Sunday

Pullman's Golden Compass: The Mimicry of Perception

The Golden Compass will probably not make the reading list for most MFA students. Too bad for them, because it’s an excellent novel. It's not only great storytelling, it's great literature, deeply resonant for adults as much as for "young adults." There is plenty about this book that is worthy of comment, but as I launch this blog on the craft of storytelling I thought it would be useful to start on the most basic, granular level: the sentence. Pullman is a bang up sentence-smith. The Golden Compass is full of luminous passages like this: 
It was dark now, and Lyra watched through the window as the lights of Colby came closer. The heavy air was thickening into mist, and by the time they tied up at the wharves alongside the Smokemarket everything in sight was softened and blurred. The darkness shaded into pearly silver-gray veils laid over the warehouses and the cranes, the wooden market stalls and granite many-chimneyed building the market was named after, where day and night fish hung kippering in the fragrant oakwood smoke. The chimneys were contributing their thickness to the clammy air, and the pleasant reek of smoked herring and mackerel and haddock seemed to breathe out of the very cobbles.
Breaking it down, the reasons for the paragraph’s lyrical effectiveness become obvious. The description increases in intensity—in specificity and exactitude—as it goes on, mimicking the perception of Lyra as she approaches the city of Colby in a boat.

The first sentence is straightforward. It has only one adjective and lays out the picture’s background: city lights through a ship’s window in the dark. The description in the second sentence is ratcheted up, but the images are still vague: air thickening into mist, everything softened and blurred. The ship has docked but the city is still partially hidden, viewed through the mist in the darkness.

The third sentence is where the scene really clicks into place. There are no fewer than nine adjectives in this sentence, several of them strung together (“granite many-chimneyed building”; “fish hung kippering in the fragrant oakwood smoke”). The visual images are suddenly clear and colorful, and another sense (smell) is introduced. The sprung meter (níght físh húng kíppering) and assonance (pearly silver-gray veils), help to convey a sense of heightened emotional response in the presence of unfolding beauty. In the fourth sentence yet another sense is introduced (“clammy”), while the smells become more specific and intense. All this makes sense as a facsimile of evolving human perception. After taking in the initial visual panorama, Lyra's mind is freed up to experience other sensory inputs, and we as readers experience the scene in an instinctively parallel way.

Continuing in a similar fishy-smelling vein, here’s another bit I found compelling:

The smell was of fish, but mixed with it came land smells too: pine resin and earth and something animal and musky, and something else that was cold and blank and wild: it might have been snow. It was the smell of the North.
Once again, the sequencing of this descriptive passage mimics the evolving perception of the protagonist. At first she only smells the fish, but as she focuses in on the odor she perceives greater complexities—pine resin, earth, something musky. These additional odors are intriguing, and lead her to focus further until she perceives underlying them all a new and enchanting smell: snow. The repeated colons communicate a sense of expectation, creating the effect of tripping mental pauses, as if there is a deeper perception knocking on the door of the surface perception, threatening to interrupt. And finally the deeper perception—one that plays a major role in the novel’s metaphysics and plot—comes bursting through the door: “It was the smell of the North.”

More examples:

The sun was shining brightly, and the green waves were dashing against the bows, bearing white streams of foam as they curved away.
Cold hands and stiff limbs moved to obey as yet more arrows flew down like rain, straight rods of rain tipped with death.
Pullman has a magnificent sense of the proper ordering of images. In the first sentence the initial clause sets the background; the next clause introduces a clear and active image; and the third clause enacts the boat’s wake subsiding behind it: “curved away” is a flourish ending both the sentence and the image.

The second sentence is part of an action sequence, with the double-paired sprung rhythm of “Cóld hánds and stíff límbs” getting things off to an appropriately slow start and “death” acting both as a tip to the grim arrows and a terribly fitting end-point to the thought of the sentence itself.

And a final example, a beautiful description of the Aurora Borealis: 

Great swathes of incandescence trembled and parted like angels’ wings beating; cascades of luminescent glory tumbled down invisible crags to lie in swirling pools or hang like cast waterfalls.
To begin with, “parted like angel’s wings” is a decent image for the northern lights. But notice that the lights didn’t just part like angels wings: they “trembled and parted like angel’s wings beating.” The words don’t just describe the image: they mimic or enact the image’s movement. And to cap it off, because you expect a waterfall to lead down to something, the sentence literally leaves you hanging, the same way the lights are shown to hang in the sky. 

Not bad, for children's literature.