Style and Technique
The action of this story is simple, if disjointed. A reader who enters the narrative looking for the traditional line of connected events will be dismayed. In this story, no rational patterns appear—that is part of the writer’s art, and her message. Nothing is what it seems, which is appropriate, as the story concerns breaking out of the certainties of life to explore undiscovered realms. Words refuse to obey the simple demands of the reader’s expectations; they change meaning from one sentence to the next. Claiming at one point to have both a husband and a wife, the narrator confounds even our desire to know his or her gender.
Le Guin is in the delicate place of trying to describe a world that defies linguistic and rational meanings when the only tool available to her is the very words she wishes to discredit. Thus, she works by indirection, building a desire for certainty to a pitch almost as feverish as Rover’s. She works with puns and with literal interpretations, making the reader’s head spin in the effort to keep up. In doing so, she demonstrates just how subjective meaning can become, even when one stays within the linguistic and grammatical rules that govern writing.
Language, Le Guin suggests, must be reinvented to recognize and represent the diversity of viewpoints found throughout creation. As she notes in her introduction to Buffalo Gals and Other Animal Presences (1987), there must come a time “when the word is not sword, but shuttle,” a time when meaning includes rather than closes off alternative perceptions. Her slippery language is a finely tuned technique for teaching how to do this.