Last Refuge of the Scoundrel
There is, in a certain Nabokov story that I cannot quite place (and don’t want to, for reasons that will soon appear clear), a line that goes something like, “the square sound of a car door slamming.” In retrospect, Vlad the Encoder probably didn’t use the word “slamming”; it is so terribly gauche. But what I remember is nodding my head very violently when I read that line, and agreeing that, indeed, car doors slamming probably had a very square sound that emanated from the shape of the door itself. The reason I don’t want to know what story it was from, or what the context was (though from my understanding of the Internet, 4Chan will show up and inform us immediately) is that I love that phrase as and of itself. It has a musicality and a charm to it, a certain “rightness” that strikes the reader and leaves the critic’s heart cold, lonely, and desert-y (which, as it should be, is the holy grail of all true writers), and it floats just fine in the ether because it is a complete image, a complete line, and it needs nothing else to be.
I feel like everybody has some of those lines stuck in the brain, ear-worms that please us, that we can draw on from a lifetime of reading. I have also always been enamored of Wodehouse’s description of a butler displeased with his lord’s behavior: “Ice formed on the butler’s upper slopes.” Again, I don’t know what book or story it’s from, or even the lord (or butler) in question. I remember from Primo Levi’s Lilith, “In the space of a few minutes the sky turned black and it began to rain.” Douglas Adams: “I think fish is nice, but then again I think rain is wet, so who am I to judge?”
Which is an unnecessarily complicated way of saying that, while reading, I appreciate and luxuriate at the level of the sentence, the building blocks of larger bits of prose. It’s a fraught relationship though, because for the last five years I’ve waged a war in workshops and in literature classes against Sentences (see what I did there with the capitalization? It means I’m saying something important. Graduate student tip). By which I mean that thing springing up around individual sentences when people sit solemnly in a circle and say things like “evocative sentence” or “he’s a terrible writer, but he does write a good sentence.” Michael Nye’s talked recently about the MFA story, and I think the Cult of the Sentence is one of the red-haired step-children of the MFA story. In that, in workshops, it’s very easy to point to a few good sentences and say, “well, at least they can write.” I think that microscopic focus often obscures larger, structural issues that people’s stories have; we miss the forest for the trees.
I’m not sure why this angers me so much. Maybe it’s because even when I like writing on a sentence level I still need it to do something for me on a larger level. I need not just a car door slamming but a car door slamming as a little breather while attempting to understand a depiction of the nature of evil. In other news: I’m curmudgeonly as all get out.
Recently though, I’ve begun to rethink my position on the Sentence. How much harm does a well-made sentence do? It exists, happily, in the world. It makes its creator happy. It presumably gives the reader a little pinprick of joy as they slog through an otherwise sleep-inducing story about a white, middle-aged man struggling with divorce and loneliness in a suburb or small town somewhere (or, in more recent variations: a girl in her 20s who is very quirky and that’s about it, or people being un-talkative in one of the Big Sky states while they commune with nature in personal or professional ways or unnecessarily Gothic takes on general malaise). Why attack the Sentence?
Because, godammit, no one reads anymore, and it’s because we all write boring stories, and people like “big” stories that tell us about entire lives and countries, that spread their canvas over the entirety of a nation or the world, that offer us intrigue and drama. You can’t do that in a sentence (Oh, here’s another one from Rushdie: “To know just one person you have to swallow the entire world”). A sentence is a nail; when you see the entire house you shouldn’t be paying attention to it.
But, here’s the thing. We live in an increasingly visual culture. Pictures are worth about a thousand words. People like David Simon are already spreading their canvases out and telling stories about the death of the American city, and you know, we can write about it, but let’s be honest: Omar jumps off the screen in a way that we would be hard-pressed to put on the page. And even if we did, could we write something that encompassed Omar & McNulty, but also found time for Carcetti, Clay Davis, Stringer Bell, Bubbles, and Snoop? Only if the book was really, really long.
Which is a way of saying that, as writers we’ve lost some of our cache as storytellers. The movies and television do a lot of that work for us now. What have we got left? The sentence. We can still write a good sentence, and it’ll give us the opportunity for a moment of communion with our reader that explains that we still have a place in the world. Look at the poets–they’ve been around for thousands of years precisely because they understood this. A good line is worth its weight in gold. And if everything else is taken from us, let’s remember that at least we have that. And not let the world slam the square car door on us as it escorts us out.
Save the sentence!