrifically too big for him. When he walked (in an insecure and frightened way) his trousers did the most preposterous wrinkles. … He wore always a coat which reached below his knees, which coat with which knees perhaps some one had once given him. It had huge shoulders which sprouted, like wings, on either side of his elbows when he sat in The Enormous Room quietly writing at a tiny three-legged table, a very big pen walking away with his weak bony hand. His too big cap had a little button on top which looked like the head of a nail, and suggested that this old doll had once lost its poor grey head and had been repaired by means of tacking its head upon its neck, where it should be and properly belonged. … By some mistake he had three moustaches, two of them being eyebrows.”

    • Charlie,
      I love ee cummings, and I didn’t know he had a novel. Thanks for the info and the quotation. I especially appreciate the line, “a very big pen walking away with his weak bony hand.” The whole description is, as you say, both evocative and whimsical. Just this tiny little man, dominated by his clothes and his props. And his eyebrows. Great lines. Thanks!

  2. It’s a long quote!
    “Alfred was remembering the nights he’d sat upstairs with one or both of his boys or with his girl in the crook of his arm, their damp bath-smelling heads hard against his ribs as he read aloud to them. How is voice alone, its palpable resonance, had made them drowsy. These were evenings, and there were hundreds of them, when nothing traumatic enough to leave a scar had befallen the nuclear unit. Evenings of plain vanilla closeness in his black leather chair; sweet evenings of doubt between the nights of bleak certainty. They came to him now, these forgotten counterexamples, because in the end, when you were falling into water, there was no solid thing to reach for but your children.”

    I always look forward to my plain vanilla evenings with my children and in times of woe,as I fall, I reach for them.

    • Jorge,
      Wow! What great images. I love my “plain vanilla” evenings with my children. As the quotation suggests, they are the foundation we hold to when everything else slips.
      There is a lot of great phrasing here — “the palpable resonance” of Alfred’s voice, and all the sensory details, the “damp bath-smelling heads” and the physical pressure on Alfred’s ribs. I think the author manages to incorporate all five senses with that “vanilla”, which heightens the whole.
      The last line is marvelous — “in the end, when you were falling into water, there was no solid thing to reach for but your children”. Love that for its beauty and its solid truth.
      Who is the author?

  3. Oh my gosh! I forgot the most importan part, give the credit to the author! This paragraph comes from Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections. He might be too human as a person but he can write with precision and using imagery and rhythm. It’s a beautiful delicate balance!

    • Thanks Jorge! Such a beautiful quotation. I haven’t read The Corrections, but I will now.

  4. Pingback: Book Notes: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows « Lisa Ahn

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