Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Marmalade words

Lately, I've been writing many e-mails to my friends about my admiration for Errol Morris's work (Brette and I saw him speak at the New Yorker festival with Philip Gourevitch, and I'll post on that soon--needless to say, it was extraordinary), and I always laugh a little when I type out the description of my favorite of Morris's films, Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control: "it's a documentary about four strange obsessions: robots, lion taming, naked mole rats, and topiary gardening." I'm nearly certain I've never typed out "naked mole rats" or "topiary gardening" in any other context, but now the words are everywhere. Actually, I probably have written naked mole rats in an account about the World of Darkness, my favorite Bronx zoo exhibit. Some days I try to figure out how many Statistically Improbable Phrases (to use Amazon parlance) I type out--of course, such self-consciousness ends up being circular because you can't very well try to achieve statistical improbability, right?

I call these moments Marmalade Words, after a passage from Shirley Jackson's We Have Always Lived in the Castle--which has a neat redesigned book cover and an introduction from Jonathan Lethem--about the narrator's self-protection strategy:
"I decided I would choose three powerful words, words of strong protection, and so long as these great words were never spoken aloud no change would come. I wrote the first word--melody--in the apricot jam on my toast with the handle of a spoon and then put the toast in my mouth and ate it very quickly. I was one-third safe.
...
I was deciding on my seocond magic word, which I thought might very well be Gloucester. It was strong, and I thought it would do, although Unlce Julian might take it into his head to say almost anything and no word was truly safe when Uncle Julian was talking.
...
I thoguht of using digitalis as my third magic word, but it was too easy for someone to say, and at last I decided on Pegasus.
(I can read that she's eating jam, but I never get to say the word marmalade.)