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.