Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Tom Robbins and the Art(?) of the Simile

I've recently finished reading Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins. The first book I ever read by him was years ago, Still Life with Woodpecker, and I adored it. I find it hard now to remember quite why I loved it so much. I remember feeling like it was somehow different from anything I'd read. It managed to be funny while making you think about life in a slightly altered way. At least while reading it. It didn't take itself too seriously and yet felt incredibly sincere.

What I don't remember are the outrageous similes. Which litter JP and Another Roadside Attraction (which I've just started). And if the number of blogs, essays etc out there on the subject are anything to go by, they must have been all over SL with W as well.

Here are a few of said similes (all from JP) for your perusal...

"The sky was a velvety black paw pressing on the white landscape with a feline delicacy, stars flying like sparks from its fur."
"LOUISIANA IN SEPTEMBER was like an obscene phone call from nature. The air—moist, sultry, secretive, and far from fresh—felt as if it were being exhaled into one's face. Sometimes it even sounded like heavy breathing."
"Hips swaying like mandolins on a gypsy wagon wall..."
"The LeFever twins had been small boys during the Nazi occupation of Paris, but they recalled it as an adult recalls the breaking of a bone in childhood: the sickening crack, the fear, the pain, the sadness, the sudden ooze of blood that shows itself like the black blush of fairy-tale witches."
"She tried to drive the smile away with thoughts of her sorrowful experiences, her disgraceful behavior, her insecure situation, but this was one smile that didn't scare easily, it hung in there like a tenant who knows his rights and refuses to be evicted."
"Almost immediately the wind fell quiet, like a drunk who has passed out in the middle of a rage."
"A few flat clouds folded themselves like crepes over fillings of apricot sky."
"Shaking like a wedding announcement in a misogamist's fist, Alobar examined the shoe, unfolded and reread the note."
"Like a baby grand in a town without piano movers, Ma-dame had settled firmly into place, her bulk as transfixed as a wild hog in truck lights. A jazz funeral could have marched through the gates of her corset, and she wouldn't have squirmed."
"She walked down the path feeling like three-fourths of two pieces of slug bait."
"Like a fertilized condor egg, filled with blood and promise, the bald head of Dr. Morgenstern split open. He died instantly."

I'm torn on these similes. While reading this book, they sometimes made me laugh. And the best ones made me imagine what he was describing in such a specific way that no other image would have worked. Other times I found them jolting, like they were trying too hard. When taken all out of context like above, and grouped together they seem like bad writing exercises.

I wonder if my students handed in stories with this kind of writing in it would I consider it overwritten or playfully adventurous (like I do when Robbins does it)?

I think Robbins makes it work because his writing is so saturated by them. If they only appeared occasionally (like I imagine they would in an undergraduate short story), they would seem forced. When they are everywhere they become part of the writer's voice; a tool to keep the reader suspended in an unreality. A reality like ours, but that isn't. It works to make the mundane, strange.

And, as I attempt to write, I have to give him credit for taking old language (for isn't all language old if the words have been used before?) and making it new, by putting the words together in ways you would have never thought of yourself. That's all prose writing really is. Finding an order to put the words in that is somehow more interesting than any order those words have been put in before.

One word after another...

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