The simile can be a thing of beauty. It can strike a respondent chord in its audience, both illuminating and inspiring. Used to effect, the simile is like a grace note, adding a touch of richness and life to the overall musical score.
I’m a big fan of the simile, so it cuts me to the quick when I find it wantonly abused. This doesn’t happen often, because most writers have an innate simile-sense. They can test and taste and savor and know when they’ve hit the proper target; when the chemistry is compatible; when the simile zings and flies.
But some writers feel obligated to overreach the simile’s simple purpose. They imagine themselves dazzling the reader with hitherto unperceived comparisons that melt away boundaries and elevate communication to a newer, higher art.
More power to them, because, usually, they fail. They become so entranced with their own words and labored imagery that they force the simile into place with all the finesse of a jackhammer. Such was the case in a book I only today finished reading. The author was working in a decidedly Gothic arena, but was flitting between two disparate timelines. It was ambitious; not totally successful, but palatable. Or would have been except for her slavish inability to write more than a few sentences without feeling the need to bolster her efforts with a simile.
An awful, inappropriate, misguided simile.
For instance: “Momma [was] buried beneath the soil like a broken butter dish.”
Eh? Am I the only one who hasn’t embraced the practice of consigning ruined crockery to the ground? Who takes a broken plate or bent fork out to the back yard and digs it a grave?
And then, at the apex of a particularly emotional scene wherein the heroine realizes her family secret: “…the disparate parts are coming together like bits of a space station locking soundlessly in airless black…”
What the…? Remember, this is a tale written in a very Gothic atmosphere. The space-age imagery was so jarring, it became comedic for me. Instead of aligning myself with the heroine and participating in her turmoil, I was laughing at the writer’s strained effort.
And finally: “…the past dropped over her like a lobster pot…”
That did it. My chuckle became a guffaw. I suppose I could have googled ‘lobster pot’ and tried to discern where this simile was meant to take me, but by then…
I considered the book a lost cause.
In retrospect, it reminded me of Brechtian theatre where actors suddenly address the audience, make eye contact and explain, the purpose being to snap everyone out of being passive observers and jolt them into a different level of thought and participation. But this wasn’t live theatre. It was a book; a book rife with similes that grasped and labored and went off-track with tedious, and then comic regularity.
So, please, let’s all try to respect the simile. Don’t force it. It’s a marvelous tool that should strike a respondent chord…not one’s funny bone. At least, not in most instances.
And now, I move onward…like a dog scooting its rear across a newly waxed floor…
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