When I read, I hope to learn things, if not directly, then by a mysterious osmosis anyone who has claimed to be a writer—you know who you are—is, at least, vaguely aware of. We hope to better ourselves vicariously, so we read good books, or books by authors we admire, which are not always good books, no matter what we might say in their defence. We hope to gain wisdom, ideas, new words, new turns of phrase, or just some respite from our own hapless word processer scribbles, written like scripture one moment and tormenting us like imps the next.
Dead into winter, I kindled a bromance with Michael Chabon, whom I am nearly certain is also Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips (incidentally, both having significant ties to Pittsburgh), over orange chicken and fried rice, while he elaborated on his childhood, adolescence, and essential experiences as a man, Jew, writer, and divorced and remarried father of four. Aptly, Manhood for Amateurs. Not unusual that I would be blazing through personal essays. Rare that they would be essays by a straight, white, middle-class man who doesn’t bother me with a lot of politics or religion. Instead, Legos and comic books.
Chabon is the man I aspire to be, or maybe just the writer; and, now, I am backtracking his novels to see what I can glean. I am not far; I am one-third through The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. That is all. But in those 140 pages, I have discovered what in four years (sort of) of English studies and the twenty or so years since I picked up—oh, let’s say—I Am a Puppy has failed to sink in: the power of the simile. There is memorable and lively cadence to the language Chabon uses in his story about a midlife detective in the Jewish district of Sitka, Alaska. And it took me this long to get the hint.
I think it’s because I’ve read (and written) so many bad similes, I’ve just become afraid of them, fearing like and as as if one were the reaper and the other fear itself. The more I think, the more I think similes are the vague mystery as to why some writing is just good and some writing is just not, rather the quality of the similes, like coffee beans to a decent americano. (And now you’re all going back through and counting my similes. Don’t worry, I have, too, and there are four.) If I’ve ever written a compelling simile before now, it was a fluke, an anomaly, because I have never put them into practice, preferring the ubiquity of the metaphor and a litany of adjectives to develop a scene. Recognizing the error of my ways, this is repentance. This is reformation.