My book club chose the historical fiction novel The Paying Guests, by Sarah Waters (published in September 2014) as our November read. My book club meets tonight to discuss this book, so I’m ordering my thoughts in advance, in hopes of sounding witty and dashing with my insightful commentary.
(Side Note #1: I’ve never been called witty or dashing in my life. So I should probably say “I’m blogging about this so I don’t sound dumb” and that would be more accurate.)
I discovered a whole new realm of personal ignorance while reading this book.
Not about the setting or the story, which follows a young woman facing hardship and a very difficult intimate relationship in 1922 London — no, I wasn’t ignorant about 1922 London or difficult intimate relationships — I was ignorant about Sarah Waters, who has been short-listed for the Man Booker Prize three times, and always writes about lesbians in her work.
I didn’t even know she existed before reading this book. (!!!)
Here’s a picture of Sarah Waters, famous writer of lesbians —
The New York Times article about Ms. Waters, “Weaving a Tale of Love and Death in London” by Sarah Lyall (Sept. 9, 2014) helped rectify some of my ignorance about the author. “Ms. Waters did not really set out to be a novelist, nor, in truth, did she know right away she was a lesbian. She grew up in a small town in Wales, where there was minimal acknowledgment of gayness, let alone gayness involving women.” “She had a girlfriend — secretly — in college, and then came out in earnest in the late ’80s. She moved to London, found a room in a ‘lesbian group house,’ wrote for lesbian publications and was swept up in an exciting, activist political movement.”
By now, if you haven’t yet read The Paying Guests, you can probably guess that the main character is a lesbian, and falls in love with another woman in the story. This took me completely by surprise, since the main character initially has more contact with a man in the story. Plus, there seemed to be a lot more electric tension/sexual frisson when the man was involved in a scene, rather than the other woman.
My favorite line from the novel (which is 564 pages long) comes very early, on p. 21, and involves the main character alone in her bedroom, after she’s stripped off her clothes in preparation for sleep. (Side Note #2: In the passage I quote, it’s the second sentence I love so much, since the first one is loaded with the most reprehensible pronoun of all — it — but I’m including the first sentence for clarity.)
My pick for best sentence:
“She rolled a neat little fag, lit it by the flame of her candle, climbed into bed with it, then blew the candle out. She liked to smoke like this, naked in the cool sheets, with only the hot red tip of a cigarette to light her fingers in the dark.”
There’s a delicious sensuality in that line, a sensuality I hoped would build and build through the novel —
But no. It didn’t.
At least, not for me.
After the beautiful image of this woman smoking naked in bed, I thought sensuality was pretty much non-existent in this book, though Ms. Waters does describe the sex scenes (which come much later) with carefully chosen detail, leaving no doubt in the reader’s mind as to what the two main characters do when they bang.
For me, the opening scenes were the story’s best. One involved this beautiful description of the food Frances (the main character) and her love interest (Mrs Barber) take on a picnic, their first extended period of time alone together. “Mrs Barber had made finger-rolls, pin-wheel sandwiches, miniature jam tarts: the sort of fiddly dainties written about in the women’s magazines that Frances now and then read over shoulders on the bus. She herself had brought hard-boiled eggs, radishes from the garden, salt in a twist of paper, half a round of seed cake and a bottle of sugarless tea, swaddled in a dish-cloth to keep it hot.” (p. 91)
Such a fabulous collection of foods, no? I love the details as well as the contrasts between them. Very lovely.
As to this picnic — these two women are not very far from Frances’s house — they’re in a little park down the street from the home where most of the story takes place. I really liked all of the details about this first tiny trip they take together; the whole scene was beautifully done.
One thing I didn’t feel in this book was desire. Meaning: I didn’t desire the person Frances desired (Mrs Barber).
[Side note #3: in British English, periods aren’t needed after titles, so that’s why Mrs is written without one. In case anyone worried I wasn’t paying attention, or was watching more Honest Trailers while I blog.]
As to my lack of desire for Mrs Barber, I pondered my lack a great deal.
Because I usually feel a lot of desire for people in love stories. Even the reserved and understated prose of literary fiction can often rouse me to swooniness.
But I felt nothing for Mrs Barber, perhaps because I always saw her as an inferior person, lacking the intellect needed to be arousing. Frances was stronger and smarter than Mrs Barber in every way, and I’m a love-at-first-brain kind of girl. Give me a smart and interesting character, and I am instantly attracted. No matter what a character is feeling, I always have insta-love for characters with brains.
(My one exception to this rule is Enrique Iglesias, who is so adorable, I could rock him in my arms like a doll baby for hours on end, he looks like a four-year-old to me, I don’t know why this is but he does have a baby face, just the prettiest lil face, he is the only person who could be a complete numbnut around me and I would still want to cuddle him and stare at his eyelashes and other weird stuff, like scratch his chin and pinch his cheeks. I don’t even want to know what kind of person he is in real life; some of the songs he sings are so skeezy I can only imagine how he is probably the last person on earth I should rock in my arms like a doll baby, but even so. He is just too much cuteness.)
Seriously — look at that baby face! He is like the man-version of a fluffball kitten, and I am like, come here, little kitty, I want to cuddle you and scratch your lil chin —
Which is a very different feeling than saying, come here, I want to bang you, (which is how Frances and Mrs Barber feel about each other) — because Enrique would have to do something really brainy for me to feel sexually attracted to him. It’s only my cuddle drive that Enrique flips on — and men do NOT like it when you treat them like kittens. They also don’t appreciate hearing they have the baby face of a four-year-old. *emasculating*
So I would totally fail with Enrique Iglesias. He’d be like, “Get away from me, you psycho!!” and he would be right.
But back to my lack of desire in The Paying Guests — both for Mrs Barber, as well as for Frances.
The desire I felt in the beginning for Frances (which began with that beautiful line about her sitting naked in her sheets) — well, that initial attraction just got totally pummelled to death by the needs of the plot, which takes a very grim turn by page 288.
Now, I don’t want to spoil the book, so I won’t share any details, but if anyone does want spoilers they should just read this review by Carol Anshaw and then you’ll know everything that happens. Sometimes NYT book reviews share way too much of the plot than I think they should, and this review falls into that category.
So rather than spoil the plot, I’ll say that once the story takes its grim turn, the pages spared no grisly detail, and the reading felt punishing. Then Frances and Mrs Barber do some foolish things, because they are human, and very weak and fragile and scared, and the story grew even more punishing to read.
Then the story turns into a police procedural/courtroom-type drama, and by then, I grew very fatigued by the super-slow pace. This is a long, long book. The main characters are cowardly (and very, very human), and the book just wasn’t entertainment anymore. I wasn’t swept away in a story, but felt like I was receiving a beating, until finally, by the last one or two hundred pages, I gave myself permission to start skimming. I paused to read the important lines, to follow the plot, but I didn’t force myself to read every word.
It was challenging to read a courtroom-type drama written with the abundance of minutiae this author continued to pour into the story. It probably doesn’t help that I am not a Law and Order fan (I so rarely watch TV) and I don’t read John Grisham (I read his first book, and called it good) and I just don’t find courtroom dramas to be all that compelling. I’m a philistine, obviously, and I’d rather eat cinnamon rice pudding and watch J.J. Abrams’s Star Trek for the fiftieth time than read courtroom thriller/dramas involving lawyers and people facing the consquences of either 1.) their actions, or 2.) being wrongly accused by the law.
But one thing I do know about Law and Order and courtroom thriller/dramas — they are meant to move fast. And The Paying Guests actually seems to slow down even more after things take a grim turn by page 288.
The women in this book dress up for a party though (in the first half of the book), so here is a fashionable 1920s woman —
That belt is just all kinds of lovely, no? I love low-fitting belts, especially sparkly ones. And those sleeves!! And her hookah-like feather-wand!! She can come party at my house any day.
As to the ending of The Paying Guests, I would like to share the second half of the closing line. I do not want to share the whole sentence, as it would give the ending away, so I will just share half of it, to illustrate that the book ends with a truly beautiful sentence: “… the two of them in their stone corner, their dark clothes bleeding into the dusk, lights being kindled across the city, and a few pale stars in the sky.” (p. 564)
Sarah Waters does one of my favorite things great writers do in that sentence — in craft terms, I call it a mash-up. When you take words that don’t normally go together and make meaning with them.
Ms. Waters has “clothes bleeding” (we all know clothes can’t bleed, but what lovely imagery for the falling darkness!) and she has the electric lights of the city being “kindled” like a young fire, and she describes the stars as “pale.” (An orginal use of an adjective definitely qualifies as a mash-up. Poets are the best at mash-ups, and literary fiction authors are long-form poets at heart.)
There was one other place in the book where a mash-up stood out, and I’ll quote only part of the line: “… people… attracted by the horror and glamour of murder” (p.404). Putting horror and glamour together makes for a very nice mash-up.
Time for another 1920s fashionista pic —
Nothing like a fur stole to scream: I am elegant, damnit! And frivolous! Do you know how much my clothes cost? Do you??
Plus the orangey-brown shade of that dress just seems all kind of decadent.
Since I don’t work for a publishing company, don’t edit manuscripts professionally, don’t teach at an MFA program, and do not even possess an MFA, I lack any credentials to be discussing important aspects of craft like mash-ups. But I will discuss this anyway, because this is my blog, and I am the CEO of my blog.
You might have already guessed that similes and metaphors — the real heart of what makes exquisite writing so stunning to read — are also examples of mash-ups. But similes and metaphors need other words to work — for instance, most metaphors need a linking verb like “was” in their phrasing — for example, Her heart was the sea. Or, His smile was the sun. And similes must use the words like or as to operate: Her laugh filled the room like sweet music. Or, His laugh was low and dangerous as the growl of a leopard.
The simile and the metaphor (especially the metaphor! the mighty metaphor! *swoon*) may be the recognized kings of stunning prose (for good reason!), but mash-ups are the warrior armies who keep them so high on their thrones. Great writing is cumulative, and mash-ups build on each other, so that each subsequent mash-up (or simile, or metaphor) packs a stronger and stronger punch the further into the story you are.
Laini Taylor is particularly brilliant with mash-ups. Rainbow Rowell can wield them like a superhero as well. A mash-up condenses the language on the page, so the writer can say a whole lot with only a very few words. So this skill is highly prized, not only in literary fiction, but in YA fiction as well, where keeping your page count at 80,000 words is a huge goal. Laurie Halse Anderson’s YA novels Speak and Wintergirls are so short and succint because she is such a genius with mash-ups. Many YA authors are just omg amaze with this skill.
In thinking my own thoughts about mash-ups though, I had to turn to the man who defined the ways in which poetry works. Which means, I had to turn to Ezra Pound —
This is the part where my nonexistent MFA would *really* come in handy.
Because I’ve never studied Ezra Pound in any official capacity. Though I do know he turned into a horrible Hitler-promoting fascist and was tortured in a POW camp by being locked in a small metal cage, which gave him a mental breakdown. (Thanks, Wikipedia!)
Mr. Pound’s personal life aside, he had a lot of great things to say about how poetry works, and he used three words to describe the three different techniques he identified for using poetry to stimulate an emotional response in the reader: phanopoeia, melopoeia, and logopoeia.
(Yeah, I feel a bit squicked out just looking at the words. They just look icky, don’t they? Ick.)
But they are very cool, very useful words for writers to know.
I’ll quote mash-up king (and amazing literary fiction author) Ben Fountain to explain them:
“There’s phanopoeia, throwing an image on the reader’s mental retina, and there’s melopoeia, using the sounds of the words themselves to evoke some kind of emotion, and then there’s logopoeia, which is taking a word or a phrase and using it in a different context from what the reader is used to. Prose writers, at least this prose writer, would be well served to study the poets and see how they get that maximum compression, that maximum charge of meaning in each line.”
(That’s quoted from an interview Mr. Fountain gave in December 2009. I really want to meet Ben Fountain one day. Like, really. I want to meet him more than I want to cuddle Enrique Iglesias.)
Here is a picture of Ben Fountain, along with the cover of his brilliant *BRILLIANT* novel Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk —
That novel should have won the 2012 National Book Award but it didn’t because sometimes judges suck. Louise Erdrich beat him that year for The Round House (which I didn’t read because I am lame) but I STILL THINK Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk should have won!!!!
*I am two*
Okay, now that I have my sippy cup full of milk and a binky, let me return to the issue at hand — how poetry works, which is also how exquisite prose works, because exquisite prose writers have the heart of long-form poets. (Like Michael Ondaatje, who is da masta.)
Phanopoeia is what any decent writer can do — create pictures with words inside the reader’s brain. Which is extremely magical, and truly not that easy to do, but this is the foundation of craft right here, so any decent writer can pull this off.
Melopoeia is the next step up. This element of craft is the writer’s recognition of the music in language, and how to make music with sound. This is a part of writing that cannot be taught, because recognizing pitch, tone, and rhythm in a sentence is an innate skill people either do or do not have. Writing hits a person the way music does — it is sound and emotion combined — and people who are tone-deaf and have no rhythm at all to sense the pull and sway of words on a page are just never going to pen things that utilize melopoeia. They can write great commercial fiction with exciting plots and racing action, and they can make a lot of money, but melopoeia is something more, something that transcends plot, because this type of artistry with language is far more soulful than the clunky wang-bang-pow of plot.
Logopoeia is often an aspect of phanopoeia — creating pictures with words — and, at its best, logopoeia is making use of melopoeia — using sound for effect — and when logopoeia embraces both of the previous skills — well, I think this is where the masters hang out. The writers like Ben Fountain, and Laini Taylor, and Michael Ondaatje, and Arundhati Roy, and the other writers that put me in pleasure-comas when I read their books.
So let me get back to The Paying Guests, and tell you which techniques of craft I think Ms. Waters employed in her novel —
The book excelled at phanopoeia the most, as each scene in the book was rendered with lavish detail, and so much attention was given to each piece of the story that the novel felt very real, like I was reading a memoir penned by the main character, rather than a novel.
While Ms. Waters is certainly a master with language, the straightforward storytelling didn’t lend itself to much melopoeia in the prose. Frances doesn’t describe things to be sensual or enticing, but in a stiff-upper-lip British way, so the melopoeia in the prose of The Paying Guests was utilitarian, not poetic or swoony. Ms. Waters concentrated on word choice, no doubt about it, because this novel is a fine example of literary fiction — but this is not urgent, chaotic, tumbling melody, but careful, deliberate sentences hammered out like a fine copper box. All the thoughts inside are neatly ordered. These ducks are lined up in a row.
As for logopoeia, it was rare. I quoted the final line of the novel because it stood out to me as a prime example of the technique this book used the most sparingly.
It’s also the technique I prize in books more than any other. The red meat my bloodhound nose goes right after. Though perhaps I am more like those hogs who sniff out truffles, and while I read, I am like, grunt grunt grunt where are the truffles?? Truffles! truffles!! yummy yummy good stuff here I NEED TRUFFLES.
My spirit animal could totally be a truffle-hunting hog. My inner monster is quite happy being a food-seeking pig with a wicked good snout.
And also, this —
This frog is so ME I just get all loopy-happy looking at him. This is the Buddha of frogs. Plus, he has sparkly eyes, and I love him.