A book about a physical and spiritual journey.
In this book, Ehrlich uses many different techniques that all work together to make a good book. Basic ground rules of writing command us to ?show, don't tell? and keep the reader as involved as possible in the story. In general, Ehrlich uses special techniques where the story of her journey might become too abstract, too metaphysical, or too obtuse, or too personal to sustain us as readers. Here are a few techniques I found interesting.
If I understand Ehrlich's intent, this is a book about a journey. But the journey isn't just a physical journey (Wyoming to California to North Carolina to California then back to Wyoming), it's also a spiritual, religious and emotional journey. In this sense then, this is partly a book about ideas.
Interestingly, Ehrlich does not begin the book with a big set of ideas. She begins in the present tense, a voice and tense of intimacy and immediacy. She places us at the beginning in a dream or a dreamstate she experienced at the moment of the lightning strike. It seems to me, this sets Ehrlich up nicely to deal with the potential problems of a ?talky, head-game? narrative. My guess is she knows she's got a long journey ahead of her, filled with speculation, thoughts, feelings, readings, science facts, and what not, so she looks for devices to keep the narrative grounded and interesting. Her first technique is the present tense opening. Another technique she uses is to concentrate her details on the natural world. Although we learn about the physics of lightning, Ehrlich spends countless paragraphs describing every species of plant and animal one can encounter in California or Wyoming. With such a heavy dose of color, shape, sound and smell details I never encounter the accumulated feeling that I am too much absorbed in the narrator's head.
Ehrlich's attention to the sensory details around her help us trust her as a narrator on subjects we don't understand. We trust her when she tells us how kelp smell, how fish look and feel, how the birds fly, the feeling of snow between her toes. Likewise, when she tells us something about lightning, about it's electrical charge, about the currents it follows, or tells us something about Tibetan philosophy, we believe her. Her credibility as an observer of nature carries over to her explanation of abstract or unobservable phenomenon. This makes the whole story much more believable, richer, and more concrete to us readers.
In one section, Ehrlich talks about a legend she read about a lighting victim always being thirsty. In the next paragraph she switches to a scenic description of her filling water bottles because she's always thirsty. She goes on to cite some more similarities between her situation and the legend she read. This works to her advantage as a credible narrator because now, in other places, I will subconsciously project the description of other legends onto her.
In Chapter 24, Ehrlich comes right out and tells us why the book is structured the way it is. She says it is shaped like a convection cloud, and that inside the narrative would zigzag like lightning. When I read this page, I admit it did make the structure of the book clearer to me, but I have to admit I don't like it. First of all, she says she dreamed this. I don't believe it. It seems incredible that in the middle of this search for peace and health, she would dream about the structure of a book. This bothers me most because, now I doubt all her dreams. When is she really dreaming and when is she dreaming for the convenience of putting something interestingly metaphysical at just the right place in the book.
By contrast, the surgery scene is told mostly in straightforward scene. We hear the dialogue, see the things she sees without too much reflection and very little mysticism. This strikes me as a wise move, because by that point in the book, I needed a break from thinking too hard. It was nice to get a straightforward dose of scene, something fascinatingly interesting, yet at the same time as presented in scene form, it remained very present and accessible to me. I enjoyed just sitting back and watching the show. This let me catch my breath before hurtling into the thicker and thicker mix of narratives coming together at the end of the book.
All in all, Ehrlich pulls off a masterful collection of writing techniques to tell a compelling story.