Nobody ever knows this book. It is my secret…my own…my precious.
I found it when I was twelve. Later twelve; seventh grade twelve; but, nonetheless, twelve. I went to the bookstore in my town (a Hastings – that should tell you what you need to know about the size of my town and the size of the bookstore) about once every two weeks in search of a new fantasy novel. I knew the selection there like it was my own personal library. There was a book with an interesting cover that jumped off the shelf at me, over and over again. It had no description on the back cover; the title was a cipher. This was before the internet was a household utility, so I had no way to find out what the book was about except to read it. Even then I hated reading books blind, and I hated the thought of spending half my monthly book allowance on a book that was a literal shot in the dark in terms of whether it would appeal to me. But that damned cover kept looking at me. Finally I gave in. I bought it. This is what I encountered on the first page:
I was hooked from the first sentence. I loved every successive sentence as much as the initial, and I loved everything else about the book, too – the plot, the setting, the characters, the fact that it was loosely a fantasy retelling of A Tale of Two Cities (which I had read and enjoyed that summer). It promptly became my favorite book and gave me aspirations about who I wanted to be as both a person and a novelist.
If you want to understand where I come from as a writer, reading Illusion by Paula Volsky will get you 80% of the way there.
As you can see in the sample above, she employs an insanely high level vocabulary, and she does so consistently throughout the book. (All her work, really, but that quality of her voice is on best display in Illusion.) More than that, she uses such language effortlessly, as if her lexicon of English is so vast and so fluent that she cannot help but to select the polysyllabic Latinate words in order to express herself most accurately. And accuracy is at the very heart of how she uses language, and why. This is not a writer who is using the largest word she can merely to impress; this is not a writer who selects words from a thesaurus in order to elevate her prose from pedestrian to erudite. This is a writer who uses only and exactly the words she needs to express herself most precisely. Her usages are incisive. Her meaning is absolute. You cannot rewrite with simpler words her sentences and retain every nuance that her she built with her highfalutin’ cant…at least, not without adding on extra sentences or metaphors and thereby betraying the adage that “you can say just as much with simple words as you can with fancy words.” No. You cannot. Not without using a great deal more of them, anyway.
For a long time – throughout the rest of my secondary education and on into college – my goal with every piece of writing was to be this eloquent, this elevated. It came off pretentiously, because it was a pretense. I am not this well-spoken. I am not this well-educated. I am not this well-heeled.
It took that class that I told you about to help me find my own voice and balance my language a little better with my personality. I am well-read and have a complex vocabulary; I do prefer to use one worth with my exact meaning than 5 to approximate it; I love the melifluent sound of sesquipedalian words. But I also have a predeliction for straight speaking and despise people who try to intimidate others by using language they do not know, and so I find my voice falls naturally a little more toward the mean than Volsky’s does.
In terms of understanding my preferences as a reader, Illusion embodies many of them. Supremely intelligent hero who is utterly masculine and yet displays not a single hint of “alpha” tendencies? Check. Resourceful heroine who is capable of both fitting into her culture and seeing beyond it so that she can be relatable to a modern audience without being anachronistic to her world? Check. Events and choices that build to inevitable conclusions while still allowing room for surprises? Check. Wonderfully quotable dialogue? Check. Oh, and a breathlessly forbiden love? Check.
I don’t write to that aesthetic, either, but it does hit my buttons as a reader. Or perhaps it is simply that Illusion set most of my buttons.
19 years later and every time I re-read it I realize it’s still my favorite book.