Allow me to open this post with a quote from Satan’s Fan Club by Mark Kirkbride, a book I recently reviewed for The Review Hart.
“While the encroachment of cloud caused the more phantasmagorical fluctuations in the brightness of the moon, the pale rays making it into the room were as playful as underwater light. He saw ripples, bars, parallelograms.”
This description frames my lesson, in that it has an interesting use of words but nonetheless fails badly at actual description. The poetry of it obscures, overwhelms any substantive description of any kind, and leaves the reader with a bafflement that may or may not be its intent.
Here’s the thing about description. There are two basic levels. The first is the direct – it’s the image created in the mind. I say a blue car, you picture an azure automobile. The second is the indirect, the impression given by the sound and feel of the words themselves. The best of these was no doubt Allen Ginsberg, but I’ll do my best. Something like this:
It’s the fluctuating, undulating, revelating water which only just fails to overwhelm in its direst and darkest fashions carrying us forward to an inevitability we just can’t see coming.
That doesn’t really say very much at all. It’s poetical as fuck, but it carries very little literal meaning. Nonetheless, it carries things across in the sound and feel of the language.
The problem with that is, in narrative fiction you mostly need to carry across meaning, and there is a point at which the fantastical ceases to be the most effective way of doing that. Thus, when intending to carry across an actual description (rather than simply an impression based on linguistic play), your first and final law must be that of the reader understanding.
There’s a balance to be struck, of course. There’s no reason to think that the verbal pastoralism idea is a failure state. It won’t convey a literal description very well, but that’s not all that description exists to do. By using language in ways extrinsic to its literal meaning, a sensation can be created; this, we’ve established. By doing so, a book with a sufficiently poetic bent can bring the reader into its world without needing to describe it. After all, a good book is frequently as much an idea-space as it is a narrative, and to bring the reader into the mind of the writer and the appropriate state of mind for the book is just as crucial, if not more crucial, than telling a good story in a straightforward way.