The Quiet Style

July 29, 2010

Following up my last post praising Susan Darraj for her “quiet style,” I thought I should develop that idea, so I went searching on my bookshelves for a good example. Now, my shelves haven’t been organized since the room was painted more than a decade ago (and my wife and I still quarrel about whose fault that is), so my choice here is almost random. But when I spotted a novel by William Trevor lying sideways in a heap, I figured that’d be a good source, and I found a likely passage in less than three minutes, early in the book when Trevor describes two servants in a once-grand house:

Favouring black in clothes worn tightly, accentuating plumpness, Zenobia has soft hazel eyes in a soft face, her cheeks streaked like two good apples, her hair flecked with the grey her forty-nine years demand. In contrast, her husband is a hawk-faced man, dark-jowled and lankly made, his servant’s wear—black also—completing the priestly look he cultivates. [His] interest is the turf.
—from Chapter 1 of Death in Summer

It’s a simple paragraph that offers a vivid picture of the two characters, and look how Trevor constructs it: with a dead metaphor, a semi-resurrected one, and a single but homely live one.

The dead one: As you sped over “hawk-faced,” did you even picture a hawk?

The semi-resurrected one: Trevor plays on the dead metaphor “apple-cheeked,” bringing it partly back to life as “cheeks streaked like two good apples.” He gets us to see the healthy redness there and also the variegation, the smudginess of a human complexion. (With the subordinate implication that good apples themselves are streaky, an appetizing thought. We might also explore “good apple” in the sense of good person, but let’s not get too deconstructionist here.)

The live one: Though “priestly look” isn’t quite dead as a phrase, it’s so ordinary and quiet that it scarcely functions as a comparison until it plays off against the man’s predilection for the horses. It’s the implied contrast, not the metaphor itself, that most strikes us.

To me, this is just plain good writing, and few writers practice it. Far too often I pick up a highly praised book only to find that the author bedecks nearly every sentence with gaudy metaphors that dangle like jewels around the plump arm or creamy throat of a Hollywood starlet, shimmering and dancing, demanding such attention that, distracted by the glitter, stumbling like a sleepwalker through this film producer’s lavish party, I forget to notice what, in the midst of such glamor, has in fact been said or implied, leaving my dreaming mind suspended in the bright-speckled, alcohol-fumed air (not to mention the syntax) until I’m as befuddled as the young but wizened man who sits in the corner with a glare malty as the Scotch he nurses in his bone-pale hands.

Some people like that kind of clutter. Some writers, to give them credit, can pull it off, for a while at least. But as a reader I tire after a few pages. What’s the point? Does every clause need decoration? Is this world of ours, or the world of the story, so colorless that it has to be tarted up?

Thank you, Mr. Trevor, and the small class of others who preserve the quiet style.

Creating a World

July 17, 2010

Recently I finished The Inheritance of Exile, a book of closely linked short stories I had the good fortune to buy from the author herself, Susan Muaddi Darraj, at a local book fair. Published by the University of Notre Dame Press in 2007, it was a finalist in the AWP award series and picked up some good reviews, but it deserves more attention.

Set in South Philadelphia, the stories center on four young Palestinian American women, friends whose lives intertwine. Each character is given a section of the book, three or four stories, and in each section one of the tales focuses on the young woman’s mother. Shifting the point of view back to the parents’ generation is a great technique; it helps the reader put the young people’s struggles in perspective.

No violent dramas occur in this book. In fact, the conflicts are somewhat predictable—the traditions from the old country versus the demands of modern American culture, the identity problems of those caught between. The young women are also pretty damn nice, for South Phillyites. None of them gets into drugs. None of them goes so far as to slap her nagging mother. None even gets a tattoo. So the action is tame, you could say.

Yet the stories add up to far more than the sum of their plots. A world slowly emerges as the young people’s lives grow from and envelop those of their mothers, and it feels genuine.

I also admire the author’s quiet style. There’s so much showmanship in contemporary fiction that I find myself drawn to writers who can create a strong scene without overloading it with too-clever metaphors. Here’s the beginning of the story “An Afternoon in Jerusalem”:

“I wondered if I should do the melodramatic thing and burn Kareem’s picture. That’s what would happen in an Arabic soap opera, with an actress, her eyes lined Cleopatra-style (à la Liz Taylor) with kohl, sniffling as she set a match to the photo of her heartless lover, the flame reflecting dramatically against her hennaed hair. An American soap actress would do the same, tossing it into the fireplace and watching the flames lick and blacken his fair skin and blond hair. But my apartment didn’t have a fireplace, and besides, I needed to do something unscripted, hard, real, something that maybe hurt, like bursting a blister before the white liquid inside made it explode. It was still pain, but at least you held the pin.”

That bursting metaphor at the end is uncharacteristic of Darraj, but she earns it, building up through a series of vivid pictures. And though I might object that ignored blisters rarely “explode,” the image of lancing your own wound makes perfect dramatic sense here, leading into a story in which the narrator figures out how to puncture her inflamed memories of deceitful Kareem.

These are fine stories, combining to make an even better book, and reminding us that the best way to create a fictional world is often through the commonplace, the daily, the unadorned.