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