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Thursday, February 25, 2021

Towers and Fever Dreams - a Guest Post by Yaroslav Barsukov

Order The Tower of Mud and Straw HERE

Official author info: After leaving his ball and chain at the workplace, Yaroslav Barsukov goes on to write stories that deal with things he himself, thankfully, doesn’t have to deal with. He's a software engineer and a connoisseur of strong alcoholic beverages—but also, surprisingly, a member of SFWA and Codex (how did that happen?). At some point in his life, he’s left one former empire only to settle in another.  


We see the world, everything in it, only once in life. After newlyweds open the door into their new home, after the champagne bottle splashes against the bricks and they step into each room for the first time, reality dissolves, becomes associations, flashes, reflections. “This wall is the color of the pancakes my grandma used to bake when I was five,” a coat of dust on a glass lampshade, a hair of a crack in a porcelain tile, “I bet there’s only ever summer through that window.” The brain takes inventory, reducing objects to concepts. You’ll never see that wall again; from now on, you’ll see a wall, and you’ll remember the smell of batter from childhood.

All that, we’re led to believe, to reduce the strain on our central processing unit. Our synapses run the visual recognition routine; they would overload if, every millisecond, they needed to analyze the world in its entirety. For my money, this reduction is necessary so that we don’t go mad.

Rarely and far in between, there are glimpses of clarity. Have you ever looked at a photograph of your apartment taken from an unfamiliar angle? For a moment, you look at it with a fresh eye; you can’t recognize the place. Those two newlyweds who’ve just entered the same house now drift in different directions, floating toward some distant light in their own bubbles of recollections, hopes, and regrets.

It’s not all bad. We’re talking the same mechanism that molds us into poets and dreamers. Your brain is better than Shakespeare at finding allusions and metaphors—if only logic and reasoning didn’t get in the way!

What are dreams, then? Nothing more and nothing less than film reels cut together from miles of those comparisons and substitutes the brain has produced at daytime. But, as already mentioned, it’s not much different from what we perceive as reality; Gurdjieff called this the “waking sleep.”

Literary prose, I feel, is at its most effective when the writer taps into that reduction mechanism. Let’s say you’ve got a thousand foot-tall fantasy tower. You can write that it’s so-and-so high, has so-and-so many embrasures. The staircase running along the inner wall makes so-and-so many swirls. You can do all that. But if you tell your reader there was “a stretch of an evening sky pasted onto midday,” you have everything you need. Your tower is ominous, but it promises something you couldn’t find in daylight.

This approach lends the prose a dreamy, surrealist feel—but if you agree with what I’ve said before, you’ll realize it’s actually closer to hyperrealism, our everyday reality, Gurdjieff’s “waking sleep.”

Readers often skim through excessive descriptions. The late, great Robert Jordan loved to write about clothing in copious detail; I doubt it ever mattered to anyone except the artists tasked with producing the characters’ portraits. But the metaphors, they engage the brain. They skip the visual recognition and tap directly into patterns and feelings; they speak the language the brain speaks, becoming part of the “waking sleep” and, thus, indistinguishable from the real world.

The prose in my Tower of Mud and Straw has been described by many reviewers as having a “dreamlike quality” to it, with The Quill to Live going as far as to claim it’s best read as a “fever dream” (they gave the novella 8.0/10, so I’ll take that as a compliment :))—this is due to my reliance on the metaphors as the primary expressive instrument. You’ll find next to no actual descriptions in my book.

The approach is hit or miss, of course. Other reviewers felt the passages were not as descriptive as they would’ve liked—but hey, when it works, it really works.

Describing the scenery through metaphors has another advantage: it allows to filter the world through the character’s perception, giving the reader a glimpse into their mental state. If you write “molten sun dripped along the tower’s edge, a black furnace,” this suggests a different frame of mind than when you say “tree branches played with sunlight, sending golden bunnies on wild romps.” Imagery begins to paint the scene and the narrator’s feelings. Every description, every brick, every leaf brings you closer to the protagonist.

Speaking of dreams—there’s another component to my writing, one that I cannot sufficiently explain. Some of the imagery comes from places in my memories I can’t trace to any spot I’ve ever visited. Towers, steam locomotives, people against Art Nouveau facades. I don’t know where it all stems from. Perhaps pictures I glimpsed as a child, perhaps vivid dreams from way back.

And perhaps there’s more to reality, the newlyweds’ bubbles are not that impenetrable, and somewhere along the road, the streams we’re drifting in converge, and our “waking sleep” becomes a shared hallucination.


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