Overweening Generalist

Friday, October 26, 2012

Writing and Style: The Long, Meandering Sentence

The other day I was watching Jeopardy! (I know, I know, I'm some sorta geezer and this disclosure no doubt damages my Cool Cred, but WTF).(<---a bit of ironic foreshadowing!)

Anyway, HERE's the board I was looking at. Look at the category, "Send Me A Text." From the context, I got the first three, but didn't get the $800 or the $1000 ones. (Did you? I have sent precisely three texts in my entire life, and zero in the past two years. Kids 12-15 send 193 text messages per week, with girls sending more than boys.)

Which sent me, later that evening, to online dictionaries of Text-Speak.

Quite the cornucopia of knowledge I'll probably never use, but still: interesting: HERE.

                                    William Faulkner, Nobel Prize for Literature, hear
                                    his acceptance speech HERE.

Robert Anton Wilson, when talking about his style, often pointed out Joyce and Pound as influences. When he mentioned Faulkner, it was usually in the context of Faulkner's long, hypnotic sentences, sentences that start out telling you about a idea or person or something in the environment, then meandered around corners, banking off of the qualities of light and what that made a character think of, and that time when the town was faced with a crisis, and how they handled it, people around Faulkner's  Yoknapatawpha having seen quite a bit in their time, or at least thinking they did. Wilson wanted his own long sentences to "swing" just so.

And I've long marveled at long sentences and what they can do to my consciousness. Those of you who enjoy the sentence of clauses upon clauses: do you feel like we're a dying breed?

McLuhan might've said - maybe he did write - that with the ubiquity of SMSs (short messaging systems), it might eventually place long, literary sentences into relief: because of loudmouths on talk radio and their short sentences, with shouting pundit-heads on TV "news," all of this in the context of here and now robotic short declarative "news" bites, sound-bites, texts, tweets, etc: we might suddenly notice the long sentence as the marvelous thing it represents.

What does it represent?

                                  Pico Iyer. I became hooked with Video Night In 
                                  Kathmandu, then read The Global Soul, then The 
                                  Lady and the Monk. See his books HERE.

One of the most literary and cosmopolitan writers we have, Pico Iyer - my favorite travel writer, ever - not long ago penned a short essay on why he writes long sentences. He does it as "a small protest" against "the bombardment of the moment."

Iyer's wonderful essay is HERE.

He says we have a surfeit of information, but "what we crave is something that will free us from the overcrowded moment and allow us to see it in the larger light." All well and good, but what does the long, Faulkneresque sentence do?

For Pico Iyer, "The long sentence is how we begin to free ourselves from the machine-like world of bullet-points and the inhumanity of ballot-box yeas and nays." Now we're getting somewhere...

The extended sentence, swoop-swerving on the page, signifies the complexities of our minds in a world in which, as Pico says, for shouting heads on TV, "Qualification or subtlety is an assault on their integrity." It seems like some sort of weapon of defense, this expansive sentence.

He also asserts - and I agree - that the long sentence, when we hang with it intently, as it seemingly tries to throw us with its subclauses acting on prior clauses, abrupt shifts or languid turns...we are allowed access to the depth and mysteries of our own minds. Long sentences have invasive qualities. They seem a close cousin to the instrumental solo, especially in jazz. They demand a relatively brief period of zen-like attention, and maybe that's enough to accomplish their ability to change our state of consciousness to something more in-tuned? Aye, I will say something that Pico did not say: the long sentence is a brief escape into a micro but finite province of meaning: it's mind-altering, it's like having passionate sex on your coffee break. Instead of coffee. It's like getting stoned. Sorta.

The long sentence militates against everything fast and easy and short in our world; it wants to save us from what we're in peril of losing: the subtle self-questioning of the live mind. The long sentence is a chance for passionate engagement with the world, and integrity's "greatest adornment."

Pico cites Rushdie and DeLillo, Proust and Pamuk, Philip Roth and Sir Thomas Browne, Annie Dillard and Alan Hollinghurst. And someone I've been reading lately, Thomas Pynchon:

"I cherish Thomas Pynchon's prose (in Mason & Dixon, say), not just because it's beautiful, but because his long, impeccable sentences take me, with each clause, further from the normal and predictable, and deeper into dimensions I hadn't dared to contemplate."

I'm re-reading Pynchon's Inherent Vice right now. It's a novel filled with Los Angeles detective tropes, paranoia, drugs, music, crazy characters, and humor. The book is set in LA, very early 1970. And on page 13 Pynchon delivers a long sentence, a genius of image-projection upon the reader's mind (what Ezra Pound called phanopoeia), which, well, just read for yourself. The private detective in the novel - named "Doc" -  has an office next to a Dr. Buddy Tubeside, whose practice consists almost entirely of giving people shots of "Vitamin B12," which was a euphemism for methamphetamine. (B12 is a real vitamin - it prevents anemia - but it always helps to have a euphemism for a populace paranoid of the Drug User.) This is a historical fact: doctors in the 1950s through about the mid-1970s, would see middle-class patients - often housewives - who felt uninspired in their dreary housework, they had little nagging pains, they felt "blah." Doctors could give a shot and do the trick every time! How meth has changed over the years, eh?

Anyway, here's Pynchon:

"Today, early as it was, Doc still had to edge his way past a line of 'B12' -deficient customers which already stretched back to the parking lot, beachtown housewives of a certain melancholy index, actors with casting calls to show up at, deeply tanned geezers looking ahead to an active day of schmoozing in the sun, stewardii just in off some high-stress red-eye, even a few legit cases of pernicious anemia or vegetarian pregnancy, all shuffling along half-asleep, chain-smoking, talking to themselves, sliding one-by-one into the lobby of the little cinder-block building through a turnstile, next to which, holding a clipboard and checking them in, stood Petunia Leeway, a stunner in a starched cap and micro-length medical outfit, not so much an actual nurse uniform as a lascivious commentary on one, which Dr. Tubeside claimed to've bought a truckload of from Frederick's of Hollywood, in variety of fashion pastels, today's being aqua, at close to wholesale."

Do you not only get a picture here, but a snapshot of a historical moment, with ideas about how we negotiate drugs and permissibility, how we frame addiction, how things change, how sex can go with drugs, people will always just want to feel good, etc? I do. And "beachtown housewives of a certain melancholy index" just kills me. O! To write a phrase like that! What about "stewardii"? And "lascivious commentary" on the nurse uniform.

It's Things like this that keep me reading, ladies and germs. It's sentences like that that give me a contact high.

                                    One of the only photos of the extremely enigmatic 
                                    Pynchon, born in 1937. When he's been labeled 
                                    "reclusive" he shoots back with something like 
                                    "You mean I'm not media-friendly?" 


BrentQ said...

I've always meant to read Pynchon. Gravity's Rainbow seems a bit daunting. Is Inherent Vice a good book to start on?

michael said...

GR is quite the daunting book indeed.

Inherent Vice is very readable - for Pynchon - and hilarious, filled with his signature mixture of ideas gleaned from science, lots of drugs, paranoia, hidden history os the US, sophomoric humor and crazy names, and gorgeous sentences.

Pynchon critics often refer to what's currently "The California Trilogy": Crying of Lot 49 (which has probably been read all the way through than any of his other books?), Vineland, and Inherent Vice. All three are readable.

V (1963), GR (1974), and Against the Day (2006) make mucho mas demands on the reader...

Maybe Mason & Dixon (which the literary critic Harold Bloom said was TP's masterwerk and Eric Wagner once opined TP had read RAW and been influenced by him in this one) resides in-between the CA Trilogy and Weird Paranoid Epics?

Or you could start out with Slow Learner, a collection of TP's earliest published writings - short stories - that reveal his stunning encyclopedic mind at a very young age.

michael said...

I shouldda added: Dr. Oz Fritz, Dr. E. Wagner and I are doing an online reading/discussion of Inherent Vice, and we just started about 10 days ago. It's over at

So totally not too late to abscond with a copy, read, chime in!

BrentQ said...

Oh cool. I might just go pickup a copy then!

Anonymous said...

I tried to read Gravitys Rainbow 4 times before actually finishing it, and it took me 2 months even then ( I am a slow reader anyway though); I recomend it for its comic surrealism and bizarre psycholigical digressions. but effort is required to follow his riffing in and out of narratives.

I recomend the The Crying of lot 49for an introduction to Pynchon( it is still slightly difficlut, but it is short, so you don't have to spare as much time understanding it); The crying is to gravitys what the sex magicians is to illuminatus.

Eric Wagner said...

Great piece. It reminded me of Hugh Kenner's comment that he considered Ezra Pound the only person he'd met who spoke in paragraphs.

I think of the change in discourse on political talk shows. I don't remember people interrupting people of Firing Line. Now uninterrupted discussion seems rare. I think young people hear few examples of adults not interrupting each other. I think of Vonnegut's "Harrison Bergeron," where loud noises prevent coherent thought.

William Goldman has written that he thinks the editing of rock videos has changed the audience's perception of pacing. This makes it more difficult for young audiences to enjoy slow films like "Lawrence of Arabia."

Please come join us in reading the Pynch, Satori Guy.

michael said...

@Prof. Wagner: When I hung out with RAW he seemed to talk in full paragraphs too. I've heard other writers who do this, but many other very adept writers who do not speak well, at least to a small audience.

The yoga of writing seems to have carry-over effects to the speech acts of certain writers, while it doesn't seem to work on others? I wonder if RAW/Pound/Gore Vidal/many others see themselves as public intellectuals, so that in some sense they train their brains to be very articulate in speech also? (Good writers who are not so striking in their speech might possibly define themselves as writers who need not concern themselves with answering the public well? I dunno...just riffing here.

It seems Goldman has a lot of company in his idea about MTV and editing. I think he's basically right. And all of that DOES seem to have some relationship to "hanging" with a writerly novel, esp one with long, meandering sentences.

The hyperproliferation of digital devices and the "social" connexions they afford seem to foreground Human Attention Spans and Actual Thinking, no?

Rushkoff has a handful of gems about all this. No matter how sophisticated our digital gadgets, they seem to foster the "liberatory" aspect of CHOICE, when we must always be thinking also "Maybe None of the Above," because, as Rushkoff pointed out: the postmodernists missed a crucial level when they worried that the welter of symbols would seduce the populace into MegaCorp's reductive worldview. There was "reality" of the phenomenal world, pre-verbal: the "blooming, buzzing confusion" of William James, and Hagbard Celine's "spiky and buzzing world of sensory fact" (Ill.Tri. 790); then there were signs for that reality. Then there were symbols for those signs.

But they- the pomos- didn't seem to understand that, in the digital world, the code the gadgets are written in is like the Talmud, or the landowning Forefathers writing the Constitution, which served to protect their own interests.