Monday, August 10, 2009

Universal in a unique way

This past week, I've been struck by passages from two different books, passages that made me stop and remind myself to breathe.

Here's the first one from Laurie Halse Anderson's Wintergirls. LIa, the teen narrator is
alone in her room, mourning the death of her best friend, Cassie. They've both been struggling with eating disorders:

Spiders hatch and crawl out of my belly button, airy little tar beads with ballerina feet.

They swarm, spinning a silk veil, one hundred thousand spider thoughts woven together until they wrap me up in a cozy shroud.
I breathe out and it begins.

Thorn-covered vines creep across the floor, crackling like a bonfire. Black roses bloom in the moonlight, born dead and brittle. The web on my face holds my eyes open, forcing me to watch as Cassie steps out of the shadows, briars twining up her legs and around her body, reaching up through her hair.
I can't make a sound. Spiders crawl on my face and leap across to her arms. They fly back and forth, knitting us together.

The second passage is from The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga. The narrator is writing a letter to the Chinese Premier, trying to explain what life is like in Bangalore, India.

Me, and thousands of others in this country like me, are half-baked, because we were
never allowed to complete our schooling. Open our skulls, look in with a penlight, and you'll find an odd museum of ideas: sentences of history or mathematics remembered from school textbooks...sentences about politics read in a newspaper while waiting for someone to come
to an office, triangles and pyramids seen on the torn pages of the old geometry textbooks which every tea shop in this country uses to wrap its snacks in, bits of All India Radio news bulletins, things that drop into your mind, like lizards from the ceiling, in the half hour before falling asleep--all these ideas, half-formed and half digested and half correct, mix up with other half-cooked ideas in your head and I guess these half-formed ideas bugger on another, and make more half-formed ideas, and this is what you act on and live with.

What makes these two passages, so very different in style and subject matter, to have startled me so much? Maybe it's because they are so unusual. Spiders crawling out of belly buttons? Definitely a memorable image. But uniqueness alone doesn't do it. I've read many other passages in other books where the unusual descriptions actually made me not read because they try too hard to be different, they are too self-conscious.

As I re-read the passages, they stirred up a sense of familiarity, which is strange. I have never been to India, nor have I suffered from eating disorders. What about them that makes me catch that glimpse of recognition, a kinship, almost?

And there, I think, is the answer. These passages are so engaging because, for me, at least, they create a perfect balance between the universal and the unique.

I've never been to India, but I grew up having lizards on the ceiling and reading interesting snippets of newspaper recycled as snack-wrappers. I've never binged and purged, or counted the calories of every bite, but I've definitely thought twice about indulging in an extra piece of chocolate cake or scraped off the sour cream from baked potatoes.

Much deeper than these connections, however, are the ones that are even more universal:

  • lingering in that expanse between reality and imagination,
  • feeling such a strong bond with someone that it seems we've been woven together
  • grasping onto ideas that seem so promising, yet so unformed and elusive
  • feeling the inadequacy of our abilities and experiences

Drawing on the invisible strings that tie us all to the same basic human experiences and thoughts, yet in such unusual and vivid ways:

that's why these passages caught me,
that's why these are masterful writers,
that's what I strive for in my writing.


Corey Schwartz said...

Great post, Yat-Yee. But this is sometimes why I have trouble enjoying a book anymore. Always analyzing it with my writer's mind! Somtimes it drives me crazy! :)

Yat-Yee said...

Thanks, Corey.

Hazards of our professions!

MG Higgins said...

This is a beautiful post, Yat-Yee. I completely agree with your assessment that it's both uniqueness and familiarity that makes for striking and memorable prose. I'd never thought of it this way.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Thanks for those great excerpts and your comments. Clearly the best writers make us feel on familiar ground and then test us with unfamiliar imagery. That's what really grabs our attention and sticks long after the book is finished.

Suzanne Casamento said...

Beautiful passages! Thank you so much for sharing them. I have to read those books.

And I totally get what you mean about striving for those qualities in your own writing. Reading makes us better writers.

Kim Kasch said...

Ewww but I hate spiders and the thought of them crawling out of my belly button - YIKES!

I don't know. . . just creepy to mee.

Yat-Yee said...

Kim: it sure is creepy, and I think that's exactly the effect Laurie Anderson is after, because that's Lia's state of mind.

MG, Tricia and Suzanne: glad you liked the passages and thanks for the comments.

Read on! Spiders or not ;)

Solvang Sherrie said...

Wow, excellent post! I really must read Wintergirls, but I have to wait until I'm in the happiest mood ever because I think the story will depress me.