I have just stared to read Victor Pelevin, The Clay Machine Gun, he being someone of whom I have never heard despite the fact that his book was short-listed for the Russian Booker Prize. (Why on earth I should know what books are short-listed for the Russian Booker Prize I have no idea but, nonetheless, I feel qualms of guilt.)
Pelevin, according to the notes, is hugely popular in Russia and, to quote the New York Times Magazine, is ‘a genuinely popular serious writer’.
However, to get to the meat of the matter, the tropes that have suggested this piece are my friend Stuart’s favourite bugbears, the metaphor and simile.
In chapter one, Pelevin writes: ‘there was the same grey sky like an old, worn mattress drooping down towards the earth under the weight of a sleeping God’.
A witty description most would agree, even Stuart, but what does it add, I wondered, to my understanding of the state of the heavens? Surely it is sufficient to describe the sky as grey, a state recognisable wherever one lives?
To be fair to Stuart, his objections to the metaphor and simile are not to them as tropes per se but to there misuse either through overuse or their inappropriateness. So, to return to the simile in question, does it fall into either of these categories? For obvious reasons, a single simile cannot be classified as being overused in terms of one of too many, so does it fall into the second category?
While it would have been sufficient to have left the description of the sky as grey, the addition of the simile adds a quality, not necessarily to my understanding of the state of the sky, but to my understanding, if you like, of the climatic conditions of the novel.
I am in a place where an absolute being apparently makes himself comfortable on a lumpy grey mass of water vapour thus threatening to crush the perfection of his creation. This is obviously a place that is subject to a fine precipitation of irreverence and gusts of mockery. (Pelevin is not the only one permitted to indulge in metaphorical whimsy.)
What is the conclusion to these rather trite observations? Only this, that one function of the metaphor or simile in the novel is to create an ambience for the whole, and that, judiciously used, it acts like the music track to a film in helping to underline qualities of the narrative that are best dramatised obliquely than through direct description.