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?