Over the top?

Figurative language is a tricky thing. It can be tremendously evocative, or it can call attention to itself too insistently. Some critics have seen the late John Updike’s writing as sometimes coming perilously close to the line; usually the images seem fresh and insightful, other times they arrest the progress of your reading, like precious jewels embedded in the text.

Other writers — Alice Munro, for example ¬†— rarely strike people this way, even though what they write has plenty of figurative language in it.

And then there are cases where I’m just not sure.

[I picked out Updike and Munro here because they both give me pleasure, but in different ways. In truth, I think I’d prefer sustained reading of Munro over Updike. But it’s hard for me to be objective about Updike: he’s a Landsmann, who grew up a few miles from and a few years before me, shared a history at the Reading Eagle newspaper with me, wrote about local scenes in his early writing, and did the same shift from small-town Pennsylvania to the Ivy League that I did. (Since I have my own blog now, and can post on all sorts of things, maybe I should tell the story of how John Updike in a sense got me my job at the Eagle. Stay tuned.)]

I was struck on Wednesday to read the following passage in Dwight Garner’s NYT review of Frances Wilson’s The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth: A Life (p. C1):

So much, yet so little, is known about Dorothy Wordsworth that she is impossibly attractive to biographers and scholars, who glide down her empty expanses like skiers, some of them leaping from helicopters to explore the stranger, more forbidding peaks.

I’ve bold-faced the material that gave me pause. Is it over the top? Well, I’m not entirely comfortable with it. “Her empty expanses” and “more forbidding peaks” have worrisome echoes of (female) sexuality, the skiing imagery strikes me as ostentatious, and the helicopters are a big bold surprise. (Also, “leaping from helicopters” reminded me, unfortunately, of “jumping the shark”.)

But I certainly noticed the passage.

Later on, a different sort of figure, syllepsis:

As the years passed, their roles reversed. He began to take care of her as she became addicted to opium and laudanum, grew fat, lost her teeth and eventually her mind.

(Again, the notable bit is bold-faced.)

Of course, this is a book review in the NYT, and writers can be expected to show off their stuff.

(I’m leaving comments open. But please, please, don’t just add comments giving your opinions of John Updike and Alice Munro — the people, or their works.)

5 Responses to “Over the top?”

  1. jlundell Says:

    Let us not miss an opportunity to quote the immortal Jagger and Richards: “She blew my nose and then she blew my mind.”

  2. Jan Freeman Says:

    I kind of like the adventurousness (as it were) of the whole big metaphor, but the syntax bothers me: “some of them leaping from helicopters” makes it sound like the jumpers-from-helicopters are meant to be a subset of the downhill-gliding skiers. If they are, that’s too sudden a switch from hillside to helicopter to visualize comfortably. If they aren’t, the reference (“some of them”) isn’t clear.

  3. arnoldzwicky Says:

    To jlundell: Just mentioning syllepsis seems to prompt people to contribute their favorite examples. The topic has come up on Language Log many times; one representative posting (with nice examples from Flanders and Swann) is here.

  4. jlundell Says:

    The Flanders & Swann is indeed quite fine. What I was struck by in this particular example, though, was the common notion of verbing some other body part and one’s mind.

  5. Rick S Says:

    I confess to having, on occasion, invented a metaphor that captured my fancy, only to ruin it by elaborating it to the point of absurdity. There is indeed a fine line between using metaphor to elucidate an idea and taking your audience on a side trip down a blind alley. I’d have to say this one strikes me as the latter.

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