This is the second in a series of articles in which author Steven Erikson deconstructs, paragraph by paragraph, an excerpt from his most recent novel Forge of Darkness.
Kadaspala wanted none of it, and yet he was never as immune as he would have liked: even the pronouncement that he ever stood outside such things, was itself an illusion. He was not a believer in gods, but he had his own. They came to him in the simplest of all forms, eschewing even shape and, at times, substance itself. They came to him in a flood, with every moment – indeed, even in his sleep and the dream worlds that haunted it. They howled. They whispered. They caressed. Sometimes, they lied.
Having established his thesis, K. now rejects its precepts, but even as he does so he identifies his internal contradiction and then describes his own pantheon, but each time in metaphorical terms. This is description of the clay instead of the rock it covers: we’re getting to that rock. The first description of his gods evokes images of haunting, of nightmares. This is then reinforced by the four quick, short lines that close the paragraph. The pattern of the paragraph opens with complexity and closes with simplicity: 4, 2, 4, 4, 1, 1, 1, 2. But despite the complexity of the first half of the paragraph a deliberate rhythm is established by a repeated beat to open lines 3 and 4 (“They came to him” X2), and each clause is about a breath long. Sentences 1, 2 and 3 all emphasize the last clause, like a stuttered beat, sitting slightly outside the rhythm of the earlier clauses in each line. The repetition is then reduced to “They,” which is used to set up a blunter, shorter beat to lead up to the last line. As an experiment, close up “They howled,” “They whispered,” and “They caressed” into a single sentence. As another experiment, change the last line to “They sometimes lied.” What are the effects? What happens to the beat? What happens to the paragraph’s closing impact?
In this paragraph K contradicts himself, and then admits to harbouring illusions. The paragraph closes with the notion of “lying.” All of this invites the reader to edge back from K., to withhold trust in his POV. I need that. Also, these details note K’s admission of fallibility, leading to the confessional aspect of the next paragraph (for a character to convey uncertainty and self-doubt is a useful bridge to the reader’s sympathy, because we all share moments of uncertainty and self-doubt. It also marks an admission of honesty that makes the reader close even further the psychic distance with the character). Since the subject matter of this section is all about gods, it suits us readers that we get a hint of the confessional…
His gods were colours, but he knew them not. They bore heady emotions and before them, in moments of weakness or vulnerability, he would reel, or cry out, seeking to turn away. But their calls would bring him back, helpless, a soul on its knees. At times he could taste them, or feel their heat upon his skin. At times he could smell them, redolent with promise and quick to steal from his memories, and so claim those memories for their own. So abject his worship had become, that he now saw himself in colours – the landscape of his mind, the surge and ebb of emotions, the meaningless cascades behind the lids of his eyes when shut against the outside world; he knew the blues, purples, greens and reds of his blood; he knew the flushed pink of his bones, with their carmine cores; he knew the sunset hues of his muscles, the silvered lakes and fungal mottling of his organs. He saw flowers in human skin and could smell their perfumes, or, at times, the musty readiness of desire – that yearn to touch and to feel.
K’s gods are given a name and to us it is banal (colours). He then goes on (and we go with him) describing the sensory overload of the presence of the gods in K’s life. This is not a man who can escape into atheism. I make use of his most visceral senses: taste, touch, smell. And finally I make it clear that he has internalized his gods almost against his will, until their presence rules his world, inside and out. Because the notion of colours as gods is so unusual to us, the revelation is quick, the sentence direct and short. The first clause makes the pronouncement; the second clause his relationship with it. From certainty to uncertainty. The first clause is a slight jump back from the close psychic distance, to give the bald statement (which he would never have a need to entertain, but which we need to understand); but the second clause pulls us right back inside. Then I describe that relationship, emphasizing through the images K’s helplessness, his subjection before this pervasive, relentless presence; images of flight, of being driven to his knees, of being spiritually raped, his memories stolen away to be returned transformed, stained.
Then, if I am going to make colours gods, I’d better use some colours in describing the insidiousness of this pantheon. So we’re hit with “blues, purples, greens and reds…” but all are used for an internal description: his blood, the marrow of his bones, his vital organs. But all these descriptions evoke natural, external landscapes in their similes, reinforcing the loss of distinction between K’s internal and external landscapes. This hammers home the truly visceral nature of K’s communion with his gods. To add to the unease, once again the paragraph closes with something sexual. In fact, at the end of every paragraph thus far, we hit this subtextual bell (“vile fetish,” “god’s lap curled tight,” “whispered, caressed,” “desire, touched, feel.” Recall the looping effect I have talked about: this is one that proceeds on a subtextual level. The effect is to set a current running beneath everything else. I’m not ready to plunge into it yet, so it runs on, until the very next line:
The gods of colour came in lovemaking. They came in the violence of war and the butchering of animals, in the cutting down of wheat. They came in the moments of birth and in the wonder of childhood – was it not said that newborn babies saw aught but colours? They came in the muted tones of grief, in the convulsions of pain and injury and disease. They came in the fires of rage, the gelid grip of fear – and all that they touched they then stained, for all time.
More description of these gods and their overwhelming, all-encompassing presence. The first line punches the surface of the river of subtext, raises a splash, only to subside again, as we then return to “violence” not just of war, but also the banal, daily violence of living in an agrarian world: thus, a violence committed against nature. That such notions trip immediately after “lovemaking” is intended to underscore that hint of mysterious perversion set up in the last lines of all the previous paragraphs, linking lovemaking with violence. All of this is foreshadowing. Using repetition to reinforce the relentless element of this list (this entire paragraph is nothing but a list), covering the gamut of normal human experience, from lovemaking to the struggle to survive, to childbirth to sickness and growing old, to the anger and fear that mark the coming of death, we still have to return to the tactile reality of colours, to the “stains” they create. Rework this paragraph to reverse that life progression, or just mix it up. What is the effect? What happens when narrative “goes back in time” from dying and old age to birth and then lovemaking? Breaking Time’s natural flow in fiction is always risky, inviting disconnection or disturbance in the reader’s subconscious.
Photo published with permission of author
Recent Steven Erikson Articles:
- Deconstructing Fiction (For Writers and Readers): Excerpt Deconstructed (8)
- Deconstructing Fiction (For Writers and Readers): Excerpt Deconstructed (7)
- Deconstructing Fiction (For Writers and Readers): Excerpt Deconstructed (6)
- Deconstructing Fiction (For Writers and Readers): Excerpt Deconstructed (5)
- Deconstructing Fiction (For Writers and Readers): Excerpt Deconstructed (4)