New Fiction May 2006

A Close Read

What makes good writing good
More
“More and more toast, slice after slice, wholewheat and heavy and lavish with butter—even Beth chews and swallows and reaches for more until soon a whole loaf has, like Philip, vanished. Crumbs lie scattered over three black laps and the pine tabletop and the blue-tiled floor at their feet, and still they are hungry. People don’t stock groceries with such ravenous emergencies in mind, so when their collective desires shift to the sweet they do not have on hand the chocolate ice cream, vanilla cakes, muffins flecked with raisins, cookies stuffed with jam, also butter tarts, also cinnamon rolls, that they crave. Even Beth lusts after sugar despite considering sugar, like coffee, ruinous.”

—from Luck, by Joan Barfoot (Carroll & Graf)

Barfoot’s writing is exuberant, packed with active verbs. Beth doesn’t merely eat; she “chews and swallows and reaches.” The author’s use of past participles, verbs transformed into adjectives, peps up her list of sweets: “muffins flecked with raisins, cookies stuffed with jam.” In general, she keeps her adjectives basic and unqualified, giving them the boldness of primary colors or whole notes: “black,” “pine,” “blue-tiled,” “chocolate,” “vanilla,” “butter,” “cinnamon.” Her repetition of “more and more,” “slice after slice,” and “wholewheat” and “whole,” her plethora of “and”s in the first sentence, her unconventional repetition of the word “also” in the penultimate sentence—they all mimic the abundance she describes, as does her use of lists in every sentence but the last. She composes these with an admirable ear, artfully grouping similar structures but often shifting those structures so that the effect is both lavish—to borrow one of her pleasing words—and lively. More subtly, Barfoot links the lavish loaf and the vanished Philip by using words similar in sound, and calls attention to the ties among “lust,” “sugar,” and “ruinous” in the final sentence by repeating the letter “u.” “Ruinous” also echoes “ravenous,” a transferred epithet that is disconcerting syntactically, just as the loss of Philip is existentially.

Christina Schwarz is the author of the novels Drowning Ruth and All Is Vanity.
Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

A Fascinating Short Film About the Multiverse

If life is a series of infinite possibilities, what does it mean to be alive?


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

The Death of Film

You'll never hear the whirring sound of a projector again.

Video

How to Hunt With Poison Darts

A Borneo hunter explains one of his tribe's oldest customs: the art of the blowpipe

Video

A Delightful, Pixar-Inspired Cartoon

An action figure and his reluctant sidekick trek across a kitchen in search of treasure.

Video

I Am an Undocumented Immigrant

"I look like a typical young American."

Video

Why Did I Study Physics?

Using hand-drawn cartoons to explain an academic passion

Writers

Up
Down

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In