Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Guest-Blogger Gayle Brandeis on 5 Works of Fiction that Explore the Senses in Fresh, Strange Ways

Guest-blogging today is award-winning novelist Gayle Brandeis, whose blog, fruitful, I found thanks to a tip from Andrea Cumbo, who blogs at Andilit. Be to check out Gayle's new novel, Self-Storage, and check out the trailer, which she made herself. (No, not the contraption you hitch to a truck; I mean a video.) Over to you, Gayle!
I am in love with the senses. One of my very favorite books of all time is A Natural History of the Senses by Diane Ackerman. I often teach a workshop called Writing from the Senses. My book, Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write (Harper San Francisco) is all about tapping into the senses, the body, as a source of creativity. In my novels, I can't know my characters' world until I'm able to smell the jasmine in their front yard, taste the blackberry pie they just pulled from the oven.

I decided to choose and excerpt five books of fiction (four novels, one short story collection) that explore the sensory world in fresh, strange ways. Each one below represents one of the senses. The novel excerpts come from the beginnings of the books, while Aimee Bender's comes from the last paragraph of her collection.

#1. Sight
Blindness by Jose Saramago
"Who would have believed it. Seen merely at a glance, the man's eyes seem healthy, the iris looks bright, luminous, the sclera white, as compact as porcelain. The eyes wide open, the wrinkled skin of the face, his eyebrows suddenly screwed up, all this, as anyone can see, signifies that he is distraught with anguish. With a rapid movement, what was in sight has disappeared behind the man's clenched fists, as if he were still trying to retain inside his mind the final image captured, a round red light at the traffic lights. I am blind, I am blind, he repeated in despair as they helped him to get out of the car, and the tears welling up made those eyes which he claimed were dead, shine even more." READ MORE

#2. Hearing
Disturbance of the Inner Ear by Joyce Hackett
"No one heard me. For years now, I have muted my cello by wrapping a thick silk sash around the bridge and wedging its ends firmly in the f holes. To save my ears from being dulled by too much sound. That was how it started, anyway; I used it on tour, to warm up for performances. The silence forced me inside, forced the music back up into my nervous system until I walked onstage with all the notes of a perfect performance streaming through my flesh at once, the sound bursting from my bow's first slice like the flesh of an overripe plum." READ MORE

#3. Scent
Perfume by Patrick Suskind
"In the period of which we speak, there reigned in the cities a stench barely conceivable to us modern men and women. The streets stank of manure, the courtyards of urine, the stairwells stank of moldering wood and rat droppings, the kitchens of spoiled cabbage and mutton fat; the unaired parlors stank of stale dust, the bedrooms of greasy sheets, damp featherbeds, and the pungently sweet aroma of chamber pots. The stench of sulfur rose from the chimneys, the stench of caustic lyes from the tanneries, and from the slaughterhouses..." READ MORE

#4. Taste
The Epicure's Lament by Kate Christensen
"It's breakfast time. Under normal circumstances--- which is to say, if I were alone here--I would stroll by the options in my mental automat: omelet with leftover chunks of lamb, a daub of sour cream, some chopped parsley; or a fried jumble of eggs, onions, potatoes, and sausage, puddles of ketchup; or maybe a sandwich of smoked herring fillets on toasted rye with horseradish and mustard; or a big chunk of extra-sharp cheddar, an apple cut into eighths, and a wad of sourdough bread ripped from a whole bakery loaf..." READ MORE

#5 Touch
The Girl in the Flammable Skirt by Aimee Bender
"I think of that girl I read about in the paper--the one with the flammable skirt. She'd bought a rayon chiffon skirt, purple with wavy lines all over it. She wore it to a party and was dancing, too close to the vanilla-smelling candles, and suddenly she lit up like a pine needle torch. When the boy dancing next to her felt the heat and smelled the plasticky smell, he screamed and rolled the burning girl up in the carpet. She got third-degree burns up and down her thighs. But what I keep wondering about is this: that first second when she felt her skirt burning, what did she think? Before she knew it was the candles..." READ MORE

It didn't occur to me until I gathered all these excerpts together that they are almost all about losing one's senses, or muting one's senses, or overwhelming one's senses in some way. None of them are sheer sensory celebrations, as I had remembered them—all of them are filled with the specter of loss. But maybe that's why I love them so much—maybe remembering the potential for losing our senses makes them all the more precious. Our senses operate over a vast store of silence and darkness, and I am grateful for the rich, fleeting pleasure and beauty they bring us. I want to appreciate all the colors and sounds and flavors and textures and fragrances of life while I can, both on the page and in the world.

---Gayle Brandeis

--->For the archive of Madam Mayo's guest-blog posts, click here.