Some books come with warnings, a heads-up to readers that the text is demanding and challenging. On one hand, these warnings are necessary to allow readers to brace themselves for what might be slow going. On the other hand, it’s possible that these warnings turn off readers from prose that isn’t difficult so much as new. As a casual or even serious reader, it’s easy to devour the same kinds of books over and over (I’m certainly guilty of this). But when you take time to study a difficult book, the rewards can be enormous.
Song of the Shank by Jeffrey Renard Allen is one of these books. It was published by Graywolf Press, and the press’ hometown newspaper, the Star Tribune, called the novel “engrossing and demanding.” At first glance, this seems like an accurate description, but spend a few minutes with the prose, and I think you’ll find that not only does it become easy to read, it also creates possibilities that other prose styles don’t allow.
You can read the opening chapter of Song of the Shank at Graywolf’s website.
How the Story Works
The Onion once ran the headline, “Nation Shudders at Large Block of Uninterrupted Text,” and that may be the reaction of many readers to the novel’s first paragraph, which continues for more than two pages. This is an approach to writing that we’re not used to. In fact, as writers, I’m willing to bet that most of us would struggle to write a paragraph that lasts two pages. So, how does Allen do it?
Not that much happens in the paragraph. We’re introduced to Eliza, who realizes that Tom is missing and so goes out into the yard to look for him—that’s the extent of the action. The bulk of the paragraph is taken up by Eliza’s thoughts, close description, commentary on her thoughts and the descriptions, and context for those thoughts and the situation in general. The novel is essentially asking us to recalibrate our expectations, to focus on things that we tend to skim over.
Here are two early sentences that show how Allen stretches out the present action. Try to spot the transition between action and context:
A clear track, left foot and right, running the circumference of the house, evidence that someone has been spying through the windows, trespassing at the doors. Had she been back in the city, the idea would already have occurred to her that the journalists were to blame, those men of paper determined in their unstoppable quest to unearth the long-lost—three years? four?—”Blind Tom”—Half Man, Half Amazing—to reproduce the person, return him to public consumption, his name new again, a photograph (ideally) to go along with it, the shutter snapping (a thousand words).
The second sentence begins with a clear marker to the reader: the prose is moving from action (a clear track, evidence that someone has been spying through the windows) to context (Had she been back in the city…).
In these sentences, the prose moves from action to close description:
She turns left, right, her neck at all angles. The house pleasantly still behind her, tall (two stories and an attic) and white, long and wide, a structure that seems neither exalted nor neglected, cheerful disregard, its sun-beaten doll’s house gable and clear-cut timber boards long in need of a thick coat of wash, the veranda sunken forward like an open jaw, the stairs a striped and worn tongue.
The description continues for a few more sentences and then moves into commentary (then, notice how the commentary moves back into description):
Taken altogether it promises plenty, luxury without pretense, prominence without arrogance, privacy and isolation. Inviting. Homey. Lace curtains blowing in at the windows, white tears draining back into a face.
Finally, here is an example of how the prose moves from action to Eliza’s thoughts:
Winded and dizzy, she finds herself right in the middle of the oval turnaround between the house and the long macadam road that divides the lawn. Charming really, her effort, she thinks. In her search just now had she even ventured as far as the straggly bushes, let alone into the woods?
Taken individually, none of these moves out of present action is remarkable. Writers use strategies like these all of the time. But when they’re used together, the effect is powerful. The present action is stretched so much that we almost forget what is happening and, instead, focus on what is happening around the action. This is often where the most interesting parts of any novel lie. The difference is that Allen has found a way to direct our attention to them.
The Writing Exercise
Let’s stretch out present action using Song of the Shank by Jeffrey Renard Allen as a model:
- Introduce context. There are many ways to temporarily broaden the point of view. An easy way is to jump out of the scene’s immediate time and place. Allen does this with the phrase, “Had she been back in the city.” Try letting the character (or the narrator) suggest how things in the scene might be different if the time and place were different. In other words, give context for how the situation dictates the action.
- Introduce close description. Every writer at some point describes aspects of the setting or character, but one way to extend the description is to use simile (veranda sunken forward like an open jaw) and metaphor (the stairs a striped and worn tongue). Allen also moves beyond literal description and explains how the place seems (a structure that seems neither exalted nor neglected). He’s able to do this, in part, because of the prose’s pacing. If we’re leaning into the present action, waiting to see what happens next, then we don’t have much patience for extended description. But this prose moves more slowly. So, try to slow down your descriptions by extending them with metaphor and simile and statements of how the places or characters seem.
- Introduce commentary. This is really just an extension of that seeming description. A good way to do this is to follow a description with a statement that sums up its individual pieces. You (or your narrator or character) are essentially telling the readers how to view what they’ve just read.
- Introduce a character’s thoughts. One way to approach a character’s thoughts is to let them function as commentary. In other words, avoid writing thoughts like this: Oh no! I need to hurry! Instead, let the character observe him or herself doing the present action. In Allen’s case, he lets Eliza gently mock her search for Tom (Charming really, her effort, she thinks). We’re allowed to see her from different angles, which gives a deeper picture of her, one that is multi-faceted. The more facets you show, the slower your prose may move—but, as Allen proves, the more texture and depth you can provide.