Embroidering the Tale

The two books I’ve finished most recently couldn’t be more different. One was the 2012 Pulitzer-nominated Swamplandia!, about a 13-year-old girl who lives on an island in the Everglades and whose family earns its living by alligator wrestling and other dubious pursuits; the other was Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue, which takes place in Oakland, California, separated from Florida by three thousand miles and cavernous cultural divides. Yet Chabon’s book and Karen Russell’s have a striking similarity in the way they are written, a process I think of as embroidery. They both use unexpected and vivid images to snare the reader, creating a rich, colorful, multilayered text. Russell isn’t quite up to Chabon’s skill as yet, and some of her efforts fall flat, but then she will pick up again, writing, “With a grim, spiderlike lacemaking Kiwi’s brain knit his surprise into a dull and terrible knowledge,” followed a few lines later by “A pat of sun slid down the doctor’s biscuit-white face.” I didn’t mark up either book, thought I’d illustrate just by picking a page at random, which I just did with Telegraph Avenue and found “For years he had been on and off various medications whose names sounded like the code names of sorceresses or ninja assassins. . . . each wore out its welcome in his father’s bloodstream without ever managing to lay an insulating glove on the glowing wire inside him.” He could have said, “For years, he’d tried numerous mood-controlling drugs to no avail.” Thank goodness, he didn’t. Nor did he say “The old man stood up”; instead, he wrote, “The old man was up and on his feet like an umbrella opening.” What both books require is the reader’s attention. The images are so startling, so unusual, every page holds a revelation. In an era when writing is often stripped down and fast-paced, these authors’ art demands that readers slow down and luxuriate in the fresh ways they use words to stitch the hues and patterns of the worlds they have created.