I definitely, unabashedly, troll book reviews, to find new books and authors that might interest me, but also to keep an eye out for agents I may eventually query if my manuscript is ever ready, magazines I may want to submit to if I ever have a final short story draft, or quirky ideas for the stories that stay in drafts 1-6. Sometimes, reviews are just the springboard into a google-session about an author which can feel a little bit like my other internet guilty pleasure (People Star Tracks, I am indeed looking at you). This review, of Fiona McFarlane‘s short story collection, The High Places, did double duty, as most fiction-related words should. It both introduced me to McFarlane, whose novel is now on my to-read list, and taught me something about craft that I hadn’t ever considered before.
I’m heading into the third year of an MFA program and have completed 4 workshops at this point. Our program director, who led two of the four, gives awards at the end of each semester for categories as varied Best Plot, Person Who Works Harder Than You and Best Written Critique Writer. Well, two years in a row, I won “Most Ill-Conceived Image or Metaphor.” The first winner came from a coming-of-age tale about a girl whose friends pressure her into taking sexy-photos to sext to a boy she likes. The metaphor/image was: “She had to tuck her breasts into the cups, and even with the tucking, they didn’t quite fit. The sports bra had always held them close and tight to her chest. In this new bra, they floated up and away from her, almost flapping like wings.” I can quote it exactly because, well, I put it in writing.
The second winner, from a story about a rich white woman who goes to a poor Caribbean island to vacation, was this: “This coconut smelled rancid, like it had been slathered onto a radio alarm clock and put into an oven to bake.”
On their own, they’re fine metaphors, fine images, I guess. Although the real problem with them is that they don’t do anything in the story. And to hid that fact, I just amped up the craziness of the description. I didn’t quite get it, even as I won that second award. If I wasn’t supposed to have amped up images in my metaphors, what exactly were my metaphors supposed to do? I wish I could say that I figured it out, but even though I’m 75% done with my MFA, I have to admit that I didn’t.
Luckily, in his review of McFarlane’s collection, Christopher Benfey did figure it out, and then he was nice enough to explain it to me.
“While lesser writers use similes to render descriptions more vivid, McFarlane’s heighten aspects of her characters and advance her plots.” Yes, he is describing me here, but maybe not for long? His explanation delves into McFarlane’s writing:
“When the marine biologist compares his diaphanous squid to “my mother’s underwear soaking in a holiday basin,” we get a sense of both his deep attachment to the squid and his stunted sexuality. When the sheep farmer likens his wife’s body to “the thin run of a creek in the bed, a low creek that puts out the small noises of a comfort it can’t deliver,” we know the drought has extended from the parched fields to his own bedroom. In a clever story called “Exotic Animal Medicine,” a veterinarian is called from her impromptu wedding to place an emergency catheter in a cat. When she drives “as if she were landing an enormous plane full of porcelain children on a mountaintop,” we can tell what a careful surgeon she is, even as we surmise that there will be some breakage before the story is over.”
Oh, so that’s what metaphors are supposed to do. So images and metaphors and characters and plots, they’re all connected. Reading this review was seriously a D’oh moment for me. I’m currently revising stories for my thesis and am incorporating this wisdom ruthlessly.