Books October 2006

A Close Read

What makes good writing good
It was clear that his sense of his own worth had ballooned since they had seen him last. His movements were slower and more rounded, and there was a new quality of ripeness in his way of speaking, as if he were listening to himself through headphones. He was trying on the part of the distinguished man.

—from Breakable You, by Brian Morton (Harcourt)

Morton, like the character from whose point of view this passage is written, recognizes that meaning is expressed mostly through subtleties—choice of words, tone of voice, posture— rather than grand speeches and gestures. The verb ballooned is inspired, suggesting, as it does, puffed-up-ness and hot air; after all, it’s not the man’s worth that has expanded, but merely his sense of that worth (at least in the eyes of his observer). Morton milks significance from the finest of perceptions: the “slower,” “rounded” movements and the “ripeness” of speech. Rounded is also visually linked to ballooned and aurally, through alliteration, to ripeness, so the general observation of the first sentence and the specific details that follow work gracefully together, beyond the level of meaning. Morton is especially skilled with subtle humor: the image of someone “listening to himself through headphones” nails the ridiculous pomposity of a man who is not distinguished, but is merely “trying on the part.”

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