Reading response, Week 5: figures of speech

The greatest thing in style is to have command of metaphor. – Aristotle

As you read St. Aubyn, mark the similes and metaphors. Count them and let’s compare notes in class and see how many we all come up with for the four assigned chapters.

In your response below, due Friday midnight, copy 5-10 of St. Aubyn’s figures that struck you and say why. How do they work? How fresh, surprising, funny are they? How inorganic, intrusive, overpopulated? Let’s leave aside the string of figures Prose quotes in her NYRB review–there are plenty more to choose from. Do try to distribute your choices throughout the four chapters, and let’s try to avoid repeating each other. Again, there is no simile shortage in this fiction.

Reading response, Week 5: figures of speech

9 thoughts on “Reading response, Week 5: figures of speech

  1. “It was late May, it was hot, and he really ought to take off his overcoat, but his overcoat was his defence against the thin shards of glass that passers-by slipped casually under his skin, not to mention the slow-motion explosion of shop windows, the bone-rattling thunder of subway trains, and the heartbreaking passage of each second, like a grain of sand trickling through the hourglass of his body. No, he would not take off his overcoat. Do you ask a lobster to disrobe?” (17)

    I love this passage, firstly because it is an entire paragraph and the majority of it is made up of a single sentence. This run on sentence in and of itself gives the reader a similar feeling of desperation to that of which Patrick is feeling. Furthermore, I love the imagery created here, the “shards of glass,” “bone rattling thunder,” and “the heartbreaking passage of each second.” He mixes metaphors here, but this emphasises the desperation of Patrick in this moment. I think that it’s very successful.

    “The gold-braided sleeves of his brown coat hung down to the knuckles of his big pale hands, whereas his trousers, defeated by the bulk of his buttocks and thighs, flapped high above the pale blue nylon socks that clung to his ankles.” (32)

    I find this passage to be successful because of its personification of Fred the doorman’s clothing. I find it interesting and different that the author refers to his pants being “defeated” and his socks clinging to his ankles. It paints a picture of clothing that is trying to cover the person in question but is struggling. I think that this passage also gives the reader a distinct impression of Fred, though it says nothing directly about him. It gives the impression that he is a bit awkward, both in his manner of acting and in his appearance.

    “He could definitely feel the influence of the Quaaludes now. The alcohol had brought out the best in them, like the sun coaxing open the petal of a flower, he reflected tenderly.” (42)

    His descriptions of how drugs make him feel are fantastic in general but I particularly liked this one. It stuck out as being one of the only sympathetic or positive descriptions in the story. It highlights not only how much the protagonist enjoys drug use, but how much more he enjoys it to any other person or activity.

    “His heart seemed to be about to leap out of his chest, like a jack-in-the-box, and he felt that he could only force the lid down for a few seconds more.” (50)

    For some reason, the metaphor comparing a heart to a jack-in-the-box feels tired to me. Is it overused? It feels a little clichéd. While reading, this passage made me pull out of the storyline entirely because it stuck out as a metaphor that is overused and expected, though not here, where I would expect a more original simile.

    “Patrick looked down the avenue. It was like the opening shot of a documentary on overpopulation.” (50)

    This metaphor is brilliant in its simplicity. I’ve never heard it before, but it immediately conjures an image into the reader’s head without using a single adjective or adverb. It also perfectly reflects Patrick’s views on the human population, how cynical he is, but also how observant.

    “Patrick closed his eyes and let the cigarette smoke drift out of his mouth and up into his nose and out through his mouth again. This was recycling at its best.” (65)

    I must have done this a thousand times without thinking of this comparison. For me, that is what makes an organic metaphor: something that pulls the reader into the brain of the narrator, protagonist, whoever, and helps them see the world the way this person would see it.

    “only to find that its opening pages were already covered in spidery and obscure annotations in his own handwriting. These traces of an earlier civilization would have reassured him if he had any recollection at all of the things he had obviously once read.” (66)

    I find his reference of handwriting to be “spidery” to be beyond tired but I absolutely love the idea of these notes being of “an earlier civilization.” This creates the concept of an earlier version of him, a former self. This gives the reader a sense that he wasn’t always like this. But like what? An addict? A horrible person? I think it’s a powerful phrase because it gives a hint of an interesting past.

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  2. Loulou says:

    ‘Those bruised, flickering eyes that assessed every weakness, like a teller’s fingers counting a stack of banknotes, were now closed. (p.30)

    I think this is a great description. It amplifies the image of him as an avaricious and manipulative man. Not a lot of sympathy.

    ‘This nervous action, which he sometimes performed every few minutes, was like a man crossing himself before an altar – the Drugs; the Cash; and the Holy Ghost of Credit.’ (p.38)

    A very ironic simile. An addict comparing himself to a man crossing himself. And then the changing the holy trinity to drugs, cash and credit  his threefold God. It works because he really has a threefold of objects. I like it but it’s not extremely innovative.

    ‘His hands were like dumbbells, like dumbbells in his hands’ (p.43)

    I like the repetition in this one. It makes it feel even heavier and painful, and that’s what it’s supposed to do. Dumbbells in dumbbells. it even sounds heavy.

    ‘He turned around and hurried towards the door. He had to get outside. His heart seemed to be about to leap out of his chest, like a jack-in-the-box, and he felt that he could only force the lid down for a few seconds more.’ (p.50)

    This didn’t strike me as super creative. It serves its purpose, but I feel like he could’ve chosen a better simile.

    ‘And all his scattered thoughts came rushing together, like loose iron fillings as a magnet is held over them and draws them into the shape of a rose.’ (p.53)

    I like this, how he can’t control his mind, and everything comes rushing in as if it is forced to by a magnet. However, I don’t get the shape of a rose? Why do hi thoughts, rushed together by a magnet, take the shape of a rose??

    ‘He swiveled his eyes around the room with reptilian coldness.’ (p.61)

    This is not a metaphor or simile, but nonetheless a great figure of speech. I like that how, if St. Aubyn had left out the ‘reptilian’ part, it would’ve been boring. But the ‘reptilian’ really adds to it, and makes the coldness even colder. A collected and dissaproving look. I could really imagine the cold smoothness of the scales.

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  3. Ronni says:

    1. “The trouble was that he always wanted smack, like wanting to get out of a wheelchair when the room was on fire” (p. 17).
    This simile is a bit too cumbersome, for my taste. I had to think it over a lot, and even then I’m not entirely sure that I know what St. Aubyn meant by it. There are too many elements that only almost correspond here, in my opinion.

    2. “This nervous action, which he sometimes performed every few minutes, was like a man crossing himself before the altar – the Drugs; the Cash; and the Holy Ghost of Credit” (p. 38).
    I like this passage because it takes something that we all do – mental lists of things we need to remember – and assign it a kind of reverence. Is Patrick reverent towards the drugs in his life, or is the narration drawing him and the reader close by highlighting the ritualistic tendencies that we all have? Interesting.

    3. “ʽThat French,’ gasped Patrick, taking one of the millefeuilles out of politeness. As he picked it up, the cake oozed cream from its flanks, like pus dribbling from a wound” (p.40).
    I liked this because it’s gross and everything about this scene is slightly disgusting. It fits in well, I think. Also, calling a cake’s layers ‘flanks’ is so perverse. I like it.

    4. “Patrick imagined Kay’s father sunk in the back of the car, his eyes glazed over and his lungs, like torn fishing nets, trawling vainly for air” (p.11).
    This simile almost fell into the cliché category, but then St. Aubyn used the words ‘trawling vainly’, which are so lovely that they pardon the tired image of eyes glazing over.

    5. “The young woman behind the curved oak counter with Doric half-columns set at either end of its inner panel wore a blue jacket and a grey silk blouse, like an air hostess for a flight into the Afterlife” (p. 24).
    This simile is St. Aubyn smirking to himself as he types out the manuscript for his book. He should probably have cut it out – it doesn’t add too much to the content and it’s a little irritating.

    6. “However closely he tracked his father’s life – and he felt the influence of this habit like a pollution in his bloodstream, a poison he had not put there himself, impossible to purge or leech without draining the patient […]” (p.30).
    I remember Paul saying in class that alliterations are generally awful, but I quite like these ones. I also like that the patient-poison relationship that is drawn between both Patrick’s father and the drugs he’s addicted to.

    7. “His venomous remarks, though they could not affect David, made Patrick look so ill he might have been waiting to die from a snakebite” (p.42).
    ‘Venomous remarks’ causing a death from a snakebite is too easy. This choice of language is for cheap thrills, in my opinion.

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  4. Alona says:

    1. “Patrick lit a Turkish cigarette and asked the stewardess for another glass of brandy. He was beginning to feel a little jumpy without any smack. The four Valiums he had stolen from Kay had helped him face breakfast, but now he could feel the onset of withdrawals, like a litter of drowning kittens in the sack of his stomach.” (p. 139)
    What I find particularly interesting about this paragraph is that it shows us how helpless Patrick feels without drugs. They image of drowning kittens (the fact that they are babies is important) drowning in a sack, is an image of pure helplessness. I think the use of the word ‘litter’ because of its double meaning really ties the whole metaphor together and shows how insignificant and pathetic he feels when coming down from a high.
    2. “He laughed nervously. No, the bustards weren’t going to get him. Concentration like a flame-thrower. No prisoners!” (p.144)
    I think the idea of having something as dangerous as a flame-thrower be an inspiration for Patrick is a great way in which the author uses a simile to show us who Patrick is.

    3. “Into the gorgeous streets. Blocks of light and shadow. Down the avenue, lights turned green all the way. Light and shadow, ticking like a metronome, as they surged over the curve of the earth.” (p. 144)
    I love the combination of a musical reference in a visual description.

    4. “How could he ever hope to give up drugs? They filled him with such intense emotion. The sense of power they gave him was, admittedly, rather subjective (ruling the world from under the bedcovers, until the milkman arrived and you thought he was a platoon of stormtroopers come to steal your drugs and splatter your brains across the wall), but then again, life was so subjective” (p.146)
    In this paragraph we can see how distorted Patrick’s attitude towards drugs is. The use of such pathetic, almost childish, imagery really puts the reader in the character’s mind.

    5. “I expected him to sit up in his coffin, like a vampire at sunset, and say, “the service here is intolerable” (p.160)
    This is a very cliché metaphor. I can only assume it was chosen for the comic effect in this sentence.

    6. “The first taste made him break into a grin of recognition, like a man who has sighted his lover at the end of a crowded platform.” (p.170)
    To me, this sentence relates directly to a paragraph prose referred to in her review: “the way other people felt about love, he felt about heroin” (p.169). This is another moment where the author reminds us the Patrick loves his substances in a way lovers feel towards each other. Both of the sentences are very poignant (personally I feel the one on p.169 is stronger), however their very close proximity might feel like the author is over stressing his point.

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  5. Wilma says:

    ‘The four Valium’s he had stolen from Kay had helped him face breakfast, but now he could feel the onset of withdrawals, like a litter of drowning kittens in the sack of his stomach.’ – p.9
    I think the main gist of this comparison is the vulnerability of kittens – likened to Patrick’s own vulnerability to the physical and mental strain of withdrawal, and the potential for relapse.

    ‘Enormous battered cars with sloppy engines, and black-windowed limos, swarmed into the city, like flies on third favourite food’ – p.15
    Again, we see an object merged or likened with another in order to express an emotion or attribute – here it is that of greed and gluttony. Even just very basically, we Patrick faces both eh object of his metaphor and that which he is observing in the first place with disgust and dislike, so his feelings towards both are very effectively made obvious.

    ‘The trouble was that he always wanted smack, like wanting to get out of a wheelchair when the room was on fire’ – p. 17
    I think someone above commented negatively on this simile, which I found a little surprising. I think this figure is highly effective in that it links two unnatural states – dependency (physical and mental) and the somewhat strange, absurd idea of being stuck in a wheelchair in a room on fire. Additionally, this figure has us see Patrick’s humour and outlook on his own situation in greater depth.

    ‘He gave the receptionist his special melt-down-and-die stare, with eyebeams as heavy as scaffolding shooting across the space between them and pouring radioactivity into her brain’ – p. 27
    Here, we find a link between the seemingly intense, strong stare, and it also being heavy like scaffolding. I just thought it was a very neat phrase but I don’t think I can quite grasp what makes it good.

    ‘Those bruised, flickering eyes that assessed every weakness, like a teller’s fingers counting a stack of banknotes, were now closed.’ – p.30
    A bit of social commentary in this one- again Patrick’s similes are infused with a judgement of sorts on the thing he likens the other to – in this case, the ruthlessness of bank tellers, and his general dislike of his father.

    ‘He could definitely feel the influence of the Quaaludes now. The alcohol had brought out the best in them, like the sun coaxing open the petal of a flower, he reflected tenderly.’ – p. 42
    Here we have the comparison of something that is clearly dangerous, and strange and affecting Patrick in un-natural ways likened to nature and its beauty. Also interesting is how the simile brings out Patrick’s feelings towards the substances he is consuming – the fragility of the beautiful flower matches that of his tender, positive feelings.
    ‘His blood was hissing like a television screen after close-down.’ – p. 43
    A great visual, this one. In this figure we have both the sound and the visual of the television set as successful comparisons to the rush Patrick feels.

    ‘His heart seemed to be about to leap out of his chest, like a jack-in-a-box’ – p.50
    Very literally, a jack-in-a-box does exactly the thing Patrick fears might occur to his heart – it bursts out of its container. I think this figure is a spot-on description of the anxiety he feels.

    ‘The shock of standing again under the wide pale sky, completely exposed. This must be what the oyster feels like when the lemon juice falls.’ – p. 50
    A very creative comparison. In it, we can see Patrick’s creativity, enhanced perhaps by his trip. additionally, the choice of the oyster is interesting as it furthers our vision of Patrick as someone who grew up privileged and rich.

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  6. Acacia says:

    (1) “And what about all the characters that inhabited him, like a cheap hotel” (18)
    (2) “Sometimes he felt like a television on which somebody else was changing the channels impatiently and very fast.” (18)

    I’m going to discuss these two figures together, for they both go towards unmasking what we know of the character. These two descriptions, the recklessly manned television and the cheap hotel, are perfect ways to describe a chaotic person by means of connotation. In both, the lack of control that Patrick feels he has is strikingly clear, and the precise connections makes one wonder if this is the sort of thing Patrick himself sits down to think of how to describe. Surely his feelings are very complicated, but this is a great way to explain the big picture simply.

    (3) “… Patrick braced himself to clear as quickly as possible the long gauntlet of welcomes and tips that still lay between him ad having a drink in his room.” (20)

    In the previous page, there was a release of tension when Patrick arrived at the hotel. Here, the wait for him relaxing in his room is drawn out again as he describes these final steps as a serious of battles awaiting him. It actually made me laugh to read, for generally I would consider this step the “easy stuff” in hotel check-ins. Patrick is not a people person.

    (4) “… with eyebrows as heavy as scaffolding shooting across the space between them and pouring radioactivity into her brain. She seemed unperturbed.” (27)

    I think we have to take this as our clue that Patrick’s drugs are kicking in. There’s random scaffolding, the verb “shooting”, and radioactivity. Very reminiscent of the Milk Man Stormtrooper trip that was already described to us.

    (5) “Patrick felt a strong desire to take his father’s lip in both hands and tear it like a piece of paper, along the gash already made by his teeth.” (31)

    Already, St Aubyn has set a scene for us that feels entirely wrong. This simile is so grotesque that it takes everything to the next level, and puts whatever problems Patrick has into a much stronger context. Patrick also seemingly “banishes” this thought in the next line, pointing even more strongly to his compulsive issues.

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  7.   1.“His life was an unblemished failure and his isolation terrifying to imagine, but he still had a smile like a knife.” (p.35)
    This sentence really made a strong impact on me. The ‘unblemished failure,’ a union of two words that screams with tension, related to his life and the smile like a knife. The contradiction emphasized in happiness-depression and kindness-danger pairs really made this sentence stand out.
      2.“You see a millstone, and the words “round my neck” ring up like the price on an old cash register.”(p.39)
    The power of context that the first part of this sentence has in religious and every day context becomes as significant as the personal context of the character. He had reached a turning point of his life that was being unintentionally forced on him.However it seems like the point of duty had to be emphasized with the mention of the cash registrar as a reminder; he couldn’t postpone it.

      3.”If you mind works like a cash register, anything you come up with is bound to be cheap.”(p.39)
    Simple and fresh, with a remark on the mental capacity, ability of judgment of the “citizens” and the problem of consumerism.

      4.“Heroin was the cavalry. Heroin was the missing chair leg, made with such precision that it matched every splinter of the break. Heroin landed purring at the base of his skull, and wrapped itself darkly around his nervous system, like a black cat curling up on its favorite cushion.”(p.54)
    The description of a man’s relation to an object of his obsession was very relatable and imaginable. It was like ‘the missing chair leg’ that was perfectly replaced – a perfection that we’ve finally achieved. It was like ‘a black cat curling up on its favorite cushion’ – many of us have seen our cats getting cozy in their favorite spot, and we have imagined how it would be. St Aubyn made it very clear that Patrick’s addiction had taken over every aspect of his life.

      5.“In his arm a wound like a volcano cone, a scabrous mound of dried blood and scar tissue, rose up from the soft hollow opposite his elbow. It enabled him to drop the thin spike of his insulin syringes vertically into the vein, never digging for a hit, but leaving open this access to his bloodstream, like an emergency runaway, already for another speedball to relieve the horror of his incarceration in a jaundiced and inhospitable body he could hardly call his own.” (p.59)
    I was left speechless after this sentence. The senses and memories that I used in trying to pile up enough feeling to imagine this vividly were far bigger in number than expected. Pierre was a heroin addict, but as every man who enjoys what he does, he became proud of the scars and the marks his choice left. After being in the hospital for so long, he lost complete touch and sense of his body, and he felt like heroin glued the two together. St. Aubyn almost makes us forget that Pierre had a choice before doing drugs; I started wishing that he does more of what makes him happy. This paragraph showed me how much impact one can leave with decorated description.

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  8. Joel says:

    1.Debbie was beautiful (everybody said so), and she was clever (she said so herself), but he could imagine her clicking anxiously across the room, like a pair of chopsticks, and just then he needed a softer embrace. (10)

    2.It was late May, it was hot, and he really ought to take off his overcoat, but his overcoat was his defense against the thin shards of glass that passers-by slipped casually under his skin, not to mention the slow-motion explosion of shop windows, the bone-rattling thunder of subway trains, and the heartbreaking passage of each second, like a grain of sand trickling through the hourglass of his body. No, he would not take off his overcoat. Do you ask a lobster to disrobe? (17)
    The overcoat is what separates him from reality. Its his protection from the truth that he seems to avoid throughout the novel. The shards of glass, explosions and thunder infer a pain this is quite disturbing -more psychological than physical.

    3.The alcohol had brought out the best in them, like the sun coaxing open the petal of a flower, he reflected tenderly. (43)
    It’s not thee first time St Aubyn puts contrasting elements side by side. In this case its the character’s inebriated personality and the innocent image of a petal of flower – even using the word “tenderly”.

    4.Chilly could only ever get enough smack to keep him looking for more; scavenging enough bags to twitch instead convulsing, to squeal instead of screaming, he walked in little jerky steps with one limp and nerveless arm dangling by his side, like an old flex from the droughty ceiling. (71-72)
    At this point in the story we are well aware of Patrick’s uncontrollable drug problem. This simile helps us almost visualize him like a rag doll, barely able to physically function correctly, like a zombie in search of what he thinks will keep him alive.

    5.The fetid atmosphere of the apartment stuck Patrick like the scent of a long-absent lover. (90)
    I like when similes and metaphors play with other senses apart from sight. The long-absent lover is gone, but something foul remains, betrayal, pain, etc.

    6.Patrick slipped the orange envelope out of his pocket while Pierre piled another white powder into the spoon and stirred it, frowning like a child pretending to make cement. (92)
    For me this simile was somewhat harsh since it brings together two contrasting elements: a child’s wonder (the frown) and heroin preparation. Even tough a frown can be read as disapproving and disliking, it still includes childhood which bares innocence.

    7.This time Patrick had to use his tie. He wound it around his bicep several times and gripped it in his teeth, baring his gums like a snarling dog. (108)
    Again this simile works well since it brings together the character and his animalistic characteristics and behavior due to the drug abuse. It brings forward an image of an out-of-control animal about to go into withdrawal if he doesn’t get what he’s looking for.

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  9. Lindsay says:

    „Patrick imagined Kay’s father sunk in the back of the car, his eyes glazed over with exhaustion and his lungs, like torn fishing nets, trawling vainly for air.“

    Lungs can be like fishing nets in that both objects capture things for nourishment (air and fish respectively). Kay’s father’s fishing nets are torn, however, and we can imagine the futility of torn nets trawling for fish, in the same way that torn lungs might try, ineffectively, to bring air to their owner. I find this a very fresh and novel simile.

    „Patrick stared at the dented hubcap of an old white station wagon. It had seen so much, he reflected, and remembered nothing, like a slick amnesiac reeling in thousands of images and rejecting them instantly, spinning out its empty life under a paler wider sky.“

    On his return to the city St. Aubyn has Patrick compare the perceptive qualities of people to a used hubcap. This simile suggests that life in the city is transient, impresses us with great intensity (like a road trip) but vanishes almost instantly. It calls to mind the many disused and abandoned lives on the edges of the city, though here Patrick characterises them as “empty”, rather than futile or purposeful. But they could be either, couldn’t they? Life could keep spinning in a futile or hopeful way, and often does just that, as people go through the motions on automatic mode in their job, marriage, or education. I like this image because it borrows from our mode of transport in the city to characterise our perception of time.

    „Sometimes he felt like a television on which somebody else was changing the channels impatiently and very fast“

    This is a poor simile. While televisions are ubiquitous, or were before the advent of the internet and iPhones, nobody really feels like a television set. Even at their most base human beings have more feeling and range of emotion than that.

    „in an act of self-division that might fissure the world and turn his body into a jigsaw puzzle. “

    I find this to be a poor metaphor for the fragmentation of subjectivity. This could be show in a much better way, by corresponding Patrick’s inner world with some fragmented exterior.

    „This nervous action, which he sometimes performed every few minutes, was like a man crossing himself before an altar – the Drugs; the Cash; and the Holy Ghost of Credit.“

    I like this simile because it suggests a similarity between the supplication of religion before Jesus and the supplication of capitalism to its Holy Trinity of consumerism, money, and credit.

    „His venomous remarks, although they could not affect David, made Patrick look so ill he might have been waiting to die from a snakebite.“

    Although this metaphor isn’t exactly original or breathtaking, it does effectively call to mind the ill, frightened look of somebody who has suffered a sudden intrusion or pain. Words can certainly contain a kind of venom that works upon us, although whether or not they could have really brought Patrick to the point of looking as if he might die of snakebike is questionable. That depends on the extent to which we find the realism of St Aubyn’s story convincing.

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