Saturday, October 10, 2009

Metaphors Gone Wrong?

I just finished reading My Sister's Keeper by Jodi Picoult, the book I used as content for my previous post.  While reading it, I encountered a few hiccups in language usage that make it difficult for me to decide what I think about the book overall.  I can't decide if I am simply being too tough on the book because, being a linguist, I am prone to thinking about language and its use too much or if I am simply being a typical reader.  Instead of trying to figure that one out by myself, I'm turning to the blogosphere to try to find an answer.

In the book, I felt there were portions of gratuitous medical terms being thrown around--not medical terms that helped along the plot but medical terms that showed the author had done her research before writing about a family dealing with a medical (and then later a legal) crisis.  Some paragraphs, though, were so filled with medical jargon that I skipped right over them, never looking back to see what I missed.  When I'm teaching composition, I tell my students that simpler is often better--simpler structures and simpler vocabulary that get your point across can be as poignant and deep (and oftentimes even more so) than a passage written in overly complex structures filled with difficult-to-understand words.  I'm not saying I'm never guilty of doing the exact thing I tell my students not to do--I know that sometimes when I write, I try too hard and end up sounding entirely vague rather than meaningful.  I just wish that there weren't so many examples in modern-day writing of authors trying to outdo each other (or themselves), trying to make their language come across as more thought-provoking or intellectual.  One such example is that the entire book is told in the first person; however, the narrator changes every chapter, which left me confused when skipping around among six possible narrators.  With the deictic "I" changing so often, I found myself having to reread paragraphs, trying to jog my memory as to who was telling that particular portion of the story.

The specific examples I'm using for this post, though, are metaphors that I feel have missed their marks.  Metaphors are one of the strongest tools in a writer's toolbox--they have the ability to make the abstract concrete, to make the unknown known.  I love that about metaphors and metaphorical extensions.  But when metaphors go wrong, they really go wrong.

 (I found the above comic on a website article titled "In Praise of the Bad Metaphor.")

In my first example from the book, one character sees a woman he has not seen in fifteen years, and he's noticing how she's aged in those years apart:

... fine lines bracket her mouth, parentheses around a lifetime of words I was not around to hear.  (117)

I had to read this line through a few times before I realized what it was about the line that bugged me: if her words are all enclosed in parentheses, he is rendering them as extra, unnecessary, superfluous information.  I would not want my "lifetime of words" to be summed up as being parenthetical.  I know that is not the effect that is intended, and perhaps I am just a bit too touchy when it comes to punctuation.

The second example provides another metaphor that uses punctuation; a father and his daughter are watching a meteor shower together, both unable to voice what they are feeling:

Every second, another streak of silver glows: parentheses, exclamation points, commas--a whole grammar made of light, for words too hard to speak.  (200)

Please tell me someone else cringed, thinking, "But punctuation is not grammar."  In the list of comparisons, only punctuation marks are metaphorically present in the light from the shooting stars, and punctuation marks are hardly the grammar of any language; instead, they are mere conventions agreed upon by the writers of the language.  In other words, the metaphor is saying that nothing is getting said at all and that empty punctuation marks are lighting up the sky.

My final example strays from punctuation (proving that punctuation is not my only pet peeve):

Summertime, I think, is a collective unconscious.  We all remember the notes that made up the song of the ice cream man; we all know what it feels like to brand our thighs on a playground slide that's heated up like a knife on fire; we all have lain on our backs with our eyes closed and our hearts beating across the surfaces of our lids, hoping that this day will stretch just a little longer than the last one, when in fact it's all going in the other direction.  (279)

If those three examples are the definition of the collective unconscious of summertime, then I have sadly been left out from the collective whole, which makes me question whether that makes me downright un-American or just someone who never lived anywhere near an ice-cream-truck route or minded that the days got shorter as the summer went on.  In fact, part of the fun of summertime for me was the onset of night--chasing lightning bugs, hearing the whippoorwill...

So that I don't come off as being horribly judgmental, I want to point out that the book had many highlights as well.  The plot was interesting and made me want to keep reading despite my previous criticisms.  And not all the metaphors missed their marks:

Kids think with their brains cracked wide open; becoming an adult, I've decided, is only a slow sewing shut.  (299)

That statement reminds me of a Randy Travis song: "Spirit of a Boy, Wisdom of a Man."  Being a child makes us think everything is possible while becoming an adult provides us with the wisdom that not everything is possible, thus dimming our spirit.  The song's point is that we come to points in our lives when we have to choose between having a youthful spirit or an aged wisdom, a sentiment reflected in the above metaphor.

And there are also many instances of really deep, poignant thoughts being expressed in simple terms:

... maybe who we are isn't so much about what we do, but rather what we're capable of when we least expect it.  (307)

In the English language there are orphans and widows, but there is no word for the parent who loses a child.  (417)

Again, the language of the book has its highlights and lowlights, so to speak (metaphor, anyone?).

The question I have for my readers, then, is whether I am simply being too picky or if these examples also make any of you raise your eyebrows, questioning the validity of the comparisons.  Moreover, I'd love to hear any examples you've read lately (or not so lately) of metaphors gone wrong.

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