A word or phrase that conveys nothing but its surface meaning to one person brings with it a whole host of associations for someone else. Literature—great and otherwise—abounds with allusion, so one is never just reading a single work but also all of the works being referenced. Scholars happily—and, yes, smugly, often insufferably so—spend their lives picking out allusions from works like James Joyce’s Ulysses.
To fully appreciate an author’s work, and the context of that work, one would have to read all the books that that author had read, but then one might as well assert that a person would have to live through all of that author’s experiences as well. Even if one were to attempt either, both paths are blocked by obvious limitations. Even so, and without going too far down the road toward Pretentious Assville, I can say that there’s a great deal of joy to be had by welcoming other works into what would otherwise be a single, isolated reading experience.
After complete, happy immersion in Dan Simmons’s novel The Terror, which I picked up after Stephen King named it to one of his best-of-the-year lists, I grew more and more eager for Simmons’s next novel, Drood. Because Drood concerned Charles Dickens, and particularly his last, unfinished work, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, I read that in anticipation of Simmons’s novel. I also realized that I should read Bleak House as well, as Simmons’s Drood contains a counterpart to Bleak House’s marvelously drawn character Inspector Bucket.
Simmons’s Drood is told from the perspective of Dickens’s contemporary Wilkie Collins, a successful writer in his own right, but a lesser light than Dickens by far, and an opium addict to boot. (In Simmons’s novel, Collins quaffs laudanum by the glassful.)
Having read both The Mystery of Edwin Drood and Bleak House (which to that point I should have read long before anyway!), I dove into Simmons’s Drood. I wasn’t far into the novel, however, before I realized that I should read Collins’s work as well, because it was heavily referenced in the text. So I read Collins’s The Moonstone, read a bit more of Simmons’s Drood, read Collins’s The Woman in White, and then finished Drood.
The inclusion of these other works in my journey through Drood resulted in a nourishing, cathedral-sized expansion of the reading experience. So often allusions feel impossibly far off from the work referencing them. They can feel like something dead spoken of by the living, but in this experience, the works seemed to interact and speak to each other as though they were doing so in the present.
The thoughts above resulted from a reflection on my previous post (“Toast”), in which I used two words, passing and limelight, that shimmer for me. Some words do that, whether they reference a song or a movie or a novel. I’ve encountered passing, in its archaic meaning of “surpassing,” most recently in George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series, and I’ve always loved that particular usage. Because my last post involved the NFL, I could not resist employing the phrase “passing strange,” for obvious reasons.
As for limelight, there’s a great quote in the enjoyable—but decidedly not-great—thriller Ricochet, in which Lindsay Wagner (the Bionic Woman, of course) says to Denzel Washington, “You wanted to be in the limelight. It’s a hot seat now, pal.” If I ever happen upon a situation in which I can use that line, you can be damn sure I’ll drop it without shame or hesitation. In the meantime, I’ll slip in limelight on its own from time to time, and, even if I’m the only one who knows why, I’ll enjoy the way it shimmers.
A few grammar notes:
Traditionally, the possessive of singular nouns ending in s is formed by adding apostrophe-s, so you would have “Dickens’s” and “Simmons’s.” Associated Press (AP) style, which most newspapers follow, however, does not employ the final s, so you would write “Dickens’ literary acumen.” People will try to beat you over the head with what’s right and wrong, but as with so many of these arguments, it’s a style issue.
Titles of works are generally set in italics, but when forming a possessive of a title (and whether you should do so or not is another argument), set the title in italics but the apostrophe-s in roman (non-italic) font.
The names of book series, such as Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series, are not set in italics. Also note that series can be either singular or plural.
When using words as words (“the word limelight”), set that word in italics.