MacDonald, Tey, Waugh, and Warren for your Pleasure

The book I’m reading on fiction-writing (Writing Fiction, from the Gotham Writers’ Workshop, which is wonderful so far) cautions against getting too enamored of your own writing: “Be particularly careful of language that’s so beautiful you notice it just for that.  Always ask yourself: Does the description interrupt the flow of the story?”  The point about flow is a good one–I always get bogged down in long descriptions, and my suspension of disbelief is broken.  But I personally don’t mind stopping to notice a gorgeous metaphor or description.  If it’s done well, it can serve its purpose in developing a character or plot while still giving you a little gift of good writing to enjoy.  Here are a few of my favorites:

  • Robert Penn Warren’s descriptions are a joy to read, but he definitely doesn’t reign it in as often as he should. Here’s a nice succinct one that I always remember after eating a huge home-cooked meal:

I had just managed to get down the last spoonful of chocolate ice cream, which I had had to tamp down into my gullet like concrete in a posthole…  (All the King’s Men, p. 52)


  • Here’s one from an author I’ve recently discovered: Josephine Tey.  She’s a mystery writer with a talent for creating devastatingly accurate and sympathetic characters.  Here’s a description of Miss Pym’s inner dialogue from Miss Pym Disposes:

Sitting there so calm and beautiful and all wrong inside.  What does she remind you of?  One of those brilliant things that grow in the woods, isn’t it?  One of those apparently perfect things that collapse into dust at a touch because they are hollow inside. (p.169)



  • It’s been a long time since I’ve read Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, and I need to read it again; but this image of Julia has always stuck in my mind:

The diamonds flashed in her hair and on her fingers, but her hands were nervously rolling little balls of crumb, and her starry head drooped in despair. (p. 230)


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  • Finally, the heartbreaking work of Ross Macdonald.  He writes mysteries, the kind that get made into film noirs starring people like Humphrey Bogart.  He reminds me of Raymond Chandler, but to my mind his characters are more real and sympathetic, and he takes the gritty cheesiness of the “hard-boiled” mystery and turns it into real literature.  A few quick examples, which he seems to pepper his work with effortlessly:

“Her face was granite in whose crevices her eyes were like live things caught.”  (from the short story “Guilt Edged Blonde”)

“She woke and struggled up on her arms like Lazarus, looking at me out of underground eyes.”  (The Wycherly Woman, p. 94)

His blonde good looks were spoiled by a small goatee which wagged on his chin like an unfinished piece of face. (The Wycherly Woman, p. 63)

Outside, the offshore wind was rising.  The choppy sea at the foot of the street reflected crumpled light. (The Wycherly Woman, p. 36)

And my favorite, one which really gave me pause:

Deep feeling sounded in her voice.  I had no doubt that the feeling was partly sincere.  Still, there was something unreal about it.  I suspected that she’d  been playing tricks with her emotions for a long time, until none of them was quite valid.  (The Galton Case, p. 14)


If you can take it, I’d recommend starting with Macdonald’s collection of short stories, The Name Is Archer, and then moving on to the novels, especially The Chill and The Wycherly Woman.  For Josephine Tey, I’d recommend A Shilling for Candles, starring the endearing Inspector Alan Grant.  I haven’t read any Robert Penn Warren except for All the King’s Men, and very little Waugh, though I would recommend the hilarious satire Scoop.  What images from your reading have stuck in your mind?  What would you recommend for me to read next?


Humphrey Bogart

Hollow tree



First Aid for an Existential Crisis: Part 1

“Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?” by Paul Gauguin, 1897-98

One of Evelyn Waugh’s novels gives a moving description of a clergyman who’s lost his faith: he can’t figure out why there is something rather than nothing.  If he could only get a sure answer to that question, everything else would fall into place naturally: creation, the Fall, the redemption, the Church of England, and so on–but none of that matters if he can’t figure out why everything began in the first place.

There are times when I am overwhelmed enough by the suffering of the world that the usual apologetics don’t work for me.  Like the clergyman, what I need is a very basic reassurance that a good God exists.  Once that is resolved, everything else eventually follows.

When I was younger, the traditional proof from creation was enough: there must be an ultimate principle of Goodness from which our consciences, and all that is beautiful in the world, draw their goodness.  But, as C.S. Lewis points out in Mere Christianity,

If we used [the created world] as our only clue, then I think we should have to conclude that [God]was a great artist (for the universe is a very beautiful place), but also that He is quite merciless and no friend to man (for the universe is a very dangerous and terrifying place).                                   (Book I, Chapter 5, p.37)

If we rely solely on the goodness of the world for our proof of God, then atheists can counter with their proof from the evil of the world.  And besides, there is a certain point of darkness or depression in which the beauty of the world seems like more of a mockery or a great deceit than a reassurance.  I remember one time, during a study abroad semester in Rome, when I was literally surrounded with every kind of beauty–weather, nature, art, architecture–but I still had trouble thinking of a reason to take the next step up the stairs.  When your interior world is plunged into darkness, the outside world has nothing to say to you.

Here is my first aid prayer for this situation: “Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life.” (John 6:68)  These are the words the apostles used to explain their faithfulness to Jesus, even when the “hard saying” of the Eucharist caused others to turn away.  My wise mother once pointed out that this is sometimes the only response we can manage when God’s will seems completely incomprehensible.  We can’t understand it, but what’s the alternative?  Would you rather believe in a world where every bit of goodness and beauty was actually meaningless?  I wouldn’t.

This doesn’t leave us with a lot of comfort; but it does provide the first step out of desperation.  The world and God’s plan for it may still seem bewildering, but now that we know there is “nowhere else to go,” we have the first principle we were looking for and we can start working on everything else.

In part 2, I want to talk about the next step: how Jesus’ love unto death is the key to interpreting all God’s promises of protection, happiness, and peace, even when everything in the world–or in your life–is consumed by suffering.