“My Pastimes” by Henri Michaux captures a violent moment in a bar, during which the presumably male narrator describe his assault of a random patron who chooses to sit beside him. The story starts with the narrator establishing himself as someone who thrives on violence, as the kind of man who fantasizes about beating up nearly everyone who crosses his path. Then, when someone new enters the bar, he springs into action, pummeling the stranger and describing the encounter as if his victim is an article of laundry. At one point the narrator spits on his prey, and soon after wearies of the whole situation. He ceases his assault and implores the barkeep for another drink, but before the drink arrives the narrator silently exits the bar.
Several of Michaux’s stylistic choices demand readers’s interests. The tone is direct, no-nonsense: this guy thirsts for kicking ass and it shows, plainly stating, “I like to beat people up” before the first paragraph ends (89). The fight scene itself takes on a comedic feel, several times using “Bam!” and “Pow!” to describe punches in a way reminiscent of Batman from the ‘60s. Despite these and other groovy aesthetic decisions, it’s the extended laundry metaphor that does the most work in the piece, serving as comedy while simultaneously deepening character.
Early in the fight, the narrator “hang[s his victim] on the coat rack. Unhang[s] him. Hang[s] him. Unhang[s] him.” Comparing the beating of a man to the hanging of a coat is a seemingly unusual metaphor to employ, yet it serves as the first echo of the tedium this man feels for himself and his actions. The repetition of the language coupled with the clipped short sentences work to establish his disinterest succinctly and freshly.
Later, descriptions of laundry reappear to cement the narrator’s mood: “I rinse him off, I stretch him out (by now I’m losing interest, this is going on too long), I crumple him up, squeeze him dry, roll him into a ball” (89). Here, the narrator clearly states his boredom in the parenthetical as the surrounding laundry-esque diction employs quick repetition to reflect tediousness, suggesting combat isn’t enough to sate him anymore and perhaps never has been. And that’s how this metaphor truly shines: chores like laundry and barroom brawls should not go together, which is precisely why the juxtaposition between the two richly underscores the narrator’s attitude. He says early he enjoys physical violence, but this comparison proves otherwise, that he has rutted his life without any clue how to change path. So he continues doing what he always does, suffering all the while.
For writers, the takeaway from this story is that fresh metaphors are great, but fresh metaphors that implicitly develop character are even greater. Michaux never fully states that the character loathes his life: the metaphor hints at those ideas, does that work for him. Often, we writers search for metaphors to inject humor or awe into a single line, and that’s all well and good (my metaphors are often dog-shit, for full disclosure). But if we try hard enough to find a metaphor that is amusing and illumines story concerns such as character, if we do that then our work both deepens within itself and expands outside itself, giving readers something richer than a one line haha. Of course, all this is easier to say than to execute; that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try though, right?