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Thursday, June 10, 2010

Have I Got Your Attention Now?

"Defamiliarization" is a technique whereby artists force their audiences to look at familiar things and ideas in new, unfamiliar ways. The term was coined by Russian author and critic Victor Shklovsky in his 1917 essay "Art as Technique," in which he distinguished between poetic and practical language: language used to describe or explain, as opposed to language used to impart perceptions or heighten existing ones.

Poets and poetic artists typically use defamiliartzation to breathe fresh life into thinks ordinary and banal. Similes and metaphors work this way. When Lorrie Moore compares a mother's face to "a big white dumpling of worry" or Richard Brautigan compares a dish of ice cream to "Kafka's hat," they force us to look at something familiar in an unfamiliar way. We're momentarily disoriented—shocked, even—but then we say to ourselves, "Yes, yes: I see it now."

Here, defamiliarization is used exclusively for shock value: not to impart a fresh way of looking at things, but to catch the reader off-guard and keep him that way. It's not the first time that literature has furnished us with examples of men and lions confronting each other at close quarters (the most notorious being Yan Martel's The Life of Pie, where they do so across an ocean in a lifeboat). But the man sitting across the table from the narrator is not a lion; he is Big Sid, a hospital orderly with a taste for lager who stands (but presumably doesn't sit) a foot taller than his companion. Otherwise, unless we count bunched shoulder muscles and blazing eyes, there's nothing especially lion-like about him.

Which is all right, assuming that the comparison isn't meant to be symbolic or even poetic, but is a literal description of a hallucination—a possibility that the narrator himself raises in the fourth paragraph. In which case it won't be the first time that literature has given us an hallucinating mental hospital orderly, either: the most famous of those being Chief Bromden, the narrator of Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, who witnesses events through an hallucinatory, psychotropic-drug induced fog. But the hallucinatory explanation here is quickly cast aside; indeed, in the rest of the passage the narrator pretty much shrugs off the whole lion analogy, which near the bottom of the page gives a little roar with the words "Bloody predator," but otherwise makes itself scarce.

The solution, I think, is either to jettison the analogy completely, or weave it more thoroughly in to the description of Sid, to emphasize his leonine features so that we readers, too, will see him as his narrator does, rather than have the comparison imposed on us.

As it stands what brings Big Sid to life in this opening isn't the narrator's shock-tactic metaphor, but Sid's strong dialogue ("I'm in charge of the loony bin, Pete. My cabbage patch.") in conjunction with his actions ("He chugged beer, burped, and carried on."). As a character Big Sid speaks well for himself; he doesn't need a lion to roar for him.


  1. I see that I have not managed to convey the beliefs of the San people clearly enough. Pete has recently been reminded of the old belief that power hungry domineering people are possessed by lion spirits. This type of behaviour is regarded as highly anti-social, and lions are not regarded as being in any way benevolent or admirable.
    The intent is to show a different unfamiliar belief system, to see people in light of their 'spirit affinity'
    Later in the book this theme is expanded.

  2. Phillip--

    You treat those beliefs in a throw-away line in the fourth paragraph, where you equate them with acid flashbacks, so this reader shrugged them off when instead they turn out to be not only key to understanding the moment but to grasping one of your book's fundamental themes. Why not have your narrator spell it out more or less as you have here and not dismissively?

  3. Yes, probably the approach I need to take. Thank you. Would have to either
    a) go back to the conversation with John alluded to
    b)some longer internal monologue
    Probably best to take a run at both approaches, see which works better.
    At this point Pete does not 'buy in' to this belief system, something he vaguely remembers from very early childhood. Through the course of the novel he becomes more attuned to the world view of some older family members. He is dismissive, even a bit contemptuous, here as an 18 yr old just finished A levels etc, though he does dislike the attitudes Sid displays. He does not yet realize how his own deeply engrained core attitudes stem from the old beliefs.
    P.S. After this page is a bit closer to perfect only another 70k words to upgrade to the same standard.