The Art of Description in A.S. Byatt’s “The Chinese Lobster”
By Chaya Bhuvaneswar
The display is brightly lit, and arranged on a carpet of that fierce emerald-green artificial grass used by greengrocers and undertakers. Round the edges on open shells, is a border of raw scallops, the pearly flesh dulling, the repeating half-moons of the orange-pink roes playing against the fierce green. In the middle, in the very middle, is a live lobster, flanked by two live crabs. All three, in parts of their bodies, are in feeble, perpetual motion. The lobster, slowly in this unbreathable element, moves her long feelers and can be seen to move her little claws on the end of her legs, which cannot go forward or back ….From their mouths comes a silent hissing and bubbling, a breath, a cry. —A.S. Byatt, “The Chinese Lobster”
In this Craft Talk, I want to turn away from common topics, such as whether to choose first- vs. third- vs. second person; the uses of present tense omniscient; the decision to tell a story from the point of view of a single narrator or multiple narrators; whether flashbacks are a terrible device or sometimes exceedingly effective, and so on.
Instead I’d like to focus on what I consider to be “the art of description” as fundamental to what makes fiction live. Specifically, as the critical element that makes us experience, rather than know about, a story unfolding — description as what puts us immediately inside a “living dream.”
In A.S. Byatt’s story, quoted above from her collection of three long stories in The Matisse Stories (1992), one could argue that the vital decisions involved in the use of descriptive language directly reflect the fact that all three stories, as well as much of Byatt’s work in general, is about visual art. That description on the page translates to seeing colors and shapes, in the reader’s “mind’s eye,” in a way that is especially essential when, within a story, describing works of art. In “The Chinese Lobster,” art is dissected like this lobster in a tank. The male gaze and how it oppresses women, at least some women, so torments a young female art student that she develops a senior thesis on the theme while suffering from an untreated eating disorder. The student plausibly accuses a much older, traditional, sexist male art professor of sexual misconduct, lewd remarks, attempts to undress the student. The miracle of the story is how it works to convey the despair and trapped feeling of the art student, while at the same time using description to place us firmly within a far-different, yet no less gripping despair of the character whose point of view dominates – that of the sympathetic older female professor and dean, Gerda Himmelblau, who unexpectedly identifies with the suicidality expressed by the art student both in letters to the faculty and in her senior thesis project. The sense of being trapped, silenced, suffocated, helpless – shared by Himmelblau and the art student – is so efficiently conveyed by the description of the lobster.
In Byatt’s story, the colors of Matisse’s paintings are so vitally linked to the colors of the constructed world around Himmelblau. Her gaze – compassionate, encompassing, neutral – poses a subtle though direct challenge to the male gaze described throughout the story, of male art historians and of Matisse himself, in which desire for women is celebrated, and under which nothing that is not beautiful deserves to live. The female gaze that challenges the male professor’s famous and patriarchal way of looking at art and the world subverts by grounding in reality, however painful reality might ultimately be: the suicide of a loved one; middle-age and isolation, loneliness, in the face of choices Himmelblau made to survive academia’s sexism while not building a life outside of work; the fierce anger of the art student; the fact (however bemoaned by the man accused of being a harasser) that despite this student being psychiatrically ill and visibly impaired, she has a fundamental human right not to be harassed, and she knows it.
Other descriptions presented later in the story all flow from and echo this one, of the trapped lobster, silently crying out but accepting, passively, that no one can hear. The climax of the story is when, in one of these descriptions, the intensity of Himmblau’s preoccupation with suicide, with questioning whether her own life is worth living, as she grieves the suicide of a woman she was in love with, emerges in the following few lines of description (note here that “description,” as I am referring to it, can also include dialogue):
You are in a white box, a white room, with no doors or windows. You are looking through clear water with no movement – perhaps it is more like being inside ice, inside the white room.
I learned so much from this story that then informed stories in my collection like “Jagatishwaran” and “Orange Popsicles,” both about artists and their art. Above all: the connection of description to intense emotion, and the way that a memorable description can convey emotion, impart tone, to a story; and surprisingly, the way that really good dialogue works like description, where the words characters say are directly heard by the reader and, like the visual cues of the description described here, take the reader inside the three-dimensional, convincingly virtual reality of the story.
CHAYA BHUVANESWAR is a physician and writer with work in LitHub, Narrative Magazine, Tin House, Electric Lit, The Millions, Joyland, Michigan Quarterly Review, and elsewhere. Her poetry and prose juxtapose Hindu epics, other myths and histories, and the survival of sexual harassment and racialized sexual violence by diverse women of color. Her debut collection White Dancing Elephants was released on October 9 2018 by Dzanc Books, and is available now at Amazon as well as indie booksellers including Dzanc Books and your local stores online, as well as Target and Barnes & Noble. She has received a MacDowell Colony fellowship, Sewanee Writers Conference scholarship, and Henfield award for her writing. Follow her on Twitter at @chayab77 for upcoming readings and events, and check out book trailers and other events at chayabhuvaneswar.com.