Today’s post is by regular contributor Peter Selgin, the award-winning author of Your First Page. He offers first-page critiques to show just how much useful critical commentary and helpful feedback can be extracted from a single page—the first page—of a work-in-progress.
I froze in the chair. There was a lion right there. In the room, on the other side of the table.
Just what I’d been warned about but hadn’t believed. I tried not to move. Maybe he’d ignore me.
No such luck. His shoulder muscles bunched and his eyes blazed red as he looked at me. Avoid eye contact, Gran’d told me. Don’t challenge them. I looked down at my beer.
Must be an acid flashback, I thought. Johnny going on about Gran’s old stories must’ve brought it on—lion spirits possessing people and all that San Bushman stuff.
“I’m in charge at the loony bin, Pete. My cabbagepatch. Like when the loonies get the shits I take care of things. Fix ‘em up. They’re always so friggin’ grateful.”
I looked up and saw just plain old Big Sid hunched forward over the table, pint in paw, with the light from the ‘DEPARTURES’ sign outside the bar reflected on his bottle-bottom thick specs.
He chugged beer, burped, and carried on. “The doctors think they know it all. Nobody else could do their job. Bloody power freaks don’t want us to do medical stuff, even simple things. They keep it all complicated. Keep it all scientific and that. I mean, look at how they treat someone who’s dehydrated. Simple, all they need is fluids in them.”
I looked down at my mug and tried to keep my face expressionless, but couldn’t help thinking, ‘Power-freak yourself. Bloody predator. Everyone’s just prey, ego-food on the hoof to you.’ I wanted to say that, but I knew there was no way a guy like Sid, five years older and a foot taller, could let me score any points.
So I played along. “Go on then. Tell us, Sid. What’s wrong with how they treat that, then?”
“Defamiliarization” is a technique whereby artists force their audiences to look at familiar things and ideas in new, unfamiliar ways. The term was coined by Russian author and critic Victor Shklovsky in his 1917 essay “Art as Technique.” In that essay Shklovsky distinguishes between poetic and practical language: language used to describe or explain, as opposed to language used to impart perceptions or heighten existing ones.
Poets and poetic artists typically use defamiliarization to breathe fresh life into things ordinary or banal to which our senses have become deadened. Similes and metaphors work this way. When Lorrie Moore compares a mother’s face to “a big white dumpling of worry” or Richard Brautigan compares a dish of ice cream to “Kafka’s hat,” they force us to look at something familiar in an unfamiliar way. We’re momentarily disoriented—shocked, even—but then we say to ourselves, “Yes, yes: I see it now.”
Here, defamiliarization is used exclusively for shock value: not to impart a fresh way of looking at things, but to catch the reader off-guard and keep her that way. It’s not the first time that literature has furnished us with examples of men and jungle cats confronting each other at close quarters, the most notorious being Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, where the cat is a tiger and they do so across an ocean in a lifeboat. In that case, though it may be interpreted symbolically and metaphorically, the confrontation between man and beast is meant to be taken literally. But the man who sits across the table from the narrator of this first page isn’t really a lion; he is Big Sid, a hospital orderly with a taste for lager who stands (sits?) a foot taller than his companion. Otherwise, unless we count bunched shoulder muscles and blazing eyes, there’s nothing especially lion-like about him.
Which is all right, assuming that the comparison isn’t meant to be symbolic or even poetic but is a literal description of a hallucination—a possibility that the narrator himself raises in the second paragraph (“Must be an acid flashback”). In which case it won’t be the first time that literature has given us a hallucinating mental hospital orderly, either. I’m thinking of Chief Bromden, the narrator of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel set in an Oregon psychiatric hospital, who bears witness to events on the ward through a hallucinatory, psychotropic-drug induced fog (“They start the fog machine again and it’s snowing down cold and white all over me like skim milk, so thick I might even be able to hide in it if they didn’t have a hold on me.”). However, the hallucinatory explanation here is summarily cast aside; for the duration of the passage the narrator pretty much shrugs off the whole lion analogy, which with the words “bloody predator” at the bottom of the page gives a dutiful little roar, but otherwise makes itself scarce.
Consequently, the lion metaphor feels perfunctory. The solution, I think, is to either toss out the analogy completely, or weave it more thoroughly into Sid’s description, emphasizing his leonine features. This way readers will see him as his narrator does, rather than being force-fed the comparison.
But for me what brings Big Sid to life in this opening page isn’t the comparison to a lion. It’s Sid’s distinctive dialogue (“I’m in charge of the loony bin, Pete. My cabbage patch.”) as well as his actions (“He chugged beer, burped, and carried on.”). Big Sid speaks well for himself. He doesn’t need his author to roar for him.
Your turn: How would you assess this opening? (Be constructive.)
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