Sunday, July 02, 2006

Now that's what I call a sentence

This is what people mean when they talk about the fusion of style and substance. Here's a character we've only just met, on page 13 of Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections: the elderly Alfred Lambert, sufferer from Parkinson's Disease, is standing in his bedroom, wondering why the dresser drawers are open and whether he opened them himself, when his wife suddenly appears in the doorway and asks him what he's doing.

Look at the control of grammar, punctuation, metaphor, interiority and free-association linear and non-linear that are all going on simultaneously in this marathon sentence. And think how many pages of careful characterisation a less skilled writer would have to produce to convey the same amount of information about Alfred Lambert: his age, his health, his wife Enid, his anxieties, his personal history and his much-disquieted and foggy state of mind.

'He began a sentence: "I am --" but when he was taken by surprise, every sentence became an adventure in the woods; as soon as he could no longer see the light of the clearing from which he'd entered, he would realize that the crumbs he'd dropped for bearings had been eaten by birds, silent deft darting things which he couldn't quite see in the darkness but which were so numerous and swarming in their hunger that it seemed as if they were the darkness, as if the darkness weren't uniform, weren't an absence of light but a teeming and corpuscular thing, and indeed when as a studious teenager he'd encountered the word 'crepuscular' in McKay's Treasury of English Verse, the corpuscles of biology had bled into his understanding of the word, so that for his entire adult life he'd seen in twilight a corpuscularity, as of the graininess of the high-speed film necessary for photography under conditions of low ambient light, as of a kind of sinister decay; and hence the panic of a man betrayed deep in the woods whose darkness was the darkness of starlings blotting out the sunset or black ants storming a dead opossum, a darkness that didn't just exist but actively consumed the bearings that he'd sensibly established for himself, lest he be lost; but in the instant of realizing he was lost, time became marvelously slow and he discovered hitherto unguessed eternities in the space between one word and the next, or rather he became trapped in that space between words and could only stand and watch as time sped on without him, the thoughtless boyish part of him crashing on out of sight blindly through the woods while he, trapped, the grownup Al, watched in oddly impersonal suspense to see if the panic-stricken little boy might, despite no longer knowing where he was or at what point he'd entered the woods of this sentence, still manage to blunder into the clearing where Enid was waiting for him, unaware of any woods -- "packing my suitcase," he heard himself say.'


Lucy Sussex said...

Sounds far too much like my father. Which is a compliment.


Fyodor said...

I've never seen such rampant and unmediated abuse of the semi-colon. Oh, and of simile, as of a kind of pretentious and long-winded exercise in masturbatory literature.

elsewhere said...

Is it true that Joan Didion eschewed the humble comma?

Pavlov's Cat said...

Lucy -- He must require a lot of listening time.

Fyodor -- Pish-tush, stuff and nonsense. I deduce that you grew up worshipping Hemingway, precursor of the sound bite, and himself a king among wankers. But it's true that I may have given a wrong impression -- what's going on in this sentence is a conveyance, albeit in free indirect discourse rather than first-person narration, of the character's Parkinsonian frame of mind, full of free-association and largely arbitrary connections including those made in similes. Also, I can't see why a long sentence should be considered masturbatory and a short one not; I would have thought ... oh, never mind. [NB judicious use of semi-colon.]

El -- I dunno; there's that Hemingway influence again, if she did. She used to sit and type out his sentences by the hour, trying to work out how he did it, a fact from which it would be possible to deduce if one needed to that she must have been born before 1950 at least, for otherwise the French feminist theorists would have stayed her typing hand.

Aha, no, wait: by 1990 she'd grown out of it. Cop this (from 'New York' in Sentimental Journeys) for elegant sentence structure.

'That there might well be, in a city in which the proliferation and need of increase in taxes were already driving private-sector payrolls out of town, hardly anyone left to tax for such public works and public-sector jobs was a point not too many people wanted seriously to address: among the citizens of a New York come to grief on the sentimental stories told in defense of its own lazy criminality, the city's inevitability remained the given, the heart, the first and last word on which all stories rested.'


Lucy Tartan said...

Jonathan Franzen seems to annoy a lot of people, I can see that this is the sort of thing some readers would find just unbearable, but I agree with you. I think he's a really good, interesting writer with a lot to say.