I love a juicy metaphor, and a great extended one can send me reeling. In my own writing, I rely heavily on their transformative power. In The Seductions of Sick, my memoir, metaphors link the tale of Rumpelstiltskin with hair loss and obsessive-compulsive disorder, while in Snow Queens, my historical novel, shells, clocks, and tulips are used to render the rip-roaring ephemera of the female orgasm.
In my recent reading, I have been treated to delicious, startling, poignant, twisted metaphors from contemporary writers like Leslie Jamison, Elif Batuman, Jesmyn Ward, Rachel Cusk, and Carmen Maria Machado. Here, in no particular order, are my favorite ten metaphors from my reading this year—so far. (It’s only July, after all.) I include similes as well as metaphors.
Of course, these metaphors, through my selection, do not just illuminate the thing being described but my own interests and investments. That said, please don’t read too much into #10.
- “My desire to be wanted was like something physically gushing out of me—need need need—and it disgusted me, this broken spigot I’d become.” Leslie Jamison, The Recovering: Intoxication and its Aftermath
With this image, Jamison articulated what was, for many years, my experience of need and desire.
- “He deliberately outlined and then marked once more the edges around each move, like a cop drawing a chalk line around a body.” Zadie Smith, writing about Michael Jackson’s dancing in Feel Free
I agree with Smith that there is a connection between dance/kinesis and writing, but the fact is that dance remains stubbornly hard to write about. I love that she does it so beautifully in an essay on the oblique connections between the two arts.
- “From the top of the escalators, all of Filene’s was spread out below you, like some historical tapestry. Then you were in it. As far as the eye could see, shoppers were fighting over cashmere sweater sets, infants’ party dresses, and pleated chinos, with a primal hostility that seemed to threaten the very bourgeois values embodied by those garments. A heap of thermal long underwear resembled a pile of souls torn from their bodies. Women were clawing through the piled souls, periodically holding one up in the air so it hung there all limp and abandoned.” Elif Batuman, The Idiot
Best description of Filene’s Basement EVER. Batuman teases out the strangeness of a place I took for granted as a middle-class child growing up in Boston, before making it familiar once again through metaphor. Figurative language: It wrestles with the unknown and the known, a fight-to-the-near-death that ends in a leap of faith.
- “People weren’t forever having to explain themselves here: a city was a decipherable interface, a sort of lexicon of human behavior that did half the work of decoding the mystery of the self, so that you could effectively communicate through a kind of shorthand.” Rachel Cusk, Transit
This sentence and its images are shorthand themselves for the themes of interconnectivity and isolation, belonging and rejection, that are interwoven throughout Cusk’s daring novel.
- “Its six legs prop its shield-shaped body up in the air, as if they were pallbearers at the funeral of a Knight Templar.” Kathryn Schulz, “When Twenty-Six Thousand Stinkbugs Invade Your Home,” The New Yorker, March 18, 2018
This funny, gorgeous, and surprising description of the brown marmorated stinkbug is representative of Schulz’s whole essay—one of my favorite essays of the year so far. She is also refreshingly honest about the limits of metaphor and analogy, writing that “the smell produced by a stinkbug is dusty, fetid, lingering, and analogy-proof. A stinkbug smells, unhappily for us all, like a stinkbug.”
- “Many love stories are like the shells of hermit crabs, though others are more like the chambered nautiluses, whose architecture grows with the inhabitant and whose abandoned smaller chambers are lighter than water and let them float in the sea.” Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost
- “Virginia lingers another moment beside the dead bird in its circle of roses. It could be a kind of hat. It could be the missing link between millinery and death.” Michael Cunningham, The Hours
In truth, I read this one years ago, but I was inspired to seek out the exact quote because given my lupus and its imperative of sun avoidance, I wear a lot of hats and have had millinery on the brain.
- “Sorrow is food swallowed too quickly, caught in the throat, making it nearly impossible to breathe.” Jesmyn Ward, Sing, Unburied, Sing
So too this searing novel.
- “(If you are reading this story out loud, force a listener to reveal a devastating secret, then open the nearest window to the street and scream it as loudly as you are able.)” Carmen Maria Machado, Her Body and Other Parties
Much of Machado’s book is about appropriation and violation of the female body, and how art and storytelling cannot repair damage done. While this aside—one of many in “The Husband Stitch,” the first and best story in the collection—does not contain a classic metaphor, it asks us to experience events of the story somatically, to perform and internalize its violence through a metaphoric jump.
- “A tube of lipstick all extended.” Lauren Groff, Fates and Furies
This metaphor is used to describe a dog’s erection. It will stick in your head. Sorry.