New Fiction December 2005

A Close Read

What makes good writing good

"The most desirable neighborhoods remained those anchored on Monument Square by big, old two- or three-story houses built in the late 1800s or the early years of the 1900s. For decades those houses were the idea of home that everyone in Washburn held on to no matter where else in town he or she actually lived. After the war, however, the grown children returning to the area found they no longer yearned to acquire or to remain in the spacious, shadowy rooms of those tall houses standing among even taller trees. Shrouded in shady repose, those handsome buildings embodied an old-fashioned approach to living one's life that nullified the clean rush of postwar urgency. The clipped gables, the spear of a conical tower, the vari-patterned, beautiful but brittle old slate roofs, the gingerbread of a Victorian porch—all the elaborate details—bespoke careful consideration and a ponderous progression that put a damper on a newly roused enthusiasm for getting on with things." —from The Truth of the Matter, by Robb Forman Dew (Little, Brown)

Dew uses concrete detail to animate an abstract concept, achieving a style as solid and direct as the well-intentioned World War II-era midwesterners about whom she writes. Her observation about the height of Washburn's turn-of-the-century houses, and the way that observation links them to the surrounding trees, emphasizes their rootedness: they move upward rather than forward. Other words nail down their static quality—"remained," "anchored," "held on to," "standing," "repose." This she contrasts with the "urgency," the "rush," and the "roused enthusiasm" of the new era. The old (Dew repeats that word three times) is "shadowy," "shrouded," and "shady," while the new is "clean." As befits their labor-intensiveness, the old houses command all the description, and the language with which Dew interprets the details she presents—"careful consideration" and "ponderous progression"—is fittingly leaden. Meanwhile, the new places to live and the new way of living are still so insubstantial that they can only be gestured at with a loose, vague, casual phrase: "getting on with things." The fact that progress speeds time has not gone unnoted in literature, but here the old, refreshingly, wields some power—at least to nullify and dampen—if the new does not watch out.

Presented by

Christina Schwarz is the author of the novels Drowning Ruth and All Is Vanity.

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