The Elusive Allusion
Posted by hyperpat on May 18, 2007
I’ve been reading Samuel Delany’s About Writing for the last couple of days. In terms of sound and solid advice about how to write, it is (as is almost constant in his work), excellent. Seeing how this man can take a mundane paragraph or two and with some seemingly minor changes turn it into something that sings and grabs is both incredible and daunting, as he makes it look easy, even though he’s the first to say that doing this is difficult and a lot of hard work.
But he also makes mention of the large amount of allusions he buried in his story Atlantis: 1924. Now I’ve read and appreciated this work, even though I typically do not like works that use ‘experimental’ techniques. But from seeing his words about this work, its genesis, background, and what he was trying to do with it, I realize that when I read it, I missed a very large amount of what was going on, and in fact placed an interpretation on a certain character within it that Delany did not intend. Which brings to the fore the question of how to use allusion, when it’s appropriate, and the even larger question of what happens to a story when the reader doesn’t so happen to catch whatever allusions are being used.
Now for this particular story, Delany structured it in such a manner that the interpretation I came up with not only made sense, it made its climax fully as satisfying as the one he intended. Few writers can do this, and even Delany sometimes falls well short of this mark (there are large chunks of his Dhalgren that fall very flat for me). More common is, when the allusion is missed, the story loses its brilliance, its frission, sometimes it totally fails as a story. Allusion can add depth, color, veracity, and evoke a whole complex of emotions and thoughts that otherwise might take many pages to achieve, if it’s achievable at all, but it is a dangerous tool. If it’s used, then the story really needs to be structured such that it still holds together even if a discriminating and widely-read reader so happens to not notice the allusion.
There’s also a certain amount of gamesmanship in the usage of this tool. Too much of it, and especially if the allusions are to obscure works that no one but literary scholars are likely to be aware of , and it comes across as a form of name-dropping. Some of the works I’ve read by Rushdie seem to fall into this category, and I, as a reader, find it very off-putting.
So: use sparingly, and be prepared to have it missed.
Now, if I can just get my prose to sing half as well as Delany’s, I’ll consider myself blessed.