Like a lobster from its shell

Reading time: Just over 1 minute

I like to share interesting pieces of figurative language I encounter in my reading. I write today about a simile from Jonathan Lethem….

I read Jonathan Letham’s 1999 novel Motherless Brooklyn on the strength of a radio interview I heard with him. I must confess, I didn’t enjoy his book. But while I don’t generally like detective novels — which is what this was — and I remember noticing that he really could write.

Fast forward 15 years and I read a short story of his, titled “Pending Vegan” in the April 7/14 New Yorker. (Sorry, the hotlink is “locked” unless you’re a New Yorker subscriber — although you can read the first few paragraphs.)

I very much enjoyed this story (it’s laugh-out-loud funny in spots), which describes the moral predicament of a man who takes his wife and twin daughters on a holiday to Sea World in San Diego. I remember my own moral predicament with children in that venue (I hated it. I particularly disliked the enormous video screens and the way most people in the crowd stamped their feet yelling “Shamu, Shamu” (the name of the whale). The whole scene seemed to display the worst possible excesses of the Western world.)

Much as I apparently agree with Lethem’s politics, I really appreciate the way he writes. Here is my favourite simile from the piece:

Irving Renker was a Jewish New Yorker who’d crawled out of his archetype like a lobster from its shell, still conforming to that shell’s remorseless shape but wandering around fresh, tender, and amazed.

I found this figurative language particularly clever because lobster is not kosher, meaning that practicing Jews don’t eat it. So the metaphor itself crawls out of its own archetype. A double-headed simile!

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