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Metaphysical Description, Or How Many Potatoes Make How Much Vodka?

If description is the art of distillation, what's the ideal potato-to-vodka ratio? Sit down and stay awhile: things are about to get metaphysical.

michael-byers-headshotWhile it is hard enough to describe something effectively in fiction1—how a thing smells, moves, looks—sometimes it is useful to further describe how exactly a thing seems or appears to be, above and beyond any discernible physical characteristics. The ineffable sense of how things are often makes up the best and most memorable aspect of a piece of writing, but it can be among the hardest things to get right. It is useful for writers to remember that often this aspect of seeming and appearing will be conveyed through metaphor; and often the seeming and appearing will touch in some way on the meaning of what is being observed—or will include a mention of a character’s feelings about, or engagement with, the thing observed.

Note that the description of the ineffable sense of a thing will almost always be preceded by a more basic, sometimes quite extended, physical description. The writer in this case takes on the role of Dr. Frankenstein. With Igor’s help, the writer assembles legs, arms, torso, neck, head, and brain. The writer arranges all this stuff on the table, sews it together. But it is still dead (if vivid) matter. Then the writer applies the electricity—describes the mysterious, often quasi-metaphorical sense of a thing—and the thing opens its eyes and comes to life.

For example, in Alice Munro’s 1979 story “The Beggar Maid”, we find Rose, a scholarship student, just entering college. She is compelled to attend a meeting with other scholarship students, and, arriving with an unprepossessing companion at the room where the meeting is held, Rose hesitates outside the door.

There was a little window in the door. They could look through at the other scholarship winners already assembled and waiting. It seemed to Rose that she saw four or five girls of the same stooped and matronly type as the girl who was beside her, and several bright-eyed, self-satisfied babyish-looking boys. It seemed to be the rule that girl scholarship winners looked about forty and boys about twelve. It was not possible, of course, that they all looked like this. It was not possible that in one glance through the windows of the door Rose could detect traces of eczema, stained underarms, dandruff, moldy deposits on the teeth and crusty flakes in the corners of the eyes. That was only what she thought. But there was a pall over them, she was not mistaken, there was a true terrible pall of eagerness and docility.

Notice how Rose’s observation of this long exact list of gross-out sufferings—”eczema, stained underarms, dandruff, moldy deposits on the teeth and crusty flakes in the corners of the eyes”—is implicitly disowned twice (we are told that this is only how “it seemed”) and very explicitly disowned three times: “It was not possible, of course….It was not possible….That was only what she thought.” (And notice further that Rose’s disowning of the list in no way erases the impression the list has made on us.)

But no, Munro is onto something with these disavowals—because it’s true, these physical complaints are not what Rose has seen, not exactly. What she has seen is something else, something further, an impression of something, that she cannot really point to. She has seen “a pall”—literally, “something that covers, shrouds, or overspreads, esp. with darkness or gloom.” But where is the pall? Where is it in the room? Is it hovering “over them”, up near the light fixtures?

We understand from Munro’s unusual insistence that we are not meant to take this as just a metaphor: “But there was a pall over them, she was not mistaken, there was a true terrible pall of eagerness and docility.” But what is this, really? What is being described here? Nothing less than the sense of how things are, a sudden, almost mystical understanding of the truth about these people. And with this description, zap, the world of the room takes on meaning, and life. The Frankenstein Effect, at its finest.

Munro is a past master at this (and a million other things). In her story “Dance of the Happy Shades” (1961), a group of mentally disabled children arrive at a much anticipated piano recital. The narrator senses something going on:

It is while I am at the piano, playing the minuet from Berenice, that the final arrival, unlooked-for by anybody but Miss Marsalles, takes place. It must seem at first that there has been some mistake. Out of the corner of my eye I see a whole procession of children, eight or ten in all, with a red-haired woman in something like a uniform, mounting the front step. They look like a group of children from a private school on an excursion of some kind (there is that drabness and sameness about their clothes) but their progress is too scrambling and disorderly for that. Or this is the impression I have; I cannot really look. Is it the wrong house, are they really on their way to the doctor for shots, or to Vacation Bible Classes? No, Miss Marsalles has got up with a happy whisper of apology; she has gone to meet them. Behind my back there is a sound of people squeezing together, of folding chairs being opened, there is an inappropriate, curiously unplaceable giggle.

And above or behind all this cautious flurry of arrival there is a peculiarly concentrated silence. Something has happened, something unforeseen, perhaps something disastrous; you can feel such things behind your back.

You can’t, of course—not really—but then again, yes you can. The many tiny details have added up to something impalpable and profound, something that goes beyond description—something that has, almost literally, entered the air of the room.

Almost literally is the point here. On the verge of literalness.

Note that not every description calls for a metaphysical component. Usually this sort of technique is most useful when a character is observing a complicated scenario—an airport concourse, a crammed bookshelf, a busy restaurant—in which a number of objects or people are involved, and where it is useful to convey both a sense of particularity and an overall impression of things. But always when you see a writer deploying the terms

  • an air of
  • an atmosphere of
  • a sense of
  • an impression of

and other similar shortcuts, you ought to feel the hair rising on the back of your neck, because Dr. Frankenstein is warming up his generator. And things are about to get metaphysical.

The P:V Ratio

If a metaphysical understanding is to be in some fashion arrived at through the medium of the world, then we may note that different authors derive this metaphysical understanding differently. Some writers prefer to assemble more world on the table before applying the electricity that represents a greater understanding.

We may therefore find it suitable to change our underlying metaphor, leaving behind all these dripping body parts our assistant has so obligingly harvested, and propose instead a more congenial potatoes-to-vodka ratio, where some writers prefer to assemble more potatoes (or “world”) and others fewer, to arrive at a given amount of distilled spirit (or “understanding”).

In this new potatoes-to-vodka model, the potatoes, of course, are the physical matter of a story—shoes, ceilings, arguments, sentences, eyebrows, wind, cat hair, Coca-Cola, and jump ropes3, while vodka is the metaphysical understanding derived from these physical things. We may call this a writer’s p:v ratio, representing the efficiency with which a writer typically makes use of the world.

In the following selections, potatoes are set in bold and spirit, in italics.

Alice Munro will, as always, provide a useful—and in this case usefully typical—example. In “Hateship Friendship Courtship Loveship Marriage”, a middle-aged, unattractive woman shops for a fancy dress, thinking (at this point falsely) that she is going to be married in it. She enters the shop:

Along one wall was a rack of evening dresses, all fit for belles of the ball with their net and taffeta, their dreamy colors. And beyond them, in a glass case so no profane fingers could get at them, half a dozen wedding gowns, pure white froth or vanilla satin or ivory lace, embroidered in silver beads or seed pearls. Tiny bodies, scalloped necklines, lavish skirts. Even when she was younger she could never have contemplated such extravagance, not just in the matter of money but in expectations, in the preposterous hope of transformation, and bliss.

Here the metaphysical understanding has plainly been reached by means of the physical observation. The potatoes of the shop provide a sort of ballast to the abstracted thought, but also provide the means by which to arrive at it. A reasonable amount of world (the rack, the net and taffeta, et cetera) produces in a character a reasonable amount of mind-stuff.

Munro is unique in her ability but not in her technique; most writers’ habits in this regard at least superficially resemble Munro’s, deploying a moderate amount of stuff to arrive at a moderate amount of spirit. And perhaps it is this moderation that allows us to qualify a writer as “realistic”—most of us seem to experience the world at something like this measured pace, after all, as we move through our days both beset by sensory input and at the same time subject to the addled and improvisatory workings of our own brains.4 In a similar vein, John Updike observes before he transcends, in “The Afterlife”:

A broad-faced strawberry blonde, she had always worn sweaters and plaid pleated skirts and low-heeled shoes for her birding walks, and here this same outfitseemed a shade more chic and less aggressively “sensible” than it had at home. Her pleasant plain looks, rather lost in the old crowd of heavily groomed suburban wives, had bloomed in this climate; her manner, as she showed them the house and their room upstairs, seemed to Carter somehow blushing, bridal.5

If this balance between world and mind allows us to locate Munro and Updike in the solid realistic mainstream of contemporary fiction, what of some others? What happens if you prefer fewer potatoes? What if you prefer more? What if you’re not interested in describing spirit at all? Or what if you’re more interested in meaning than in matter, like some spats-wearing evangelist, waving your hands in the air in hopes of producing something from nothing? Clearly this requires an inadequate, seat-of-the-pants survey.

Tweaking the P:V Ratio

Some writers, of course, prefer to avoid the explicit statement of spirit entirely. Hemingway and his ilk have a very high ratio of potatoes-to-vodka, with Hemingway’s followers arranged around him in a haphazard spatter array. To take a familiar example, Raymond Carver’s “Why Don’t You Dance” lives almost entirely in the present, physical moment; a man, now without his wife (we gather she has left because of his drinking, among other reasons), puts his household belongings out in his yard and driveway, arranging them for sale just as they have been arranged in the house. A young couple comes along; the girl dances with the man, and is evidently affected by his plight. The story is told in simple, factual terms, with little or no reference to thoughts, feelings, or epiphanic realizations. The story’s final section, in its entirety, goes:

Weeks later, she said: “The guy was about middle-aged. All his things right there in his yard. No lie. We got real pissed and danced. In the driveway. Oh, my God. Don’t laugh. He played us these records. Look at this record-player. The old guy gave it to us. And all these crappy records. Will you look at this shit?”

She kept talking. She told everyone. There was more to it, and she was trying to get it talked out. After a time, she quit trying.

Potatoes? Vodka? It is debatable. The girl is feeling something, of course, as the story suggests, but she can’t express it, possibly because she hasn’t got the equipment to do so. And because she can’t express it, we don’t get an explicit statement of it either. It’s possible to read the whole story as a pile of potatoes, with that last 26-word paragraph serving as the equivalent of the story’s spirit. The story’s last paragraph is in fact the mental result, finally, of a worldly encounter. At any rate, the ratio of potatoes to vodka here is very high, if indeed there is any vodka to divide by.

By contrast, a writer may be particularly interested in spirit—literally so in the case of, for example, James Baldwin, whose stories and novels tend to avoid physical description while dwelling more on abstract concerns. In his story “The Outing”, three boys are on the make in various ways during a church retreat. Then they enter the meeting room:

During his testimony Johnny and Roy and David had stood quietly beside the door, not daring to enter while he spoke. The moment he sat down they moved quickly, together, to the front of the high hall and knelt down beside their seats to pray. The aspect of each of them underwent always, in this company, a striking, even an exciting change; as though their youth, barely begun, were already put away; and the animal, so vividly restless and undiscovered, so tense with power, ready to spring had already stalked and trapped and offered, a perpetual blood-sacrifice, on the altar of the Lord.

We sense here that, as is often the case for Baldwin, conflict is played out in an almost literal sense on the field of the personality, where such matters as identity and the fate of one’s soul are best and most frankly considered. The rendering of the Baldwin’s physical world is often minimal, as though such surface concerns are too trivial to consider.6

With these opposing practices in mind, we must now consider a minor and possibly self-evident corollary aspect of this idea, that of scale.



The scale under consideration here is the differing P:V ratio we find in stories versus novels. We know that novels tend to be richer in their effects than stories; specifically, we find that novelists tend to describe much more matter than a story writer will, but will derive from this matter roughly the same amount of spirit (or sometimes slightly more).7 In other words, novelists pile up more potatoes as a matter of course, but don’t derive giant gushing fountains of vodka. Longer descriptions leading to bigger heaps of stuff, but not a concomitant increase in the amount of understanding derived. You can only understand so much at once, after all.

In Couples, John Updike describes Harold little-Smith’s house; Harold has just learned that his wife may be having an affair. This has the effect of rendering his house “more transparent”, and the description that follows is limpid to the extreme, if sometimes verging on the purple. The house is:

…a flat-roofed redwood modern oriented along a little sheltered ridge overlooking the marsh to the south. The foyer was floored in flagstones; on the right an open stairway went down to a basement level where the three children (Jonathan, Julia, Henrietta) slept and the laundry was done and the cars were parked. Above this, on the main level, were the kitchen, the dining room, the master bedroom, a polished hall where hung reproductions of etchings by Rembrandt, Durer, Piranesi, and Picasso. To the left of the foyer a dramatically long living room opened up, with a shaggy cerulean rug and two facing white sofas and symmetrical hi-fi speakers and a Baldwin grand and at the far end an elevated fireplace with a great copper hood. The house bespoke money in the service of taste. In the summer evenings he would drive back from the station through the livelong light hovering above the tawny marshes, flooded or dry according to the tides, and find his little wife, her black hair freshly combed and parted, waiting on the longer of the sofas, which was not precisely white but rather a rough Iranian wool bleached to the pallor of sand mixed with ash. A record, Glenn Gould or Dinu Lupatti playing Bach or Schumann, would be sending forth clear vines of sound from the invisible root within the hi-fi closet. A pitcher of martinis would have been mixed and held chilled within the refrigerator toward this precious moment of his daily homecoming….

The description in the original goes on at about this length again, and includes such additional stuff as a chewed sponge ball, Jonathan in bathing trunks, the liquid branches of the lawn sprinkler, and so on. The overwhelming feeling is of an assembling stillness and a slant-lit suburban glamour—a hushed, beautiful hesitation—until at last:

Marcia would pour two verdant martinis into glasses that would suddenly sweat…and his entire household, even the stray milk butterfly perched on the copper fireplace hood, felt about to spring into bliss, like a tightly wound music box.

Here possibly we may see that a writer’s natural habits align better with one form than with another; in his best work Updike the novelist seems to be much more confident that his gist will come across than does Updike the short-story writer. There is far less—relatively speaking—summarizing and explaining, as though Updike feels confident that surely, given all the matter he has presented to us, we will be able to see what he means.

Turn the ratio down somewhat to discover Ian McEwan at work in Atonement, gathering his many finely described potatoes in order to derive, on behalf of Briony, a rather considerable draft of spirit:

…in a prized varnished cabinet, a secret drawer was opened by pushing against the grain of a cleverly turned dovetail joint, and here she kept a diary locked by a clasp, and a notebook written in a code of her own invention. In a toy safe opened by six secret numbers she stored letters and postcards. An old tin petty cash box was hidden under a removable floorboard beneath her bed. In the box were treasures that dated back four years, to her ninth birthday when she began collecting: a mutant double acorn, fool’s gold, a rainmaking spell bought at a funfair, a squirrel’s skull as light as a leaf.

But hidden drawers, lockable diaries and cryptographic systems could not conceal from Briony the simple truth: she had no secrets. Her wish for a harmonious, organized world denied her the reckless possibilities of wrongdoing. Mayhem and destruction were too chaotic for her tastes, and she did not have it in her to be cruel. Her effective status as an only child, as well as the relative isolation of the Tallis house, kept her, at least during the long summer holidays, from girlish intrigues with friends. Nothing in her life was sufficiently interesting or shameful to merit hiding; no one knew about the squirrel’s skull beneath her bed, but no one wanted to know. None of this was particularly an affliction; or rather, it appeared so only in retrospect, once a solution had been found.

And observe Henry James, masterfully interweaving matter with spirit through the mind of the young and impressionable Isabel Archer, suggesting that to the greatest and most knowing practitioners, mind and matter are really inseparable aspects of a fundamental unity. Notice how difficult it sometimes is, in the following example, to decide which side of things a sentence or a phrase is addressing, and how, for James, matters of custom and perception can be seen to blend:

The foundation of her knowledge was really laid in the idleness of her grandmother’s house, where,  as most of the other inmates were not reading people, she had uncontrolled use of a library full of books with frontispieces, which she used to climb upon a chair to take down.  When she had found one to her taste—she was guided in the selection chiefly by the frontispieceshe carried it into a mysterious apartment which lay beyond the library and which was called, traditionally, no one knew why, the office. Whose office it had been and at what period it had flourished, she never learned; it was enough for her that it contained an echo and a pleasant musty smell and that it was a chamber of disgrace for old pieces of furniture whose infirmities were not always apparent (so that the disgrace seemed unmerited and rendered them victims of injustice) and with which, in the manner of children, she had established relations almost human, certainly dramatic. There was an old haircloth sofa in especial, to which she had confided a hundred childish sorrows.  The place owed much of its mysterious melancholy to the fact that it was properly entered from the second door of the house, the door that had been condemned, and that it was secured by bolts which a particularly slender girl found it impossible to slide.  She knew that this silent, motionless portal opened into the street; if the sidelights had not been filled with green paper she might have looked out upon the little brown stoop and the well-worn brick pavement. But she had no wish to look out, for this would have interfered with her theory that there was a strange, unseen place on the other side—a place which became to the child’s imagination, according to its different moods, a region of delight or terror.


As a further and final aside, and related to the example of James, it is worth noting that as the efficiency of narrative distillation increases, and as the ratio of world-to-mind approaches the perfect balance of 1:1, peculiar things can begin to happen.  John Cheever’s novels and stories live fruitfully at this stylistic event-horizon, the authorial eye shuttling so swiftly between world and mind that the boundary between the two begins to fade away.  In “The Ocean”, one of Cheever’s prototypically imperiled householders fears he is being poisoned by his wife:

I mixed a Martini and went into the living room. I was not in any danger from which I could not readily escape. I could go to the country club for supper. Why I hesitated to do this seems, in retrospect, to have been because of the blue walls of the room in which I stood.  It was a handsome room, its long windows looking out onto a lawn, some trees, and the sky. The orderliness of the room seemed to impose some orderliness on my own conduct—as if by absenting myself from the table I would in some way offend the order of things. If I went to the club for supper I would be yielding to my suspicions and damaging my hopefulness, and I was determined to remain hopeful.

Cheever’s rough 1:1 p:v ratio seems to go some way toward producing his trademark sound—a sort of tremulous, searching flight, as a claustrophobic eye shuttles ceaselessly between world and mind in search of an elusive certainty.  The feeling becomes one of weird immersion and a kind of synesthesia; the character experiences the world, has an immediate mental reaction, and is then at once experiencing the world again.  Fitting perhaps that we find the fraught and frenzied Cheever here, seeing and feeling, seeing and feeling, helpless to prevent his marvelously fruitful mind from making something of everything.8


The Visual Aid

Finally, with all these dubious propositions behind us, we can suggest that every writer might be plotted on a p:v graph, giving rise to the highly dubious Figure 1:


Surely we have gone too far with this, and certainly it is entirely wrong to put novelists and short-story writers together, rather as though we have tried somehow to pen up tigers with barracuda, but it is interesting to note the opposing and intersecting groupings, one of which we may very generally see is composed of Worriers—writers less at home in the world, and who have taken the self, or some version of the self, as the subject—while the other is composed of Composed Describers, writers who have taken the world as their subject and, generally speaking, written about society. That this is a byproduct of the individual personalities in question seems plain. We should also note that the very greatest tend to find themselves at rather the far points on the graph, outliers here as elsewhere, and that certain stylistically versatile folks can be imagined to be plotted in more than one place (Welty’s various moods, Updike’s, Faulkner’s come to mind), rather as though they have both a city house and a country one.

But what are we to do with this, then, as writers of prose? Probably we ought to note the relative scarcity of successful examples on the left side of the chart, whose few denizens have managed, like those extremophile bacteria who manage to flourish on ocean-bottom vents or in sulfuric acid pools in the depths of limestone caves, to survive in difficult environments, deriving great hogsheads of spirit from mere armfuls of potatoes. We ought to observe the cluster of sturdy realists trading remarks around the 10:2 mark, with the anomalous Coetzee somehow standing there too, all cool and gray and saying absolutely nothing whatsoever to anybody, and we may further admiringly note the high, plush posts of the great novelists, who manage to furnish their work with not only a great amplitude of matter but also of insight. We will leave it to the poets and especially to those lucky vessels who feel themselves recipients of divine inspiration to aspire to the ratio of 100:100, wherein the great unimaginable gigantitude of the world is, leaf-by-leaf, quantum-by-quantum, infused with the fullness of a supernaturally omnipresent understanding. We here are only prose writers, and we have deadlines to meet, so something like “just enough, not too much” will have to do. A little vodka is good for you, let us be satisfied to say, and too much ain’t.



1. Person, place, object, situation, idea—they’re all hard.

2. I see pall people.

3. Nouns are especially weighty. Descriptions are usually made of nouns and adjectives. But actions and lines of dialog must also be recognized as potato-esque in their effects, too, and a very good description will usually contain some element of action. Notice where your attention tends to catch and where it tends to slide in this description of Gabriel, from “The Dead”:

He was a stout tallish young man. The high colour of his cheeks pushed upwards even to his forehead where it scattered itself in a few formless patches of pale red; and on his hairless face there scintillated restlessly the polished lenses and the bright gilt rims of the glasses which screened his delicate and restless eyes. His glossy black hair was parted in the middle and brushed in a long curve behind his ears where it curled slightly beneath the groove left by his hat.

When he had flicked lustre into his shoes he stood up and pulled his waistcoat down more tightly on his plump body. Then he took a coin rapidly from his pocket.

Observe Joyce’s well-intentioned attempts to ‘actionize’ the description: “pushed upwards,” “scattered itself,” “scintillated restlessly,” “screened.” But these are tricks, and not very successful. The mind’s eye is most engaged when Gabriel is actually doing something—”he pulled his waistcoat down more tightly on his plump body.” And it is least engaged where he is simply being something—”He was a stout tallish young man.” We see what is done more easily than we see what simply is. In this our eye is amphibian, registering change, becoming blind to stasis.

4. This is, it may be argued, the fundamental work of narrative art: the description of the metronomic interaction between the private mind and the constantly impinging world.

5. Updike’s reliance on seemed here and throughout his mighty oeuvre suggests his general preoccupation with the truth that lurks behind appearances, with making sure that everything be understood; and if it is this impulse that gives rise to his occasional overweening anxiety that we get the point of something, it strikes me as a fitting impulse. Very tall, he was terribly gawky as a child, with a gigantic nose, debilitating eczema, a comical stutter, and to top it all off a world-class mind. No one looking at him could have guessed what he really was. No wonder that the Rabbit books feature a man who, on the surface, is mostly unremarkable—a former high school basketball star, a printing press operator, a car salesman, a middling husband and father—and yet who has perhaps the most florid, nuanced internal life of any character ever composed. Related to this, surely, is Updike’s chronic affection for adverbs, those gravitational devices that control the flight of a verb even after it has been set loose. What other author would give us a character who “steered sullenly”? A life that is “majestically rooted”? Why else would he describe a hoard of treasure as “surreptitiously hidden”? Because of a mostly generous desire to make sure we get what he’s saying. That we get him, really, the kid with the big nose and the hideous skin, who also happens to be, as he might say, transcendently alight.

6. This is complicated by the fact that Baldwin’s characters also often struggle against their own bodies in various ways.

7. This is true even when the novelist and the short story writer are one and the same person; Doctorow the novelist has a much higher P:V ratio than Doctorow the short-story writer.

8. That Cheever was subject to the workings of his peculiar brain seems obvious; it has always struck me that the hysterical, sensory-enhanced well-being expressed in so much of Cheever’s work resembles the feeling that accompanies an epileptic’s ‘aura’, wherein the universe seems infused with mysterious meaning. Late in his life, with his brain ruined by booze, Cheever in fact had two epileptic seizures; it is my unsupportable crackpot belief that he had been experiencing mild seizures all his life, and that his habitual drinking may have been, in some small part, a means by which he attempted to reproduce the lovely feelings that unpredictably descended upon him, and which must have seemed, undiagnosed as they would have been, messages from a greater, senselessly benign power. Poor, mean, helpless, brilliant Cheever.

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