Imagery Sharp Enough To Cut A Reader

As much as I like to grouse about Robert Jordan and The Wheel of Time, reading through the series left a strong impression on me. After all, most of my grousing has to do with bloat and how the story unspools at times, rather than weaves together. Too many instances of unimportant details being emphasized in blocks of descriptive text (a crime I perhaps come down on too strongly because I recognized this issue, magnified, in my own writing) again and again and again. Too much time being skipped over to show the end results and then returned to, to be examined in excruciating detail. Too many plot threads as the story wandered wide over eleven books before Jordan, health failing, tasked Brandon Sanderson with wrapping it all up. Specific, smaller problems that had to do with the background of the reading experience rather than the main focus of it. I enjoyed the series and don’t regret spending time reading through it, but I’ve never been able to make myself read through it a second time, which is unfortunate because there are a lot of singular moments that left a mark on me and my imagination.

One of Jordan’s strengths was his imagery. Even though he could get bogged down in endless boring detail (I really don’t care how often characters brushed their teeth, nor do I care to know how well they did it each and every time they brushed), he also had an amazing skill for providing the right details you’d need to create the scene in your head as you read. A lot of the time, he did so by steadily building a location or scene and them moving through it slowly, adding detail as he went, until you were essentially looking at a box set for a TV show, where every single detail has been considered and carefully included. Reading through these pages is an excellent example of how to build a sedate story, to tell a tale that builds itself slowly and thoroughly, because the scene is just as much a character as the people in it.

Other times, he’d produce a small set of details to create a brilliant image in the reader’s mind. Most of the moments that had the greatest impact on me were the ones that were essentially just flashes of imagery as something was happening. A description of movement. A moment’s breath between action sequences. Tension suddenly snapping after a slow build, the action over almost as soon as it began. A series of rapid moments as a large action unfolds. The moments that had to be refined and reworked so they could be reduced down to as few details as possible and that grew all the stronger for this process.

The moment that sticks out to me the most, that shows up most frequently in my mind as it wanders through my day, is from early on in the series. The heroes, facing a great deal of pressure due to the rapid movement of their enemies and the much slower progress they’re making on their own, decide to risk a swifter road by using these strange magic stones covered in various symbols to rapidly move from one place to another. Throughout the series, we see this technique used a couple times with varying levels of success. I can’t remember if we’re told by the story or if it’s just heavily implied, but the stones act as access points to alternate worlds/cycles of the wheel, the idea being that you can move from one stone to another by designating which world/cycle and which stone you want to travel to. The specific instance I’m thinking of involves the primary protagonist, Rand, who uses the stone to travel and rapidly experiences several alternate lifetimes.

The alternate lifetimes play out faster and faster, each one involving fewer details than the rest as they depict shorter and shorter stretches of these alternate lives, each one building on the ones that came before it to create a huge variety of experiences that are stuck in my head, crystal clear, to this day. They all end with the Rand of that life thinking that things shouldn’t have played out that way. Every single one, even as they get shorter, ends with the protagonist thinking that what happened in his life was somehow wrong and that it should have gone differently. We get images of what’s to come, hints at how things will play out, and common themes that run through each life, but each one ends with that same thought until the thought is all that’s left.

I think about this scene all the time. About the way it represents a significant change in the character that unfolds (perhaps too slowly) over the entire series. About the way that tiny changes to a life can have enormous and life-altering consequences as the ripples are built upon. About having the feeling that things shouldn’t have gone the way they did. About how, in a fantasy story, we know that the protagonist is destined for something and can concretely say that it should not have ended like that, but we can never really do more than acknowledge the feeling when it crops up in our own lives. I think about how my life might be different (usually better) by changing one or two minor details. My mother never telling me to hide my feelings from everyone no matter what. My brother not coming home drunk one specific night. Deciding to go along to my dad’s company picnic instead of staying home alone a couple weeks before starting high school. Not being homeschooled. Getting my growth spurt earlier. Not living in the Midwest where people will judge each other but never extend a helping hand so long as everything stays out of direct sight.

One small section of a book has been stuck in my mind for almost a decade. More than anything else I’ve ever read, more than any section of text I’ve tried to memorize, this remains stuck in my mind. A series of ever shorter vignettes ending with the same core idea, thrown in the last third of a book as a means of explaining why the heroes are almost too late despite seeking a shortcut and I will never forget it as long as I live.

I can’t give all the credit to Robert Jordan, of course. I’m pretty sensitive to any media that involves changing the past, as evidenced by how many times I set aside Dragon Quest XI before I finally played all the way through it. I’ve had a troubled life and even one change would have a enormously positive impact on me, so I find it very difficult to avoid dwelling on the idea that I could maybe, somehow, change my past. Or the idea that I might be living out a “wrong” life as I look back at the frustratingly unlikely combination of events and beliefs that resulted in my childhood playing out the way it did. And all it took was about two pages of a book. Probably not even full pages. Maybe a third of the length of this blog post. And now I’m going to be thinking about it for the rest of my life.

It’s taken many years of therapy to be able to think about this stuff and not be overwhelmed with regret, or to be willing to write about it in any kind of reflective way, but this is one of the main pieces of evidence that I’ve long held about the potential power of words. It was a cool, vivid image meant to help fill time (in the story’s world) and line up the protagonists with the plot and because I read it, it is indelibly printed on my mind.

As I reflect on the past few years, do my best to figure out how to cope with everything going on right now, and work toward building the future I want, I still think about this passage and the fact that, in each alternate reality, the last thought Rand had as he died was basically one of total regret and disappointment. A feeling that became lodged in his mind and that had a direct influence on the person he was and the way he acted for years after emerging from the strange warp stone, only resolved in the last book or two. I hope I’ve managed to avoid becoming a person influnced by that much regret. I know I wasn’t for a long time, thanks to repressing it, but I think I became that person for a while in my mid to late twenties. Now, firmly into my thirties, I hope I’ve left it behind me in all forms except as a cautionary tale about finding a way to live without regret, regardless of whether or not this was the right way for things to go.

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