Nugget: Metaphors are golden

You know when you spend more than a few pages on a metaphor that you really like it.

Like, I’m wondering at this point if Neal Stephenson was an old miner, or if he had been one of those tourists at some point, where he decided to try gold mining with a little metal pan and a bucket of dirt, only succeeding in getting those tiny flakes of gold dust. (You know what I mean if you’ve tried it.)

But Stephenson loves gold. Almost as much as he likes metaphors, and he’s really good at it. He spends a good portion of this chapter-set in the Newtowne, Massachusetts Bay Colony on October 12, 1713-talking about his gold metaphor. Exactly four pages of it. Which doesn’t seem like a lot, but it gets hilarious when every flashback to a memory begins with

Nugget:

But, here’s how his series of memories starts. Or, at least part of it. 

In years since he has rarely gone back to those old memories. As he does now, in the tavern near Harvard College, he’s startled to find that the muddy whirl has been swept away. The mental pan has been churning for fifty years, sorting the dirt and sand to the periphery and throwing it off. Most of the memories are simply gone. All that remain are a few wee nuggets. It’s not plain to Daniel why these impressions have stayed, while others, which seemed as or more important to him at the time they happened, have gone away. But if the gold-panning similitude is faithful, it means that these memories matter more than the ones that have flown. For gold stays in the pan’s center because of its density; it has more matter (whatever that means) in a given extent than anything else. (47-48)

I know that was a rather long block quote, but I really love it because of the metaphor he aligns with his memory. A person is prone to forget, and it is similar to gold, where only the worthy pieces (the ones with more weight) are left behind, where everything else is thrown away, back into the sand and water.

It makes me wonder how much time he spent on this metaphor. Whether he knew he wanted one here; if he initially wrote this in; or if he went back and changed this after he had come up with the idea of gold.

Either way, he was happy with it, because he used his “Nuggets” to begin each memory in order to literally create a quick history for Daniel for information we might need to understand him. Literally a sentence or two to create a brief image that can help us understand his beginnings.

And before I go, there’s one more metaphor I want to show you that I really liked. Again, also related to memories.

The conversation might not have gone precisely this way. Enoch had the same way with his memories as a ship’s master with his rigging-a compulsion to tighten what was slack, mend what was frayed, caulk what leaked, and stow, or throw overboard, what was to no purpose. So the conversation with Clarke might have wandered into quite a few more blind alleys than he remembered. (33)

So for my last question to you, how do you come up with metaphors like these? Or, what are your favorites?

Happy reading!

Stephenson, Neal. Quicksilver. New York, NY: William Morrow, 2003.

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Love, Hate Relationship

Imagine 4 people in a room. Let’s name them: Jim, Neil, Tom, and Flarbb—because I can. Normally, if you’re trying to write a dialogue between these four people, it would either be narrowed between two for a standard back and forth. Like…

Neil and Tom walked to the other side of the room to gaze admiringly at a tall vase that didn’t house any flowers but should, because, what was the purpose of a vase if it didn’t house any flowers?

Meanwhile, Jim complained about Flarbb’s wife. “Betty cooked me dinner, again. Can you believe her?”

“She was just being nice,” said Flarbb. “She loves your company.”

Or, you add two more people by adding names.

“Quit ragging on Flarbb, Jim.” Neil gazed hotly at him. 

Tom had to pull Neil back, worried about his friend and his history of violence. “Come on buddy. Let’s go back and look at that vase.” 

Now, I imagine that’s everyone’s normal dialogue. Dropping names when the reader can pick up it’s only two people going back and forth. But, have you ever dropped everyone’s names? Read this by Neal Stephenson:

“Dr. Waterhouse, you must be warned, has fallen quite under the spell of Herr Leibniz—”

“—him that stole the calculus from Sir Issac—” someone footnotes.

“—yes, and, like Leibniz, is infected with Metaphysickal thinking—”

“—a throwback to the Scholastics, sir—notwithstanding Sir Isaac’s having exploded the old ways through very clear demonstrations—” (17)

What I like about this is that it quickly fills a room with voices without creating the people to go with them, effectively creating a noisy crowd, the kind that has to interrupt itself like fifteen times. I love it. I find it really difficult to juggle multiple characters since it’s hard to carry that many voices on a page without it sounding repetitious with all the names, like Jim told Neil who yelled at Flarbb, etc.

What I don’t love but hate—not really hate, but for the purpose of the title, let’s call it hate—is that none of these voices have faces. And I know you’re thinking isn’t that what you just said you loved, but dang nabbit, I’m not finished. None of these voices have faces, and this isn’t a one-time use thing that he does for the purpose of this ‘crowd.’ Stephenson actually does this a lot with all his characters, even the important ones.

“I defer to you, sir.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“But without seeming to be a Cavilling Jesuit, I should like to know whether Wilkins’s urine is a product of Art or Nature.”

“You saw the jar.”

“Yes.”

“If you take the Rev.’ urine and pour off the fluid and examine what remains under the Microscope, you will see…” (123)

Now, this is just a random example, where Stephenson goes for 6 lines without naming people, and I don’t know what is the magic number for a maximum number of lines without naming anyone, but I have seen him go longer than this.

The reason this bothers me is because of the talking head syndrome. I like to see how characters are interacting, what their hands are messing with, how their faciial expressions are changing. I don’t like to read just voices going back and forth – for most of the time. There are exceptions like this one. But for the rest of the time, I get bored or distracted, especially since there are always names I don’t recognize, in which I’m too lazy to go back and figure out who this is and why we’re talking about them.

In summary, I’d say the love/hate thing accurately describes my relationship with this book. I’m on page 224 out of 335, which is only book one of volume one. (There’s three books in this volume.) And at times, it does go faster, but then I hit ruts like the one I’m in right now, in which it just drags and drags, and I don’t know why I’m reading about the things I do, but hopefully it gets better from here.

Oh well…Happy reading!

Stephenson, Neal. Quicksilver. New York, NY: William Morrow, 2003.

Eureka! Talk about theme!

I finally figured it out why I liked this book, and it took me two days and nearly two nights, but before I reveal its secrets, let me give you all the spoilers first!

Starting from the beginning:

“You would have searched a long time for the sort of winding lane or tranquil meadow for which England later became celebrated…In one such area on the edge of a vast bog, in the shadow of some jagged hills, lived an elderly couple, Axl and Beatrice. Perhaps these were not their exact or full names, but for ease, this is how we will refer to them.” (3-4)

Notice how it starts with a wide lens, slowly narrowing focus until the reader is imagining the main characters for this novel: Axl and Beatrice, an elderly couple who had lived with each other for who knows how long as husband and wife.

As from my previous post, we know now that the couple were searching for their son and remember by the end of the novel that he had already died, so there was nothing to visit but his grave. But this is not how the story concludes.

This is the end:

“We’ll talk more on the island, princess,” he says.

“We’ll do that, Axl. And with the mist gone, we’ll have plenty to talk of. Does the boatman still stand in the water?”

“He does, princess. I’ll go now and make my peace with him.”

“Farewell then, Axl.”

“Farewell, my one true love.”

I hear him coming through the water. Does he intend a word for me? He spoke of mending our friendship. Yet when I turn he does not look my way, only to the land and the low sun on the cove. And neither do I search for his eye. He wades on past me, not glancing back. Wait for me on the shore, friend, I say quietly, but he does not hear and he wades on. (317)

I know that’s a lot to paste in here, but I wanted you to see that the end of the novel does not focus on any of the five conflicts I listed earlier, not on the son or the dragon or the boy, Edwin. It focuses on none of them.

The novel instead focuses on the same lens as the beginning – still zooming in on the couple, but not with their being together, but instead them breaking up. This means that by creating this perspective, by emphasizing their togetherness, that this novel is not about any of these previous conflicts but their elderly couple’s relationship.

Here is my argument…

 Conflict Effect on Couple’s Relationship 
 Visiting their son By finding out he died, we learn that the wife was unfaithful to the husband, pushing their son to leave, blaming herself for his death (due to the plague). In turn, it’s revealed that the husband banned her to visit their son’s grave, as some part of vengeance due to her infidelity.
Killing the vicious dragon Through the use of the dragon’s mist, it erased all memories, leaving only shallow relationships between people. This erased all the good and bad memories, and gave the illusion of faithfulness and a lack of problems, which we learn later was untrue with the couple. It’s one’s endurance in the face of these memories that can make a relationship true love.
Losing his identity as King Arthur’s knight Throughout this book, it’s revealed little by little how the husband had committed an atrocity by killing women and children under the order of King Arthur, and while he did not approve of it, he did commit it. By showing how Axl refused to come to terms with this memory, refused to reveal it to his wife, this shows he cannot come to terms with negative memories, cannot handle their weight, which supports Axl’s later decision of refusing to reveal that he banned Beatrice to visit their son’s grave due to petty vengeance. He cannot endure the hardships that come with a real relationship.

Note there is one more argument with how Beatrice is paranoid about the story of the boatman and the island, and if you read the novel, you can see her multiple experiences with this story, how multiple old maids who are always husband-less, which is echoed in the end of her story, but this is for another time. 

As you can see, the fact that this novel uses these multiple conflicts to stage this bigger truth is what makes this novel so strong. I know it can be random; I know it can be slow, but the fact that it takes the time it needs to show the reader that memories are what makes a relationship work. If you can endure the good as well as the bad, if you can communicate, than that’s true love…this novel combats all the fictional fairy tales of princess and prince, and I’ll definitely save this one for my book shelf!!

Ishiguro, Kazuo. The Buried Giant. New York, NY: Vintage International, 2015. Print.