Shadow Description, Image Systems, and Narrative Drive in Tim Johnston’s Descent

Why do certain so-called “genre” novels transcend the designation? John le Carré’s spy thrillers. Ursula K. LeGuin’s science fiction. Post-apocalypse novels such as Peter Heller’s Dog Stars, Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. These novels explode the boundaries of category because they’re beautifully crafted, both structurally and on the sentence level, and because they resonate more deeply than certain lesser novels, which are written and read as mere “entertainments.”

It’s admirable enough, gods know, the skill of telling a cracking good story. Hats off to any author working in any genre who can actually pull it off. But if you can tell a cracking good story that exposes a deeper truth about the human condition, well then, that lifts you up to another level. For one thing, it will earn you the honorary “literary” before the appropriate genre moniker.

Tim Johnston’s debut literary thriller Descent edges into in this territory. Like most successful crime thrillers, it’s well-constructed architecturally. The life-and-death stakes, the hero-victim-villain triangle, and the well-built narrative arc give it the taut, page-turning quality you would expect from a good thriller. What makes it rare is that the language is strikingly poetic, and the themes and image systems reveal deep, dark truths about the human race and the world we live in.

Once things start rolling, it’s impossible to put this novel down. Better yet—despite and perhaps even in part because of the stylistic echoes of books such as Blood Meridian and All the Pretty Horses—the writing is top-notch. Johnston’s descriptive prose is particularly effective in imbuing the story with a sense of dread, of evil at large in the world. I suspect that this is a major factor in the novel’s admirably propulsive narrative drive. In the past, I’ve referred to this kind of writing as “shadow description.” Here are a few examples:

“She was wearing a white sleeveless top, white shorts and the word BADGERS bannered in cherry red across her bottom, pink and white Adidas, and for a moment, in that place, she had looked not like herself but like some blanched and passing spirit. A cold wanderer around whom the air chilled and the birds shuddered and the leaves of the aspens yellowed and fell.”

“ . . . in his sleep he climbed a path in the woods in the dark, making his way by the progress of the animal he followed, a dog or wolf of such whiteness it raised shadows from the things it passed, the trees and stones.”

“They both looked to the west, where the dropping sun flared suddenly between the clouds and the horizon like the eye of a great bird cracking open, round and blazing.”

“On the screen a woman stood at a rostrum in a purple robe, small black ball of microphone near her mouth. She spread her arms wide and he raised the remote and the screen went black.

And my favorite image:

“She turns to look back up the dry wash and there’s nothing but the white rising chute and the dark conical shapes at its borders. Then, arriving out of the heights, there appears a dark falling thing on the snow. Black as night and gliding down. An immense bat in the woods. A black angel on skis . . . She shoves at the empty snow, and twists, and manages to turn herself enough to see, over the edge of the depression, the last of his descent. Arms out and legs spread in flying rapture, riding the tails of his snowshoes.”

Note that all of these shadow descriptions are part of a loosely related image system that underlines the novel’s good vs evil theme: wolves and dogs, birds and bats, creatures watching and pursued, black contrasting with white. The shadow descriptions, charged with their foreboding image system, underscore the strong sense of barreling fate, of nameless dread, that pervades the book, and create a kind of existential discomfort that spurs the reader ever onward to the final page.


Backstory Entry Hatches in John Le Carré’s The Tailor of Panama: A Partial Taxonomy

I can see why this complex and richly entertaining novel isn’t as popular on Goodreads as many of Le Carré’s other books. The propulsive urgency of the story sags in places, which is the reason that I’m giving it a positive but slightly qualified recommendation. It was bound to disappoint Le Carré’s spy thriller audience, because it doesn’t do what books in that genre are supposed to. It’s not even a spy thriller, really, though it is a novel about spying. 

You could say that it belongs to a very small sub-genre, along with Our Man in Havana: the Bitingly Satirical Spy Caper. And while The Tailor of Panama doesn’t captivate the reader with the same charmingly effervescent blend of suspense and comedy as Our Man in Havana, the satire hits home just as effectively as it does in Greene’s book. In fact this novel elaborates and updates Greene’s theme, pushing it to a logical conclusion that remains all too resonant in today’s world of intelligence-targeted official violence.  

Whatever you think of its themes, I think we can all agree that Le Carré is a remarkably accomplished writer with a particular strength in the art of creating interesting, impossible-to-forget characters. In this book the imaginatively prodigious tailor himself, Harry Pendel, stands out, as does the resourceful and despicable spy manager, Andrew Osnard. 

But let's get to the writerly question at the center of this post: What specific techniques does Le Carré use to create such interesting characters? 

There are so many aspects of character creation one could talk about, but one of the things that struck me most about this book is the frequent and skillful use that Le Carré makes of backstory, and in particular of that difficult-to-pull-off subset of backstory, flashback, to endow his characters with extra interest and complexity. Each of the main characters has an emotionally charged history that constantly intrudes on the present moment, clueing the reader in about important motivations and conflicts featured within what we might call the “frontstory.” 

I’ve written about backstory and flashback before. As anyone who writes fiction knows, there’s an ongoing debate about the merits of backstory, and in fact there are prominent writers who espouse a policy of minimizing or doing away with it entirely. But the more I think and read, the more strongly I come down on the side of backstory as a richly useful tool in the task of creating complex, fascinating, novel-worthy characters. Le Carré is a great teacher in this regard. In particular, I was interested to observe some of the ways he handles the difficult transitions between frontstory, backstory, and full-fledged flashback. 

So, without further ado, here’s an incomplete taxonomy what we might call Le Carré’s “backstory entry hatches.”

Abrupt Flash. An image from the past that comes to the protagonist suddenly, often in the middle of a dialogue-rich scene:
Mickie scarecrow thin, face lopsided from a beating, eyes still fresh from hell. Mickie in frayed orange rags, no bespoke tailor available. Wet red blisters round his ankles, more around his wrists.
Marta in her ripped white shirt and jeans lying like uncollected refuse in the gutter while three members of Noriega’s Dignity Battalions, known affectionately as the Dingbats, take turns to win her heart and mind with the aid of a bloodied baseball bat, starting with her face.
But the sequence of these events remained disordered in Fran’s mind because all she could concentrate on while they were unfolding was her very first gymkhana, when her pony, which like every other pony in the world was called Misty, took the first fence perfectly, then bolted down the main road to Shrewsbury . . . 

Triggered Narrative Rewind. A memory triggered by a sensory experience in the frontstory, and entered gradually rather than abruptly by narration that begins in the frontstory and slides backwards: 
Then he would stare into the peaceful city, and very soon the flares and the red and green tracer and the hoarse tattoo of machine guns and the jackhammer rattle of cannons would start to create their own mad daytime in the theatre of his memory, just as they had on that December night in 1989 when the hills blinked and shuddered and the huge Spectre gunships flew in unopposed from the sea to punish the mostly wooden slums of el Chorillo . . . 
Sweat pouring off him, heavy as the rain. Running water gurgling under his feet. Pendel floating, upriver or down. The entire past that he has buried six feet deep, crashing in upon him . . . starting with the miracle of his birth as related to him in prison by his Uncle Benny and ending with the Day of Absolutely No Atonement thirteen years ago when he invented himself to Louisa on the immaculate all-American lawn in the officially abolished Canal Zone with the Stars and Stripes flapping up in the smoke of her daddy’s barbecue and the band playing hope-and-glory and the black men watching through the wire. 

Untriggered Narrative Rewind. You might call this the traditional method, and it might feel a little clunky were it not achieved with Le Carré’s usual panache:
And it was somewhere around this point, most likely, that Stormont, partly out of boredom and partly in self-defence, drifted off into a troubled review of his life until now:
            Stormont, Nigel, born too long ago, educated not very well at Shrewsbury and Jesus, Oxford. Second in History like everybody else, divorced like everybody else: except that my little escapade happened to make the Sunday newspapers.
How she had got here was a mystery to her, though it was a mystery now ten weeks old. “Only two ways to play this situation, girl,” Osnard had explained to her with the assurance he brought to everything, over lavish helpings of barbecued chicken and cold beer beside the pool of the El Panamá. 
Hallucinated Memory. And I end with my favorite. A full-on hallucination in the frontstory delivers us straight to the backstory:

"Harry.” It is an hour later, but Pendel is too estranged to go home, so he is back in his cutting room with his dinner jacket and Bach. “Harry.” The voice that is addressing him is Louisa’s from the first time they went to bed together, not just fingers and tongues and listening for her parents’ car coming back from the movie, but completely naked in Harry’s bed in his grotty attic flat in Calidonia, where he’s tailoring at night after selling ready-mades all day for a clever Syrian haberdasher called Alto.

The Objective-Correlative & Characterization: Graham Greene’s The Honorary Consul

I have to admit that didn’t love this book. Certainly didn’t enjoy it as much as I did Greene’s masterpiece of humor and suspense, Our Man in Havana. The Honorary Consul is a quieter book, to put it nicely, oddly cold and lifeless in places, and my sense is that it was marred by Greene’s perceived need, late in his career, to “say something” meaningful about the Catholic Church. Still, as with anything by Greene it’s extremely well written, and I did notice an instructive instance of the objective-correlative that was used in association with one of the novel’s minor characters:

His secretary was a pretty young woman called Ana. She was dauntingly efficient and the daughter of an influential official in the public health department. Doctor Plarr sometimes wondered why he had never been tempted to make love to her. Perhaps he hesitated because of the white starched uniform which she had adopted of her own wish—it would creak or crackle if one touched her; she might have been connected to a burglar alarm.

Interesting way of putting things, no? That uniform, like a burglar alarm. And a few pages later, it comes back:

She ignored his flippancy. “If you will leave those two cards on my desk when you have finished . . .” Her dress crepitated as she went out, like a nocturnal insect.

I think you’re probably getting the picture. The uniform dress is an objective-correlative for Dr. Plarr’s evolving feelings for Ana, which are, to say the least, pretty charged. Using it allows Greene to portray those feelings without resorting to “telling,” in an imagistic way that has the effect of rooting us imaginatively in the story, while at the same time deploying metaphors that give us intriguingly resonant insights into our main character.

All of which serves as a reminder that the objective-correlative is a nice tool for any writer’s toolbox, particularly when it comes to character creation.

For more on uses of the objective-correlative, click here. For more on skillful characterization, click here.