On lists and depth and artistry

A few weeks ago a Facebook friend and I discussed the use of lists in novels. I criticized the way Audrey Niffenegger included a long grocery list in The Time Traveler's Wife, because it seemed to serve no real purpose. It was simply a long list, random in presentation of items, containing nothing symbolic or meaningful. It wasn't lyrical or even interesting. I don't understand why it didn't end up in the big bit bucket in the sky (now that the editing room floor is no longer a real death of phrase). I wish I still had the book so that I could include it to show you what I mean, but it just wasn't something I had to keep around, taking up precious bookshelf real estate.

In contrast are two lists that Goldie Goldbloom includes in her astonishingly beautiful The Paperbark Shoe. The book is the story of a young woman stuck through difficult life circumstances on an Australian outback farm during World War II.

Here's the first one:

The sky over Wyalkatchem is hotter and bluer than any other place, and the winds are stronger, the thermals rising tens of thousands of feet straight up, lifting the litter of the desert in its embrace: shards of quartz and shale and flakes of limestone, spinifex, the lost tails of geckos, scraps of paperbark, the hot smell of the red dirt, the taste of the sky like salt from the sea, cracked pieces of pottery, parrot eyes, wedge-tailed eagles looking for prey, the broken hearts of men and women, the souls of the children who died in that great isolation, sadness, unwillingness, anger, strands of horse hair, nuts and bolts, chicken feathers, sand.

And the second, later in the book:

These are the things that I learned to do after coming to Wyalkatchem: I learned how to make yeast, to bake bread, to make a bread pan out of an old kerosene tin, how to clean a kerosene tin and flatten it and smooth the edges with a rasp, how to trim the wick on a kerosene lamp, to clean the chimney of a kerosene lamp with a piece of newspaper crumpled in a ball, how to remove creosote from my skin with yellow soap, how to make yellow soap from ash and lye and fat, how to make lye, how to render fat, how to cook on a woodstove, how to split wood with an axe, how to sharpen an axe, how to treat burns from a woodstove, how to treat burns from lye, how to treat a man who has been burnt, how to treat a man, how a man likes to be treated, how to make a maternity dress, how to make a layette, how to push out a baby, how to cut an umbilical cord with the knife used for castrating the lambs, how to feed an infant, how to hang a blanket in the boughs of a gum tree and rock a baby to sleep, how to sit quietly at night with a child in my lap, how to feel for a fever, how to boil willow for its cooling sap, how to paint a throat with gentian violet and listen for the smallest breath, how to make a coffin, how to line it with pieces of cotton, how to dress a dead child, how to lower a coffin into the ground, how to put one foot in front of the other and keep on doing it every day.

Stunning. Beautiful. Informative. Heart breaking.

The depth and intricacy of this book both intimidates and inspires me. I'm trying to figure out how to achieve the level of depth that she unfolds throughout the story, and am wondering if it is done in layers, the way a painter paints. First you lay down the basic story as a framework, a sketch. Then you put down the initial layer of color and some level of detail. And you keep adding layers, creating texture and shadow until finally the piece is done and you have to stop before you break it.

I think about my little heroine and her story, and at present she is very flat in comparison. But maybe that is ok. Maybe right now she is just the initial sketch.


  1. That's really quite a brilliant insight into how one might go about creating something as complex as a novel. I've tried it several times and been mired in the details long before the sketch (read: composition) was completed, which I KNOW is a no-no in painting.

  2. It's going to be useful for me as well! I always knew that the process would be iterative, but I hadn't thought about the possibility of adding in depth and richness over time. Makes me feel less intimidated by reading great work.

  3. I love lists. I love the twisting turns in them and the way they reveal so much more than merely "a grocery list"...thank you for noticing.

  4. @Goldie: Thanks for the inspiration! In the novel I'm working on I list the weird collection of objects my heroine frantically gathers before fleeing her marriage. The device works both to give insight into the girl, and to convey the hurriedness and lack of forethought about what might be needed when leaving a life behind.

    Your writing is a sumptuous mix of the beautiful and the terrible. Just like life. Only condensed.

    Thank you for sharing your gifts.


Post a Comment