Tag Archives: Ian McEwan

Awakened by The Big Sleep

It’s not often that the language in a novel prompts an actual smile, as distinct from the internal “nice one” moment of appreciation. There was a period, prior to a trip to the States, when I read Bill Bryson at night. His descriptions of small-town America made me laugh out loud. At other times authors such as Ian McEwan or Tim Winton will describe something so well my jaw drops. I’ll read these passages over and over, savouring the images used.

At present I’m reading Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep. It’s a detective novel, perhaps THE detective novel, hailed as the benchmark for crime fiction. And it’s fantastic.

What I’m enjoying most are the devil-may-care descriptions the narrator, private investigator Philip Marlowe, serves up like raw steaks. The imagery is so vivid it makes me grin.

A few samples follow. I could have chosen umpteen others. Page references are from the 2008 Penguin edition (introduced by Ian Rankin):

On a hothouse full of orchids: “The light had an unreal greenish colour, like light filtered through an aquarium tank. The plants filled the place, a forest of them, with nasty meaty leaves and stalks like the newly washed fingers of dead men.” (p6)

On a femme fatale: “She approached me with enough sex appeal to stampede a businessmens’ lunch and tilted her head to finger a stray but not very stray, tendril of softly glowing hair. Her smile was tentative, but could be persuaded to be nice.” (p23)

On an ingenue: “Dark silent mystified eyes stared at me solemnly, the doubt growing larger in them, creeping into them noiselessly, like a cat in long grass stalking a young blackbird.” (pp 170-171)

On emptiness: “It was raining again the next morning, a slanting grey rain like a swung curtain of crystal beads. I got up feeling sluggish and tired and stood looking out of the windows … I was as empty of life as a scarecrow’s pockets…” (p174)

On a sad laugh: “Then she laughed. It was almost a racking laugh. It shook her as the wind shakes a tree. I thought there was puzzlement in it, not exactly surprise, but as if a new idea had been added to something already known and it didn’t fit. Then I thought that was too much to get out of a laugh.” (p213) 🙂

It’s great stuff. As I try to explain to students in my writing workshops, good writing is fresh and adventurous. Unexpected images and word combinations make the reader sit up and think. When’s the last time you pondered the contents of a scarecrow’s pockets?

The sharp edge of inspiration

Sometimes when I’m reading another author’s work I find a phrase or sentence or paragraph that’s so good I have to re-read it immediately to savour the way the words fit together. I guess it’s similar to what went through my mind gazing at the Taj Mahal – an awe that a mere human could get something so right.

Reading such inspiring writing can be a double-edged sword for me. I’ve had moments when consuming work from master craftsmen such as Tim Winton or Ian McEwan that I’ve wondered if I should bother writing at all. My thought process is something like “Wow. Double wow. What an image! Damn. I’d be happy to come up with a sentence that good, let along a paragraph … or an entire novel.”

Indeed, for a long period I was so gob-smacked by the writing of authors such as Winton and McEwan that I believed I’d never create anything that met my own quality-assurance checks, let alone match the lofty standards set by others. And so I didn’t write.

What changed? I guess I got older and the urge to create stories didn’t go away. I found myself briefly unemployed in 2001 and it seemed as good a time as any to have another try. I also realised I didn’t have to match others’ talents – just do the best I could with my own.

Besides, there are lots of readers and infinite reading tastes. Hopefully someone would connect with the stories I wrote.

Fast forward to 2008. It was fantastic to have Game as Ned made a Children’s Book Council of Australia Notable Book. It was just as good to get a load of letters from students who said they generally didn’t like reading but loved GAN (even though they were made to read it at school.)

Anyway the reason for this post is I’ve just finished Before I Die by UK author Jenny Downham. It’s a prize-winning debut novel for young adults about a 16-year old dying of leukaemia. It’s brilliant. I reckon every human being aged 15-16 and up should read it.

Why? Because the narrator, Tessa, is so full of life, so appreciative of the beauty and tragedy she witnesses in every waking moment, so desperate to experience and learn and grow. Tessa is an inspiration. A reminder to us all not to take things for granted. To live well and leave the planet a better place for our existence.

I’ll be thinking of Tessa the next time I try to create a character that’s worth reading about. It’s a big ask but we should always aim high.