A Close Read

What makes good writing good

By Christina Schwarz

"Beyond the town, along the coast, I could see the pale brown frill of sand that edged the great folds of land as they knelt down into the sea.

'You can see our house,' said Adam.

He pointed to the right, where the tiny grid of streets fanned out into a big red delta of new housing that had spread east from the compact center of the town like something slowly being disgorged. I followed the direction of his finger through the ranks of little boxes, each neatly summed up on a square of green. From a distance it looked like a circuitry board. I couldn't distinguish Adam's house from the others, though I wanted to: I had left Hamish there with Adam's wife, Lisa, and their baby. I hadn't intended to do this. My plans for Hamish had been vaguely incorporeal: I had imagined him following me around, unbodied, free of want, but as soon as we arrived Lisa had placed him implacably under her own jurisdiction, like an empire appropriating a small, suitable colony." —from In the Fold, by Rachel Cusk (Little, Brown)

Two metaphors and three similes in the space of eight sentences might easily unbalance a lesser writer's work, but though Cusk uses figurative language liberally, she does so with a light touch and an intellectual precision that makes the figures work exactly as they ought: to economically and gracefully expand the meaning of the passage well beyond its literal limits. Simile alone—"like something slowly being disgorged"—reveals the narrator's distaste for the new development in which his friend lives. Whereas Cusk compares the land itself to a woman in a skirt, she makes the housing impersonal—identical "little boxes," places where electrical impulses might come together, not human beings. (In so doing she pulls off the risky trick of using three distinct images—a delta, regurgitation, and an electrical system—to characterize the same sight.) Her sentence structures neatly mirror her meaning: the metaphor describing the land meeting the sea, with its scallops of pretty phrases, is lyrical, but the simile that compares the development to a circuitry board is as flat as the edges of the boxes and squares to which it refers. Lisa, mistress of one of the new houses, is also, from the narrator's point of view, somewhat inhuman here; yet unlike the houses, which are less than they ought to be, she is far greater than any individual woman. "Jurisdiction," "empire," "appropriating," "colony"—her behavior, as she effortlessly takes control of the narrator's small son, inspires a raft of legal and political terms.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2005/11/a-close-read/304319/