A couple of years ago, our MnNaNo writer’s group did regular challenges. This one was set, I believe, by Brian (Expatrie on the NaNo boards): Imitate a given passage from another writer. Here’s my rambling notebook entry with the close-reading (aka ‘field-stripping’–can you tell my daddy was a gun nut?).
Our text for imitation was the opening paragraph of Red Wind by Raymond Chandler:
There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and makes your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.
Line by line, what this paragraph accomplishes:
- “There was a desert wind blowing that night.” OK, sets up the time and place and larger geography: night, windy night, somewhere near enough to a desert to feel its winds.
- “It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch.” Now we get precision: Santa Anas nail it to west coast, and we get the geography: at the foot of the mountains, with the wind coming down through the passes. But then we zoom in to make it personal with the effect of the wind on “you”: curling the hair, making the nerves jump and the skin itch. A feeling of physical unease and restlessness.
- “On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight.” What happens when that unease and restlessness meets (with alcohol thrown into the mix), in a particular class setting: the upper crust don’t have “booze parties.”
- ‘Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks.” Even the cozy domestic circle is set on edge, with ‘senseless’ murder as a distinct possibility.
- “Anything can happen.” Examples of which have been given in the foregoing.
- “You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.” A twist in tone here, from violence to another sort of impulse, and shot through with cynicism (usually you don’t get a full glass at such establishments). Again, too, the class setting: ‘a cocktail lounge’ is not a high-end establishment, but neither is it a dive. It has pretensions, in the sense that there’s something below. There’s a specificity along the axis of ethnicity and region, as well: a ‘cocktail lounge’ is not a ‘juke joint’ nor a ‘honky-tonk’ nor a ‘tavern’ nor a ‘pub’. The specification of beverage makes a difference, too: the drinker of beer is not taking the highroad to getting hammered; he’s settling in, he might be convivial or morose, but he’s definitely an experienced drinker. And given what’s implied in period, he’s definitely a he.
So, to anatomize:
- First line with weather report, time of day and loosely implied geography.
- Second line with more specifics about the wind and what it does to you (physical sensation).
- Third line about what happens in particular social settings as a result of that physical sensation.
- Fourth line about what happens in domestic circle (between couples)
- Fifth line: the turning. “Anything can happen” (a summary of the foregoing, that what this weather does is to put things up for grabs. You might have a line that says the very opposite, given the weather in question; it might lock things in place and give them no room to move)
- Sixth line: a wry observation in counterpoint to the foregoing details.
So this passage might be imitated as if it were a set verse form: six lines with the foregoing specification. The main thing is that everything be very specific, not one word wasted.
Now for my own version, translated to the Minnesotan:
There was an Arctic wind blowing that night. It was one of those cold swift air masses that sweep through the Canadian plains from the empty place at the pole and freeze your tears and make your soul go numb and your skin burn. On nights like that every dinner party peters out in nervous allusions to the hour. Cheerful talkers hear the subzero cold rattle the windowpanes and think of death by freezing. Anything can happen. You can even get an empty parking space on a snow emergency route.
A reference for close-reading: Francine Prose. Reading like a writer: a guide for people who love books and for those who want to write them. Harper Perennial, NY 2006.
I’m mildly allergic to the New Criticism, but the techniques here are a useful tool. Just ignore the English-professor editorializing about how all other schools of criticism are useless, and anything snide she says about genre (I can’t remember if she’s One of Those, but there are some snooty bits.)