Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory
We can't think of another book with such an uncomfortable relationship with imagery. Just check out this passage, in which Christopher writes directly about his use of imagery in the book:
Siobhan said that when you are writing a book you have to include some descriptions of things. I said that I could take photographs and put them in the book. But she said the idea of a book was to describe things using words so that people could read them and make a picture in their own head.
And she said it was best to describe things that were interesting or different.
She also said that I should describe people in the story by mentioning one or two details about them, so that people could make a picture of them in their head. Which is why I wrote about Mr. Jeavons' shows with all the holes in them and the policeman who looked as if he had two mice in his nose and the thing Rhodri smelled of but I didn't know the name for. (103.27-29)
Pretty cool, right? That's a good starting point for any discussion of the importance of imagery in literature, we'd say. From there we might go one level deeper, and explore the nature of these images, and what they mean on a symbolic level – yes, quite deep.
If we were talking about Shakespeare, say, or The Great Gatsby, this would keep us busy for days and days. But Christopher isn't so interested in that, so let's stay focused here for a second. He goes out to the garden and describes what he sees, and hears, and smells, concluding, "But I couldn't smell anything. It smelled of nothing. And this was interesting, too" (103.39).
For this reason, perhaps the best example of detailed imagery in the book comes from other folks instead. Christopher's mother fantasizes about the man she could have married if she hadn't married Christopher's father:
And he'd be, ooh, a local handyman. [...] And we'd have a veranda with figs growing over it and there would be a field of sunflowers at the bottom of the garden and a little town on the hill in the distance and we'd sit outside in the evening and drink red wine and smoke Gauloises cigarettes and watch the sun go down. (113.11)
Wow, sounds pretty idyllic, right? We simply adore figs… it's pretty easy to see how this is both a nice fantasy to hold onto, as well as a vivid contrast to the drabness of her life and her disastrous marriage.
That said, Christopher's ability to describe the world around him is, paradoxically, limited – rather than truly expanded – by the rather unique way he sees the world. As he says himself, "I see everything" (181.1). He can't simply pluck out a portion of a landscape, or a specific aspect of the environment and focus on that. Nope, he notices every single thing, down to the tiniest detail – and is not very good at knowing which things are more important than others.
The best examples of this arrive in the second half of the book, when he's absolutely bombarded by sensory stimuli, and sees things he's never seen before. Our favorite is when he arrives in London and tries to figure out where to go by reading all the signs surrounding him (211.27). While at first he can read them no problem, soon they pile on top of one another and jumble up all together until they're just a nonsensical block of hieroglyphics, perfectly representing Christopher's mental state.