. . . He opened the door and rushed out onto the lawn, a frantic naked man utterly unable to comprehend–his unmonitored pulse galloping headlong toward the finish line without him–the rather unexceptional fact of his victimization by the forces of modern life. Someone had dared to steal his fucking car.
I’m reading Going Native by Stephen Wright. The book’s language is dense, in some places “over-written” as my friend pointed out, but at other points lucid or hilarious. And unlike Blood Meridian, the last big novel I took on, it’s pretty spare on the $20,000 words, so I can actually get a good pace going without stopping every two minutes to pull out the dictionary (laptop). Two chapters in, I’ve learned four new words, two of which are probably not going to be usable by anyone.
The most recent is brier. As in, “He nodded genially in her direction, the apple-cheeked country squire savoring his evening brier.” In this scene, “he” is smoking a crack pipe.
The simplest definition of “brier” is that it is an alternative spelling of “briar,” which of course means a thorny bush, or a twig covered in thorns, or a mass of prickly plants.
None of these make particular sense, but then, if you scroll to the bottom of The Free Dictionary’s list of definitions (I generally use The Free Dictionary–I find its explanations at least as accessible as any other, and its format more user friendly than Merriam-Webster) you find this pair of meanings:
brier, n. 1. the white heath, whose root is used to make tobacco pipes
2. a pipe made of brierroot
Then, that meaning well in hand, I was able to feel mastery of the paragraph and give a short chuckle.
The other unlikely-to-ever-be-used word I puzzled over so far is “rheostat.” At one point in chapter two, the days and nights are rushing by in a crack haze: “. . . the miracle of the cracked ceiling she had been acutely attending for hours and hours, it was glowing, the intensity of its illumination multiplying surely but imperceptibly under the care of her watch, she imagined a hidden rheostat somewhere manipulated by a withered old hand, and then, with a start, she comprehended the meaning of this fascinating phenomenon.”
Doesn’t make a whole lot of sense with the frighteningly technical-sounding “rheostat” left undefined. After some digging and picking my way through unparseable conundrums of definitions like “a continuously variable electrical resistor used to regulate current” and feeling like I’m doing my taxes, I learn what it all means. A rheostat is a fancy term for the electrical component which makes dimmer switches possible.
(A rheostat surely has other uses than dimming lights; it allows for variable current, unlike a regular switch which allows for only on or off. But I can’t think of any, and dimmer switch is exactly what Wright means in this moment, fortunately.)
Again, the paragraph makes sense–and her drug-addled misinterpretation of perfectly natural illumination is now funny.
Maybe some day I will hear the word “rheostat” again and know what it means.
But Stephen Wright’s novel has thus far provided at least two fun, useful words to take home, as well:
minatory, adj: threatening or menacing
alt. minatorial, minacious
. . . he halted, frozen in place, his arrested shadow lofting gigantically up the wall, across the low ceiling, a slick black membrane quivering in minatory shapelessness close overhead.
And, toward the close of that scene comes this:
“There now,” she declared, “look at you,” casting a triumphant finger wallward at his anatomically correct umbral self. “Enormous. You’re one big guy.”
I know “umbral” has to do with shadows, and that makes sense here, but I try not to guess at words that I’m not sure about. My consistency payed off, because when I looked up “umbra” I found something fun:
umbra, n. 1. A dark area, especially the darkest part of a shadow from which all light is cut off.
a. The completely dark portion of a the shadow cast by the earth, moon or other body during an eclipse
b. The darkest region of a sunspot
The concept that the “umbra” is the darkest part of a shadow, or a sunspot, or an eclipse–the part completely devoid of light–is really exciting and useful.
Then you get on to definitions three and four:
3. The usual accompaniment of a person or thing
4. A phantom or ghost.
“He became his girlfriend’s umbra and soon lost all of his friends.” “Controversy was umbral to him, chasing him from place to place.”