One of the things it’s difficult to do in a reread is focus on, and only on, the text so far. Knowing the end, it’s far too easy to read foreshadowing and mystery into the beginning. Looking back at some of my conclusions about the first chapter, I think I’m guilty of that. Sure, it’s easy to see that Auri’s relationship to the objects in Port is interesting, but if the narrative had continued without some of WHAT A LOOK ENTAILS reveals, there’d be absolutely no hint of deeper mysteries. Whispers of hints maybe. But mostly a cracked young woman.
THE FAR BELOW BOTTOM OF THINGS is fully twenty two percent of the novella, by far the longest chapter. And while see a fair bit of the Underthing, in a strict sense we learn almost nothing. The stage is set in shadows, obscured in metaphor and poesy. It’s a deliberate obfuscation that encourages a surface level reading of what is really a surprisingly deep text.
What this chapter does is begin to pull back the curtain. I wanted this to be a sort of easy read that cataloged some of the interesting facts about the text. I hadn’t even fully addressed the place of The Slow Regard of Silent Things within the parent text. luckily, some clever commenters took care of that. I suspected it was constructed like The Wise Man’s Fear. I’d seen some of the parallel phrasing in the first and last chapters and made a mental note of how HOLLOW stood out as a turning point in the text. And, y’know, it was obviously full of alchemy. But that could wait.
It couldn’t wait too long, though. And so I’m gonna include some of it.
Anyway, we left off on Auri eating just enough to stop shaking. I mentioned before that both Pat and Nate portrayed extreme hunger well, one with the sudden onset of physical symptoms and the other with think limbs and shadows. Whatever Auri’s mental state, it’s compounded by debilitating malnutrition. She goes whole days without a morsel.
After eating , Auri knew it was past time she found the brazen gear its proper place.
I want to take a moment to talk about the brazen gear and brave Foxen. On the one hand these seem like whimsical attributions of emotional qualities to inanimate objects. However, both have at least a double meaning. Brazen simply means “made of brass.” Brave: “fine or splendid in appearance.” Chances are most of the consistent descriptions fit this mold. In the foreword Pat suggests the book might be for you if you love words. The more affection you show them, the more they reveal, I guess.
So she begins adjusting, moving, and ultimately touring the the Underthing with the gear. It’s interesting to note that at the same time as she’s trying to find the proper place for it, she’s also seeking its secret answers. She wants it to be “forthcoming.”
If one of the locks this chapter opens is the practical nature of Auri’s descriptors, another is the overall shape of the story. Seven chapters from now, on the other side of the ring, the gear accompanies her again, finally yielding its answers. In a ring, the chapters should work in pairs. In this case: 1/10, 2/9, 3/8, 4/7, and 5/6.
According to Robert Lowth (via Mary Douglas) this pairing can be synonymous, antithetic, or constructive. Pat likes to use all three. Chapters two and nine share synonymous staggering hunger, the traveling gear, and significant scenes in Pickering. Where a sense of wrong pervades chapter two, an antithetic sense of right, or at least truing, governs chapter nine. Auri’s spiral into panic in this chapter is referenced, and avoided, in the latter chapter. As an example of constructive pairing, these are the only two chapters where the word coruscant appears.
Eventually, Auri takes the gear back to The Twelve because maybe it belongs where she found it. She’s relieved to find that isn’t the case, but her relief is short lived. A nightjar taps three times on an iron pipe.
She looked after it numbly, the chill in her gut making a slow knot. She couldn’t ask for things to be more clear than that. Her pulse began to hammer at her then, her palms all sudden sweat.
This is probably the strangest thing that happens in the entire book and it’s never quite explained away. It turns out that a little bird quite literally told her that there was a leak in an iron pipe. How? Why?
It’s probably no coincidence that it’s a nightjar, which only appears in one other place in the narrative, “The Boy Who Loved the Moon.” What the inclusion of a nightjar does here is draw the power of that story into Auri’s narrative and remind us of some of its thematic elements. Notice how the bird’s a bit of a mystery but the pipe is not.
There was no need to guess the type of pipe though. The ting of it let Auri know it was iron , black and twice the thicken of her thumb.
That’s remarkably specific, especially for something high above her head in the dark. It might not be magic, of course, but it certainly highlights the importance of listening. And listening is something altogether different in Hespe’s story. So this is a third window into The Slow Regard of Silent Things.
Auri runs to Tenance, a liminal space between the Underthing and the University. It’s a storage room where they keep stuff to repair the pipes. Maintenance. She’s desperate to find and fix the leak before someone from above comes to do it.
Auri selects a stoppered Jar and a brush from the shelves and runs to Rubric where she eventually finds the leaking pipe. She shuts off a valve and then waits while the area dries. We learn she was an Alchemist.
Auri sighed. It was just as Master Mandrag said so many years ago.
We never do find out what Mandrag said. Maybe it’s sitting right out in the open in one of Sim’s stories in the other books. I haven’t found it. The stoppered jar contains tenaculum, an alchemical substance that might be identical to the one Kvothe used to post his “Jackass, Jackass” lyrics.
We used a lovely alchemical adhesive Simmon had cooked up for the occasion. The stuff went on like paint, then dried clear as glass and hard as steel.NW 455
Tenaculum is unfortunately a medical instrument, so figuring out why this alchemical epoxy resin is called that is sort of difficult. It’s Latin root is for holding and binding, though. Auri’s able to smell naptha and sulphonium in it and apparently would have used something else to make it.
This tells us a couple things. First, that alchemical recipes are personal. You can achieve the same result with different ingredients. This actually matches up with historical alchemy where, after getting through the obfuscation and allegory, you’ll find different methods for the same processes. Pat goes a step further and includes a sentiment that appears over and over again over the centuries.
Whoever wrought and factored this was living proof that alchemy was art. It showed pure mastery of craft.
A fourth key to the novella is the way it’s written. In adding the praise of alchemy itself, Pat’s winking at those who recognize it and suggesting there’s more than initially meets the eye. He’s telling us a lot about alchemy, and Auri, and Temerant. But it’s all buried under an unstable mind: malnourished, possibly feverish, undeniably different.