Precision in the Wunderkammer

By Cornelia Read

I don’t often review books any more. I know too many people who write them, I don’t want to damn anyone with inadvertant faint praise, nor forget to write about anyone. I know how often my own feelings get dinged if I read a friend’s list of random “great reads” when I’m not on it, which is petulant and lame on my part but hey, I just don’t want to bruise anyone else’s tender feelings.

So when I comment on books directly, these days, I try to talk about the ones that are really, really good, and I try to talk about books by people I haven’t actually met. There are VERY few people I will buy in hardcover who aren’t actual friends (I want to buy friends’ books in hard cover because I like to think I’m adding a couple of bucks to their coffers–and I like to do that sometimes even if they’re already richer than god. Just saying.)

Charlaine Harris, Denise Mina, Mary Karr, Alan Furst, and William Gibson are on this list right now. I will go without food and electricity in order to wallow in these people’s words.

The book I’m on the verge of finishing, just at the moment, happens to be William Gibson’s zero history. I have loved his work since I first scored a ratty paperback of Neuromancer back in Syracuse, which is, like, when Pteradactyls were still gliding up the Mohawk Valley, practically. Uphill both ways, in the snow. He was a godsend, and it still just thrills me to the bottom of my tiny black heart that someone so goddamn sublimely and lapidarily SMART can be a bestseller.

If you have worries about civilzation or anything, pick up this book. Mr. Gibson, as always, affirms my belief that the tribe of those who care about what matters, about subtlety, about elegance and grace and precision on the page, is alive and goddamn well. Hosanna.

I think that on a paragraph level (though he succeeds mightily in both more macro and micro ways than that), his work is also illustration of what precision can do for a writer. Sometimes I think a list of three things can define space, in a fictional world. Especially if there’s a frisson of not-same-ness among them.

I’m trying to figure out how to word this properly, since I’m writing about wording things properly, so my fuzziness is kind of annoying the hell out of me, but it’s a little like apposition, only deeper.

Here’s a definition of apposition:


Apposition is a grammatical construction in which two elements, normally noun phrases, are placed side by side, with one element serving to define or modify the other. When this device is used, the two elements are said to be in apposition. For example, in the phrase “my friend Alice,” the name “Alice” is in apposition to “my friend.”

More traditionally, appositions were called by their Latin name appositio, although the English form is now more commonly used. It is derived from Latin: ad (“near”) and positio (“placement”).
Apposition is a figure of speech of the scheme type, and often results when the verbs (particularly verbs of being) in supporting clauses are eliminated to produce shorter descriptive phrases. This makes them often function as hyperbatons, or figures of disorder, because they can disrupt the flow of a sentence. For example, in the phrase: “My wife, a nurse by training,…,” it is necessary to pause before the parenthetical modification “a nurse by training.”

Okay, not exactly apposition, since I’m talking about actual objects, here, and their difference when suspended Calderesque-ly near one another is what makes this work–maybe it’s more like opposition? Fuck it, I’m just going to quote the man so you see what I mean. This is a description of one of the character’s rooms at a gorgeously byzantine private-club hotel in London (also, hyperbatons? What an immensely fabulous word…):

“Which room is Heidi in?” Hollis asked him.

“Next to yours.”

“Good,” said Hollis, with more enthusiasm than she felt. That would be the one with the yellow chaise longue. She’d never understood the theme. Not that she understood the theme of her own, but she sensed it had one. The room with the yellow chaise longue seemed to be about spies, sad ones, in some very British sense, and seedy political scandal. And reflexology.

Hollis’s own room features what her friend and former bandmate Inchmale has named the “Piblokto Madness bed.”

[I]ts massive frame covered entirely in slabs of scrimshawed walrus ivory, with the enormous, staunchly ecclesiastical-looking lower jawbone of a right whale, fastened to the wall at its head….

Piblokto Madness itself?

“Intense hysteria,” she recited now, from memory, “depression, coprophagia, insensitivity to cold, echolalia.” She kicked her shoes in the direction of the wardrobe’s open door. “Hold the coprophagia,” she added. Cabin fever, this culture-bound, arctic condition. Possibly dietary in origin. Linked to Vitamin A toxicity. Inchmale was full of this sort of information, never more so than when he was in the studio.

The whole thing is like a Viking barrow of word-riches: “gutta-percha” and wunderkammer,

boiler suits and “specialized apprehender gloves.”

One gets the sense that for Gibson, as for one of the characters, “Reading, [Milgrim’s] therapist had suggested, had likely been his first drug.” God knows it was mine, and reading this is like falling face first into a lovely glowing pile of what I believe Jay McInerney once called “pink Peruvian flake.” If such a drug held traces of frankincense and psilocybin.

And the apposition of the archaic and the po-mo makes it all fresher and wittier:

Heidi shrugged out of her leather jacket, tossed it aside, and pulled her black t-shirt off, revealing an olive-drab bra that looked as combat-ready as any bra Hollis had ever seen.

“Nice bra.”

“Israeli,” said Heidi. She looked around, taking in the contents of the room. “Jesus Christ,” she said. “The wallpaper’s like Hendrix’s pants.”


And you totally know what the stripes on those pants look like, even though God help me if I could Google up a rendition that matched what I see in my head.

Meanwhile, I totally want Milgrim’s therapist, in Basel:

Addictions, he thought, turning right, toward Seven Dials’ namesake obelisk, started out like magical pets. Pocket monsters. They did extraordinary tricks, showed you things you hadn’t seen, were fun. But came, through some gradual dire alchemy, to make decisions for you. Eventually, they were making your most crucial life-decisions. And they were, his therapist in Basel said, less intelligent than goldfish.


What makes this stuff go deep, makes it be so eminently satisfying and right-on, is the precision. Every image is carved and faceted out of something translucent, hard, exact. Briolettes of rock crystal:

…Something was unfolding within him. Like a brochure, he thought, rather than the butterfly he imagined to be the more common image. An unpleasant brochure, the sort that lays out symptoms all too clearly….

…A cross between Grand Central and the atrium of the Brown Palace, Denver, structures aimed heroically into futures that had never really happened….

…She’d favored artboys, of any stripe, and unfortunately the dodgy hybrids as well, artboy-businessmen, with personalities as demanding as ambitiously crossbred dogs….

It’s like Saki without the veneer of archness. And when a writer does this well, you get both a clear movie of the textured world in which the choreography is unfolding, and tremendous depth of perception into character, as in this description of a pickup truck with “cartel-grade” armor:

Aldous had proudly pointed out the narrowness, the extreme evenness, of the gaps between the doors and the bodywork. They were too narrow for the insertion of any kind of pry bar, he’d said, too narrow even for “the jaws of life,” an expression Milgrim was infamiliar with, but which he took to be Jamaican, some potent icon of existential dread.

Or Hollis’s brief flash on previous conversations with her lover:

[S]omething in his tone now reminded her of his explanations of asymmetric warfare, a topic in which he had a keen and abiding interest. She remembered him telling her how terrorism was almost exclusively about branding, but only slightly less so about the psychology of lotteries.

I love that. I love this book. Buy it.

Give me a paragraph that rocked your world recently, O dearest ‘Ratis…

31 thoughts on “Precision in the Wunderkammer

  1. Cornelia Read

    It's not actually my Safeway receipt–it's from someone else's blog post about Congress trying to live on food stamps or something. But it made me miss Safeway. Up here we've got Shaw's and Stop 'n' Shop. And PB&J on wheat sounds like a really great breakfast…

  2. PK the Bookeemonster

    I don't have a paragraph because perhaps as a reader and not a writer, they just don't hit me that way, but I came across Gibson's book while working on the September issue of my newsletter and it sounded very good. That's what I love about doing the thing. I have to go through each and every (that I know of) new release of the month (between 50 and 80) which allows me to really look in detail at each one and sometimes I discover something I would like to read that I probably would have missed. This week it was a historical mystery debut by Judith Rock called the Rhetoric of Death. I think in August it was A Small Death in the Great Glen by A.D. Scott. Yeah, I bought both of them. Sigh.

  3. Cornelia Read

    I LOVE the title The Rhetoric of Death… and I used to buy lots more books when I worked for a book catalog. Some of them sucked hugely, but some I still love and reread.

  4. Debbie

    I'm reading Dickens right now so pick any paragraph! Long time ago now, but Tolkien has a way of using metaphor that gives me a comprehension that is so complete in so few words that it is fully known to me right down to an inner feeling, a physiological response.

  5. Anonymous

    He swallowed another Percocet and stepped into Red Dragon Tattoo. The place smelled of ink and sweat. Asian flash art pinned to the walls. Carp, flowers, Samurai swordsmen. The lead artist was a three-hundred-pound inkblot named Danny Cho—covered head-to-toe in scenes from the Kama Sutra. A walking Encyclopedia of Fuck. The guy wore knee-length shorts and a sleeveless Fruit of the Loom T-shirt. [ ] could see about thirty-eight sexual positions on his exposed skin. He didn't want to imagine the tattoos he couldn't see under Danny's clothes. When Danny stood up to shake [ ] hand, a dozen animated figures ejaculated.

  6. Kaye Barley

    oTAY – I LOVED this!
    Cornelia – besides writing things week after week that I adore, I must say – you find the MOST perfect illustrations. How do you do that?! Do you have your own secret stash of perfect pictures?!
    Here's a paragraph that rocked me recently.
    (this is fun!).

    "A novel is a great act of passion and intellect, carpentry and largesse. From the very beginning, I wrote to explain my own life to myself, and I invited readers who chose to make the journey with me to join me on the high wire. I would work without a net and without the noise of the crown to disturb me. The view from on high is dizzying, instructive. I do not record the world exactly as it comes to me but transform it by making it pass through a prism of fabulous stories I have collected on the way. I gather stories the way a sunburned entomologist admires his well-ordered bottles of Costa Rican beetles. Stories are the vessels I use to interpret the world to myself. I am often called a "storyteller" by flippant and unadmiring critics. I revel in the title."

    From "My Reading Life"
    by Pat Conroy.
    I was a lucky recipient of an ARC.

  7. Cornelia Read

    Louise, what I love about Gibson is that he IS a drug, only with no hangover and very few induced hallucinations. Sometimes see trails, though.

    Kaye, that is such a wonderful paragraph–the details are so apt, so stunning. Thank you!

  8. Cornelia Read

    And I just use Google images, which is so much fun to leaf through. I'm getting better at knowing what to put in the query, but something like "walrus tusk scrimshaw" works pretty damn well. Somehow, the best images always seem to be on page three of the available options.

  9. pari noskin taichert

    "The last major crime in the town of Verity was in 1958, when one of the Platts shot his brother in an argument over a Chevy Nomad they had bought together on time. Usually it's so quiet you can hear the strangler figs dropping their fruit on the hoods of parked cars. leaving behind pulp and tiny black seeds. Since Verity is the most humid spot in eastern Florida, local people know enough to drink their coffee iced in the morning. The air all around the town limits is so thick that sometimes a soul cannot rise and instead attaches itself to a stranger, landing right between the shoulder blades with a thud that carries no more weight than a hummingbird."
    from TURTLE MOON by Alice Hoffman

    Thanks for the great post, Cornelia. I tried reading Gibson once before and, like Louise, just couldn't dig in far enough. But he's an author I know I'll enjoy down the road.

  10. KDJames

    I think I'm swimming in that shallower pool with Louise. Along with my dictionary. I used to think I had an extensive vocabulary. Then I started reading your posts, Cornelia. I'm starting to suspect you throw in all these terrific pictures to distract us from your towering intellect.

    Pari, I read that paragraph and thought, "I've read this before." It's been quite a while, but the images in this sentence in particular stuck with me:

    "The air all around the town limits is so thick that sometimes a soul cannot rise and instead attaches itself to a stranger, landing right between the shoulder blades with a thud that carries no more weight than a hummingbird."

    The book was lush and yet fanciful, in the way absurd occurrences were presented as unremarkable. Of course life is magical.

    Thanks for yet another rigorous mental workout, Cornelia. 😉

  11. Anonymous

    Cornelia. There are a lot of beautifully written passages that more aptly illustrate what you were trying to convey in your post and there are even many many better passages in STEPHEN'S NEW BOOK than the one I chose from BEAT. But I thought that that one was pretty funny. Sorry STEPHEN JAY SCHWARTZ if I did not credit you. I wanted to see if anyone recognized it. I took out Hayden's name so "he" wouldn't give it away. I was also trying to use a noirish passage, because I like the exiguity and rhythm of noir writing.

  12. Pari Noskin Taichert

    I agree. And I wanted to include the second paragraph as well. Here are just a couple of lines: "Charles Verity, who founded the town, after killing off as many native people as he could, is said to have discovered this the hard way. He couldn't get rid of the spirits of all the men he'd murdered; they perched up and down his spine and on top of his cookstove, until he caught them in a sugar bowl, then tied the lid closed with a thick brown string so they wouldn't escape . . . "

  13. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I so love Denise Mina. I am so nervous about BCon because I am afraid I will melt into a puddle of blithering fangirl if I have the chance to talk to her.

    If I could bloody find anything in this house I'd copy out the first paragraph of THE TREATMENT, by Mo Hayder; the most ominous opening to the most devastating book I've read in a long, long time.

  14. Cornelia Read

    KDJ, you are far to kind. My intellect is about as much of a tower as a short-stack at IHOP. But you've made my day. And Gibson always teaches me new words. This time it was "wunderkammer."

    I SO need Stephen's new book…

    Pari, I need Alice Hoffman's book too, now.

    Marie-Reine, the brilliance is NOT MINE, but I like to bask in the vicarious glow of other people's genius.

    And Alex, I am so with you on fangirling all over Denise M. Maybe we can carry her train?

  15. Marie-Reine

    "He seemed for a long time unable to understand the fuss that was going on around him, or rather, he understood it perfectly and saw everything, but stood, as it were apart, as though he had no share in it, and, like someone invisible in a fairy tale, had crept into the room and was watching people, with whom he had no concern though they interested him. He saw them picking up the pieces, heard rapid conversations, saw Aglaia, pale, looking strangely at him, very strangely…" (Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The idiot: A novel in four parts).

  16. Marie-Reine

    "Marie-Reine, the brilliance is NOT MINE, but I like to bask in the vicarious glow of other people's genius."

    Well… now I can't dispute what you say, Cornelia, because it will be like saying I don't think you're brilliant, when I do, but here goes anyway. This post is fucking brilliant. It pounds the heart.

  17. KDJames

    Oh please, Cornelia. I am rarely kind. Well maybe, occasionally, to small defenseless animals. But never to other writers. I don't believe it necessary to insult them in that manner.

  18. Dudley Forster

    Alex – here you are: <g>

    “When it was all over, DI Jack Caffery, South London Area Major Investigation Team (AMIT) would admit that, of all the things he had witnessed in Brixton that cloudy July evening, it was the crows that jarred him the most.

    They were there when he come out of the Peaches’ house – twenty or more of them standing in their hooded way on the lawn of the neighboring garden, oblivious to the police tape, the onlookers, the technicians. Some had their beaks open. Others appeared to be panting. All of them faced him directly, as if they knew what had happened in the house. As if they were having a sly laugh about the way, he’d reacted to the scene. “

    From THE TREATMENT by Mo Hayder

  19. Janine

    "Pre-registration will close on October 2." That's the best thing I've read of late!!!! See you soon, Ms. C!

  20. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    So sorry to be so late to the party – been touring and launching and signing and in total whirlwind mode. Thanks, Anon, for including me here – a total honor. Thanks Cornelia for such an inspiring post!

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