Sunday, January 31, 2016

Things Described, Things Evoked

 Some writers you've read have what seems to you the uncanny ability to describe inanimate things in ways that cause them to come to vivid life in your imagination.  You can in effect see the cogs of the gears, meshing, transferring movement and direction to some gadget or device you previously took at fact value.  A can opener, of course, opens cans. An internal combustion machine roars into action when you turn a key.

Such a writer is John McPhee, whom you first encountered when one of his many books was published in extract form in the New Yorker.  McPhee will take something as ordinary as a canoe or the state of Alaska, or tectonic plates, then find ways to demonstrate them in some form of action to the point where you and thousands of other readers are able to experience the thing as though it were alive.

In some ways, this reminds you of a pet turtle you once had, which you carried about with you in a match box, taking him--in your innocence of turtles and the innocence of your age, you assumed it was a he--out to feed lettuce or cabbage leaves and the occasional dead fly you'd find in window sills.  McPhee's presentations took description to a level you were aware of, envied, of course attempted to duplicate, all in hopes your descriptions did not emerge as mere descriptions.

Another writer, this time a fiction writer, also had this ability.  Theodore Sturgeon seemed to be able to make automobiles and trucks come to the same kind of life horses and beasts of burden came to life. Once, when he was in your office and he more or less had to converse with you because you were about to contract a novel from him, you asked him about how he was so able to bring forth the "thinginess" of things.  He seemed to like that.  In his subsequent muttering and wish to get back to a discussion of the novel he wanted to write, he left you with a remark you treasure to this day.  "You have to care about the way things work, whether the things are people or not."

Sturgeon has been gone as a person since 1985, but such were his abilities that he is still quite around as a force or dimension, which McPhee also has, as well as a number of writers you've been following lately, Francine Prose, Deborah Eisenberg, Cynthia Ozick, and Lorrie Moore.

Each of these stands out in your opinion because of their ability to begin describing something, then move past mere description to the point where situations and feelings are evoked. You value this ability of evocation because of a discovery you'd made some time ago wherein mere description seems one- or two-dimensional and, in consequence, lackluster in comparison to dramatic presence.

Joan Didion seems to have this quality as well, writing about herself seeing something, perhaps even seeing herself in a situation, causing unexpected dimensions to appear much like the rabbits and birds of magical acts appear.

A described thing is tangible, bordering on visual, but as yet with no anima or motivating presence behind it.  Somehow, in talking about a canoe, McPhee brings you to seeing it in context with a lake or river, the sun bouncing off its sides, of which you'd become aware earlier when he took you through the process of the sides being fitted in place.

Niche publishing brings the advantage of hobbyists or devoted amateurs following subjects of interest to them with a passion beyond mere description. When you are out in the world or at a newsstand, you are bombarded by a reality in which hobbyists and devoted amateurs speak of their passions, already having passed the point of caring about their subject.

Yesterday, as you sipped breakfast coffee at the Lucky Llama in Carpinteria, a woman caught you watching, then feeding a common house finch.  "That's a linnet," she said.  "Yes," you said.  "House finch."  "Ah, I see you know your birds."  "No, I don't.  only a few."  "But you must.  There are so many birds to know.  Could you limit yourself to only a few words of vocabulary?"

Of a sudden, she evoked the notion of the avid birder.  You were entranced with your linnet and the croissant you were sharing with it.  For a moment or two, you were in an evoked world rather than the described one.  And you found yourself hoping you'd know what to do with it.

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