Between the kitchen clothes rack and barometer, a door opened into my father's bedroom. It was a room of disorder and disarray It was as if the wind which so often clamoured about the house succeeded in entering this single room and after whipping it into turmoil stole quietly away to renew its knowing laughter from without.
My father's bed was against the south wall, it always looked rumpled and unmade because he lay on top of it more than he slept within any folds it might have had. Beside it, there was a little brown table. An archaic goose-necked reading light, a battered table radio, a mound of wooden matches, one or two packages of tobacco, a deck of cigarette papers and an overflowing ashtray cluttered its surface. The brown larvae of tobacco shreds and the grey flecks of ash covered both the table and the floor beneath it. The once-varnished surface of the table was disfigured by numerous black scars and gashes inflicted by the neglected burning cigarettes of many years. They had tumbled from the ashtray unnoticed and branded their statements permanently and quietly into the wood until the odour of their burning caused the snuffing out of their lives. At the bed's foot there was a single window which looked upon the sea.
Excerpt from Alistair MacLeod's The Boat
I will be analysing the above excerpt from MacLeod's short story The Boat along with the excerpts from Don Delillo's White Noise and Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian. All three of these texts place the reader within the story (the feeling of presence) by using extremely specific descriptive language, that is mostly simple and a constructively obtuse. The descriptive language used by all three is rooted in simple, clear language with very specific and precise description added not to make the language “flowery” but rather to situate the reader very intentionally within the story's specific presence.
None of the three excerpts use obscure language. Delillo uses some scientific words such as “hydrocarbons” and “benzines”, MacLeod uses another more accessible scientific word in “barometer” and McCarthy uses the word “changeling” in reference to the landscape. This is as obtuse and obscure as specific words are in any of the excerpts. While the language is not simple in the sense of a newspaper's limited vocabulary, but rather the lack of intentionally obscure words. Rather the descriptions that establish atmosphere and the presence of the novel come from uncommon descriptive pairings.
All three authors describe the specific tensions in the excerpts by humanizing physical and geographic surroundings. McCarthy describes “the mountains on the sudden skyline stark and black and livid like a land of some other order out there whose true geology was not stone but fear”. The mountains are livid and they are made of fear, both personified in ways that establish uneasy tensions. MacLeod describes a room in which “the wind which so often clamoured about the house succeeded in entering this single room and after whipping it into turmoil stole quietly away”. The wind is given agency and is able to disturb the house in ghost-like fashion, creating a sense of otherworldliness in the father's bedroom. Finally we see Delillo describe a toxic cloud as an “enormous dark mass moved like some death ship in a Norse legend”. The toxic cloud also has agency here, steering the ship towards unknown and unforeseeable destinations, adding to the awe and uncertainty later described in the excerpt.
The aforementioned examples all establish some level of unease and impeding sense of doom to some extent. The sense of unease is not immediate in MacLeod's excerpt, but MacCarthy's and Delillo's both establish this impeding sense of doom quite firmly. The thunder in MacCarthy's excerpt evokes a demon kingdom and instils fear in the men of the wagons while Delillo's toxic air mass is terrible and threatening making the characters feel helpless. The unease and disorder of MacLeod's bedroom is established through disfigured tables with gashes and ash, and the rumpled and untidy bed which is barely even slept in as the sheets are referred to as the “folds it might have had”. Beds are supposed to be slept in, so the presence of this ugly and disfigured bedroom gives the feeling it belies what it is truly used for.
All of this establishes the presence and the tones of the excerpts. The language and descriptions of the physical surroundings combine to make the reader feel the scene in their gut. The overriding feeling of unease permeates the excerpts and the cumulative effect of the language establishes the feeling that something bad is going to happen in all of the stories. Although all three excerpt ends with a transition of subject focus (from the mountains to the men, the cloud to the kids, and the bedroom to the sea), only McCarthy's remains just as tumulus. The men are fearful and another “prayed for rain” continuing the ominous tone of the excerpt. The other two switch subject focus, and individually are innocuous (children fighting in a car, the view of the sea from the window) but both of the excerpts' innocence are tainted by the presence of the excerpt. We do not think of the children as joyous and we do not feel comfort looking out at the sea.
Utilizing the previous critical analysis of the examples of “shimmering” writing I will attempt to write prose that possess 'presence' as well.
The midday sun bore down on his fleshy skin, pulling it taught like dyed red leather, yet unrecognizable in the glare. The migraine glare that pulsates through your eyes into the back of your retinas, and is not disturbed by any sunglasses, branded polarized or not. The silence of the ocean would have frightened him save for the inescapable blue sky, and he was acutely aware of his own breathing. Looking down at the pool his eyes followed the light from the crystal shallows to the endless depth of the cove. The shallows were clear enough to see the hairs on your feet but did not feel pristine. Charcoal rock run jagged along the borders of the pool and up the cliff into the fauna. Protruding stones from the cliff face displayed a natural climbing wall that proceeded to overhang the cove.
The girl jumped in, growing impatient from the heat.