Wednesday, February 25, 2009

UN- Purple Prose, A Contemporary Example

Yesterday, I described how details can be used to reveal character along with other components of a story using a passage from Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. Today, I'm looking at a more modern piece of literature to show that details can also be used to flesh out a setting while also performing literary acrobatics to entertain the reader. This is a passage from Jonathan Safran Foer's Everything Is Illuminated, a book that was so emotional for me, that at one point, I closed it after reading a scene because I wanted to stay frozen in the moment for as long as I could.

Here's the first paragraph of the second chapter from this wonderful book:

It was March 18, 1791, when Trachim B's double-axle wagon either did or did not pin him against the bottom of the Brod River. The young W twins were the first to see the curious flotsam rising to the surface: wandering snakes of white string, a crushed velvet glove with outstretched fingers, barren spools, schmootzy pince-nez, rasp- and boysenberries, feces, frillwork, the shards of a shattered atomizer, the bleeding red-ink script of a resolution: I will...I will...

On one hand, this is just a list of details. But, if you read it out loud, you'll hear some beautiful alliteration (wandering snakes of white string; feces, frillwork) and also some beautiful awkward alliteration (schmootzy pince-nez), and I always laugh at the ridiculousness of the phrase rasp- and boysenberries. Foer is able to be at once funny and graceful, a skill that ends up working even more beautifully in later emotional scenes of this book.

Just a few paragraphs later, there are more descriptions of these items drifting up out of the water when one of the W twins, Chana, goes into the water to explore:

She picked up the hands of a baby doll, and those of a grandfather clock. Umbrella ribs. A skeleton key. The articles rose on the crowns of bubbles that burst when they reached the surface. The slightly young and less cautious twin raked her fingers through the water and each time came up with something new: a yellow-pinwheel, a muddy hand mirror, the petals of some sunken forget-me-not, silt and cracked black pepper, a packet of seeds…

Foer is able to unify some disparate objects by emphasizing their human-ness (the hands of the clock and the ribs of the umbrella, the skeleton key, the crowns of bubbles) and there's that almost too clever phrase "silt and cracked black pepper."

The bottom line when writing anything is that you want to be interesting. The problem with purple prose is that, most of the time, people find it boring. But, by making your details serve more than one role in the story, whether it reveals personality, social class, poetic artistry, or anything else, you'll keep the reader engaged because they will be constantly interacting with your book, focused on picking up all of the nuances you have put into it.


  1. Wow. Great examples. I read the original Lady Glamis post on purple prose as well, and I think it is interesting that you are giving example of un-purple prose. Perhaps what keeps it from veering into that specific hue is that the author uses some restraint - his alliterations are are subtle. Several months ago I blogged about a book called The Gargoyle that was getting some terrible reviews for overripe prose, and the examples quoted within the reviews were really over the top.

  2. What a nice blog! Your posts are so well put, obviously thought goes into them (completeopposite of mine, which are thoughtless).

  3. This stuff reads aloud very well, too. You're right to point out the alliteration in these passages, especially the second one with its alternating "s" and "p" sounds. He sets up a nice rhythm.

    This is very different from Tolstoy's use of detail, which all went to character. This is more a straight-up list (and what writer doesn't love a good list?), a sort of inventory of the absurdity of life and the fragility of possessions, maybe; I think the intent is sort of to overwhelm the reader, a kind of blur of specifics.

    silt and cracked black pepper, a packet of seeds… is very fine.

  4. Kate, I just started reading The Gargoyle. I've heard a lot of criticism about it, but so far I'm enjoying the first few pages. Thanks for your comments and leading me to your great blog as well.

    spinregina, You posts are perfect from what I saw when I visited. I'm looking forward to seeing more.

    Hi scott, Yeah, I was trying to give different types of examples to show the ways these writers were better than I am. :)

  5. Great post. I've heard wonderful things about that book, and it looks like something I would love to read.

    I have found that with un-purple prose, as you put it, action seems to be the key. Action. Movement. Whatever you want to call it. Whatever the writer is describing needs to come alive and mean and do something, somehow. If that makes sense at all. Otherwise, yes, it's boring, and just a bunch of words. Great examples!


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