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Figurative language and David Mitchell’s Thousand Autumns

August 19, 2010

As I read what I’ve written so far of my novel, one thing that stands out, and not in a good way, is the figurative language I’ve used. Some of it works but most, especially anything I’ve extended, makes me cringe. I love metaphors and similes so it’s embarrassing to see how badly they’re coming off.

“Timo was angry still but his anger had weakened like a tea bag dropped into a second cup of hot water.”

I was trying very hard to describe weakened anger but maybe that’s what led to the problem. I did not succeed in what I’m thinking now is more important: making my character denser or fuller (Timo is not a tea drinker), enhancing the emotional context, or moving the scene along. In fact, the scene comes to a stop because you notice the metaphor. It sticks out, like a thin branch on a trail, and whips you in the face. (I couldn’t resist…)

I haven’t started rewriting yet, but when I do I’ll be thinking more globally. Douglas Glover, in his essay “Notes on Novel Structure,” discusses imagery and the effect produced by the repetition of an image. Images can by loaded, associated, juxtaposed, splintered, and tied in, making novels more poetic and cohesive. (from Words Overflown by Stars, 83).

Here I turn to David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.  Where Mitchell’s verbs astonish and invigorate (more on that in another post), his metaphors and similes slide quietly into place. What follows is a list, lightly categorized, of some of the figurative language that was particularly lovely and effective.

General context of time and place (Japan, 1800):

“The wind passes through Flag Square, soft as a robe’s hem” (165).

“The ten-day-old boy’s petal-soft hand clenches and unclenches” (283).

Specific context of a character

“The rarefied sunset turns the snow-veined Bare Peak a bloodied fish pink, and the evening star is as sharp as a needle” (197).

“The wind rattles the cloisters’ wooden screens like a deranged prisoner” (244).

The context of both of the above: the monastery at Mt. Shiranui where Orito the midwife is being held captive.

“The leaves shuffle like paper. The path ends at a noisy river, brown and thick like Dutchmen’s tea” (302).

“The night is an indecipherable manuscript” (311)

“He wishes the human mind were a scroll that could be rolled up…” (311)

The context of the above three is Uzaemon’s journey to try to liberate Orito. (Uzaemon is a Dutch translator and scribe.)

Metaphor associated with the main character, Jacob, a clerk

“De Zoet’s mind words an abacus of implications” (280).

“Anger and self-pity are lodged in his throat like fish bones” (172).

“…he feels as though a fish bone is lodged in his throat…” (470).

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