I don’t know about you, but when I start a book, I can tell pretty quickly whether I will like the writing style or not. It’s a kind of instinct: am I in good hands or not? When it came to Ray Bradbury, my instinct utterly failed me.
The first scene of Something Wicked This Way Comes was tremendous – a crackpot salesman coaxes a pair of kids into buying a spooky lightning rod. I eased back in my chair, let down my guard, and prepared to be swept away. Soon, however, I realized that something was amiss. The overheated language of the first scene, which I assumed was part of the salesman’s pitch, continued to combust long after the salesman was gone. No matter what was happening, the prose was deep purple, and the flights of fancy kept baffling and distracting me.
It could have ended there, if I was the sort of reader who gave up easily. But I’m not, as I’m sure you’re not either (exhibit one: you’re still reading this blog). So I put the volume aside, took a few deep breaths, and started over. This time, I discovered that the prose is actually not purple at all: it’s just hard. You have to read slowly and patiently, but if you do, you can follow it.
My litmus test for a flowery style is simple: can you bring it to life in your mind? A novel can be lush, fetid, practically dripping with metaphors, and still work, so long as you can follow each figurative flower to its stem and rub the pollen of truth onto your fingers (see?). Take this passage near the start of Something Wicked:
It seemed when the first stroke of nine banged from the big courthouse clock all the lights were on and business humming in the shops. But by the time the last stroke of nine shook everyone’s fillings in his teeth, the barbers had yanked off the sheets, powdered the customers, trotted them forth; the druggist’s fount had stopped fizzing like a nest of snakes, the insect neons everywhere had ceased buzzing, and the vast glittering acreage of the dime store with its ten billion metal, glass and paper oddments waiting to be fished over, suddenly blacked out. Shades slithered, doors boomed, keys rattled their bones in locks, people fled with hordes of torn newspaper mice nibbling their heels.
Many details here seem absurdly puffed up. Even back in the day, I doubt that barbers “yanked off” sheets or “trotted” customers. To a reader at normal speed, “Insect”, “bones”, and “mice” would appear to refer to organic life forms, when in fact they are densely woven yet unrelated metaphors. And come to think of it, the whole choreographed scene of the small town closing up shop is a bit much, isn’t it?
So I thought at first. But read it again, this time imagining it as the lively impression of a child or adolescent, and it suddenly makes sense. Small town shops do sometimes give an impression of synchronized movement, if you (like a kid) have enough time to sit and stare and wonder if the world of the grown-ups is moving in concert, perhaps according to mysterious grown-up rules. Newspaper bits do actually move like mice, darting and shaking and twitching at the edges. The dime store, wringing a bit of cash from a grid of mostly barren plots, really does deserve the word “acreage”.
Most writers would stop to capitalize on any one of these figures, but Bradbury just tosses them off. The reader therefore has to read the book like poetry, slowly and deliberately checking every metaphor against his or her own experience.