Tuesday

Metaphor and Defamiliarization in Andrew Hilleman’s World, Chase me Down

There are many things to like about Andrew Hilleman’s recent debut novel. It’s well-constructed and suspenseful throughout, and it’s narrated in a delightful first-person voice that the cover copy provocatively and I believe accurately describes as “channeling Mark Twain and Charles Portis.” This has the feel of a particularly American historical novel, and I think it's most worthy contribution to a rarified genre that one might call 'the literary western,' in the distinguished company of authors such as Ron Hansen, Patrick deWitt, Peter Carey, and Richard Bausch. In short, this is a highly recommended novel, and well worth the read!

What I want to focus on here though, for the benefit of the fiction writers out there, is Hilleman’s skill with an essential element of novelistic world-building: defamiliarization.

For a writer of historical fiction this technique involves really going beyond research detail, and using our own experience to give us a description of something our readers recognize as true but have never seen in quite the same way. For example:

The home sat on a pronounced slope of upland above the southwest corner of the city, just beyond the South Omaha limits. The hillside leading up to the sandy drive was covered in dead wildflower so parched from the winter that it broke apart underfoot like dust.

The first sentence is a research detail. The second is what we might call a universal or recognizable detail that’s been defamiliarized.

Hilleman is particularly gifted in the use of this technique, and it’s interesting to note that the defamiliarized detail most often comes in the form of a particularly striking metaphor.

I don’t have much more to say about this, other than to point out that it’s a very useful thing for any novelist, and particularly a novelist working with an historical setting, to observe. I leave you with several more examples:

I sprinted through the cloudburst and entered the hotel soaked down to my nightclothes. I stood dripping on the lobby carpets like I’d fallen out of a fishing boat.
Parked on the curb at the edge of our yard was an uncovered wagon filled with a random assortment of things from inside our house: framed paintings, dresses, pots and pans, stacks of books, a reading lamp with the silly physique of a gooseneck, a rocking chair.
The smell of new snow had been in the air all day. When it finally arrived, it fell all through the night like a featherbed ruptured.
I peered out my window as the train jolted to a stop. A handprint from long ago smeared on the glass. Brake steam hissed. The locomotive a giant kettle on wheels.
I studied the empty gravel avenida in both directions, cast in pale pitch from a gorged moon. An ash can burned waste next to an old hunk of furniture scorched past recognition. Perhaps once a couch or a bedstead that smoldered like an animal carcass rotting under a pounding sun.