I’m reading Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood. I’m only at the beginning, a couple of chapters in, but it’s making me think about writing with a sort of precision, so that every word is perfect, every word counts. That’s what Atwood does, and it’s part of the reason she’s such a good writer. Every word she writes hits the target, at the center of the target.
I thought I would give you an example. These are the first three paragraphs of the first chapter:
“I am sitting on the purple velvet settee in the Governor’s parlour, the Governor’s wife’s parlour; it has always been the Governor’s wife’s parlour although it has not always been the same wife, as they change them around according to the politics. I have my hands folded in my lap the proper way although I have no gloves. The gloves I would wish to have would be smooth and white, and would fit without a wrinkle.
“I am often in this parlour, clearing away the tea things and dusting the small tables and the long mirror with the frame of grapes and leaves around it, and the pianoforte; and the tall clock that came from Europe, with the orange-gold sun and the silver moon, that go in and out according to the time of day and week of the month. I like the clock best of anything in the parlour, although it measures time and I have too much of that on my hands already.
“But I have never sat down on the settee before, as it is for the guests. Mrs. Alderman Parkinson said a lady must never sit in a chair a gentleman has just vacated, though she would not say why; but Mary Whitney said, Because, you silly goose, it’s still warm from his bum; which was a coarse thing to say. So I cannot sit here without thinking of the ladylike bums that have sat on this very settee, all delicate and white, like wobbly soft-boiled eggs.”
What is it about these paragraphs that I find so perfect? The novel is about Grace Marks, a notorious murderess — who may not be a murderess after all, I don’t know yet and I’m not sure Atwood is going to tell me. Here I’m seeing the world through Grace’s eyes; she’s the one describing her surroundings. And I get such a sense of her as a person. She notices trivialities, she had a clear sense of her position and also her grievances, she is an astute social observer. She also speaks in a way that is poetic, almost stream of consciousness — when Atwood moves into the perspectives of other characters, the language becomes more structured, more typically Victorian. So the language fits the character. And I love the freshness and precision of the images, particularly the bums like wobbly soft-boiled eggs. I can see those women, can’t you?
But finally I think it’s a matter of ear, the fact that the sentences all sound right: there isn’t a wasted word in them. All the words fits into the rhythms of the sentences. Language is like music in that you can hear when it works. You can hear the perfection of a Mozart sonata, and you can hear the perfection of prose that is hitting its target. It’s the satisfaction of an arrow sinking into the center. (The target is your mind, your heart.)
It’s good for me to be reading this novel now, when I’m writing my own. What I’m writing is a first novel, and an adventure story of sorts. It makes no effort to be as sophisticated as Alias Grace. I’m not going to be Margaret Atwood, not on my first try! But it’s useful to have prose of that quality going through my head as I’m trying to write my own.