/ 5 July 2010

A wash in the simile

The use of good metaphors is slowly dying — like good fiction at local bookshops.

Zoo City by Lauren Beukes (Jacana)

Douglas Adams said: “I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.” Adams, the master of subtle humour, used the metaphor as a fine foil to make his point and would have preferred to listen to Vogon poetry rather than use a crass simile in place of a fine metaphor. The only time he really used similes was, in fact, for Vogon poetry (described by Adams as “the third-worst poetry in the universe”). “Oh freddled gruntbuggly/ thy micturations are to me/ As plurdled gabbleblotchits on a lurgid bee.”

But were he to be influenced by today’s comedic writers he’d be swinging similes like a sabre, cutting down what’s left of the art of the English language and leaving it bleeding in the Olympic arena.

This is the problem I faced as my deadline for reviewing Lauren Beukes’s new book, Zoo City (Jacana), made a distinctive whooshing sound, just by my left ear about an hour ago, and I’m still only a third of the way through.

The inhabitants of Zoo City — our Hillbrow, Johannesburg — are outcasts. In Beukes’s world an evil deed results in an animal appearing as an outward representation of man’s guilt — a literal albatross around our necks. Once “animalled”, separation causes terrible pain, and death of an animal calls the “undertow”. For good measure, the animalled are also blessed with weird and unpredictable magic. The protagonist, Zinzi December, finds lost things.

Adams was known for taking baths as deadlines approached. The closer the deadline, the more baths he’d have. My excuse, crafted like a Zen pottery master attempting the perfect pot for the thousandth time, is Beukes’s use of similes.

Take the opening chapter, with classics such as “The Mongoose in question is curled up like a furry comma on my laptop, the glow of the LED throbbing under his nose”; or “I reach past him to pull out a vintage navy dress with a white collar, match it up with jeans and slops, and finish off with a lime green scarf over the little dreadlock twists that conveniently hide the mangled wreckage of my left ear — let’s call it Grace Kelly does Sailor Moon”. There’s more: “The blackened walls of Elysium Heights’ stairwell still carries a whiff of the Undertow, like polyester burning in a microwave.”

And how about three in one paragraph? “Seeing me, she pulls her denim jacket closed over her naked breasts, too quickly for me to figure if they’re hormone-induced or magic. As we pass, I can feel the filmy cling of a dozen strands of lost things from the boygirl, like brushing against the tendrils of an anemone. I try not to look. But I pick up blurred impressions anyway, like an out-of-focus photograph. I get snatches of a gold cigarette case, or maybe it’s a business-card holder, a mostly empty plastic bankie of brown powder and a pair of sequinned red stilettos — real showgirl shoes, like Dorothy got back from Oz all grown up and turned burlesque stripper. Sloth tenses up automatically. I pat his arm.”

I get why she uses them so glibly. Although her work falls broadly into the category of “science fiction”, she’s melted two other primary genres in her potjie pot. Sci-fi is the meat, but the potato is the noir detective novel, while the carrot is the always tricky alternative history genre. For spice, there’s a tablespoon-full of the Poppy Z Brite school of gothic horror and a pinch of Dan Brown’s incomprehensible internal narrative.

The combination almost works — it would work, in fact, if it weren’t for the damn similes. The simile has overtaken the fine metaphor as the tool of the modern humourist, and the more ridiculous the simile the better. But for me, they’re like Saxonwold speed-bumps in a 1967 Volkswagen Beetle. If I hit them at speed, I’m likely to send my head through the rusty roof and if I take them slowly, I’m liable to make it halfway up before rolling back into the BMW X5 riding on my arse.

Personally, I blame motoring journalist Jeremy Clarkson. Although he may not be considered a mainstream writer, we see and read so much of him that I think he’s subtly affected the global psyche. Clarkson employs the ridiculous simile as a blunt club to the traditionalists’ swords, but it works for him. It works only for him. If your name isn’t Clarkson, the simile is like a rabid dog with a taste for human legs and fine literature. He can mix similes and metaphors, be insulting to everyone, and get away with it.

In his review of the MG SV in his book, Don’t Stop Me Now, Clarkson writes (about all MGs, ever): “With their wheezing, asthmatic little engines, they were as sporty as a man in an iron lung. And with their botched suspension they cornered like a horse in Wellingtons.”

No one else can do this. No one else should even attempt it. And if you do attempt it, make it as ridiculous as an image of a horse in Wellingtons trying to turn a corner at 200km an hour.

Beukes shouldn’t have gone the way of the simile. I get that she’s trying to invoke the image of the gritty detective novel, but mixed with all the other genres it’s just too much. Leave that to the unknown master, Kinky Friedman (a self-styled Jewish cowboy), or drop the sci-fi pretence and call your protagonist Sam Spade.

I’m not saying Zoo City is bad. I can’t claim to have read it. It remains, tauntingly, open on my desk, daring me to imbibe one more outrageous comparison. I think I’ll go have a bath now.