2.01.2009

In praise of the long sentence

One of my favorite things is to happen upon a really long sentence in a book. If I like it I always reread it, out loud if alone and sometimes if not, and maybe more than once. It's exciting finding one of those. It's like when someone in a band takes a really long solo, but the band lets it happen because they sense it needs to happen, and often the band seems to get more excited, even laughing with joy while the solo is going on. When a solo is boring, the band usually shows it on their faces and will sternly force the wandering noodler back inside the fence. A good long solo does not get boring -- the musician is not just noodling, but going somewhere with it, and it can be the most thrilling thing in music when it happens.

When I find a good long sentence -- after rereading it aloud and getting excited and folding down the bottom of the page so I know where to find it again -- I wonder why the author chose to do it, whether it was something deliberately done for some effect or whether it just rolled off that way in a moment of fulsome inspiration.

I don't like ones that are done just to show off. You can smell those a mile away. And I don't like it if you've gone 100 pages without one and then suddenly there it is -- it sticks out as an anomaly, which disqualifies it from success, in my view. You have to show you're capable of long sentences fairly early on in order for them to fit comfortably into your book. Not that many authors can get away with it, and that's probably a good thing, because there's nothing as pretentious as trying it out and failing -- you end up trying the reader's patience. Also, stringing dozens of clauses together with "and" doesn't cut it. It has to be a real, complex, shapely sentence.

What is a long sentence? I would say a sentence is long if it goes on for ten or more lines. Average line in an average book is maybe ten words, so in most cases we're talking about 100-300-word sentences. Beyond that is going too far, I think. I'm going to look at three examples I've found that I think work.

Here's the first one, exactly 100 words long. An old man is reminiscing:
It took maybe nine or ten years more of westward drift, over the rolling prairie, through the cheatgrass, the sage grouse exploding skyward, the dread silences when skies grow black in the middle of all that country, outracing cyclones and rangefires, switchbacking up the eastern slope of the Rockies through meadows of mule-ear and sneezeweed, on over the great torn crestline, to be delivered at last into these unholy mountains Webb grew to manhood in and had not left since, into whose depths he had ventured after silver and gold, up on whose heights he had struggled, always, for breath.
That is a sentence that is also a paragraph. It's like the author said, "Well, I'm going to say all this and this much only, and it all fits together, so why not have it be one thing." With a topic as big as the West itself it hardly feels like a stretch to give it a 100-word sentence. Also great, of course, is the syncopated rhythms of the phrasing and the neat-o plant names like "mule-ear" and "sneezeweed," that are so charming they create little pauses in my own reading of it, because I want to pronounce them clearly and add a little flair to their utterance in my head. This author also added a lot of commas, to slow things down even more. I end up savoring things like that. And the end is nice because it echoes, like a preacher (I'm sure there's a rhetorical technical term for this) "into whose depths" and "up on whose heights" before forcing a final screetching stall ("..., always,...') right before the last word "breath," which is naturally on the reader's mind after a sentence like that. This is a writer playing with rhythm like a poet.

Here's the second, clocking in at 237 words: It's in the third paragraph of a chapter a third of the way through a book, and it doesn't comprise, nor does it start, nor does it finish its paragraph. A faculty member at a tennis academy, Charles Tavis, has just awakened and we know he's facing a hectic day:
He stands in leather slippers at the living-room window, looking southeast past West and Center courts at the array of A-team players assembling stiffly in the gray glow, carrying gear with their heads down and some still asleep on their feet, the first bit of snout of the sun protruding through the city's little skyline far beyond them, the aluminum glints of river and sea, east, Tavis's hands working nervously around the cup of hazelnut decaf that steams upward into his face as he holds it, hair unarranged and one side hanging, high forehead up against the window's glass so he can feel the mean chill of the dawn just outside, his lips moving slightly and without sound, the thing it's not entirely impossible he may have fathered asleep up next to the sound system with its claws on its chest and four pillows for bradyapnea-afflicted breathing that sounds like soft repetitions of the words sky or ski, making no unnecessary sound, not eager to wake it and have to interface with it and have it look up at him with a terrible calm and accepting knowledge it's quite possible is nothing but Tavis's imagination, so lips moving w/o sound but breath and cup's steam spreading on the glass, and little icicles from the rainy melt of yesterday's snow hanging from the anodized gutters just above the window and seen by Tavis as a distant skyline upside-down.
I like that because it's so smooth that I really didn't notice it was so long until I got near the end of it. It is basically a zoomed-out, omniscient, characterizing description -- of the character, and what the character is looking at, along with some interior thoughts snuggled into the middle. The end, I think helpfully, restates where you were earlier ("..., so lips moving w/o sound...") in case you forgot that -- that this guy is moving his lips probably unconsciously as he's gazing at the scene he's going to have to deal with very soon this morning. And decaf -- why in the world decaf at a moment like this? Characterization. In fact the whole sentence is nothing but characterization. And this guy is about to have a hectic morning, right, so the length of the sentence reinforces the endless on-piling of crap he's starting to get ready for. The steaming cup he's holding is his only paltry defense against the large cold morning of tasks that awaits him. Sneaking in the truly important stuff about the child he may have fathered in the middle there is a cool trick. Keep the reader on her toes -- defy expectations.

The third example begins a book, setting up the possibility of more -- like brattily choosing the hugest canvas at the art supply shop. It's risky. Some will roll their eyes and never pick up the book again. But if you can make it work, your vistas open for the rest of the story:
From a little after two o'clock until almost sundown of the long still hot weary dead September afternoon they sat in what Miss Coldfield still called the office because her father had called it that -- a dim hot airless room with the blinds all closed and fastened for forty-three summers because when she was a girl someone had believed that light and moving air carried heat and that dark was always cooler, and which (as the sun shown fuller and fuller on that side of the house) became latticed with yellow slashes full of dust motes which Quentin thought of as being flecks of the dead old dried paint itself blown inward from the scaling blinds as wind might have blown them.
Stunning, arresting imagery -- pure description that manages to evoke what kind of people these are. You can almost see the people, can't you? Even though none of them is described? And it fits thematically as well, as the other two examples did: we have here a most miserable, long afternoon befitting such a description. And note: one measly comma in the whole thing, yet it doesn't sound rushed or overblown.

Anyway, although best used sparingly, the long sentence is one of my favorite things about writing. I don't run into enough of them. An interesting thing would be to nose through a story or a chapter of yours and find the longest sentence. How long is it? Why is it that long? Did you do it on purpose or did it just happen? My suspicion is they are usually products of the fire in the mind that must come out in one long burst, likely for subconscious reasons, which is almost always good in writing. If you write a good long sentence, leave it alone. Don't chop it into pieces. The reader will thank you for it.

1. From Against the Day
2. From Infinite Jest
3. From Absolom, Absolom!

6 comments:

cek said...

I took a class in college once where one of the assignments was to write a page-long sentence.

Also, I'm reading 2666 right now and I encountered a long sentence pretty early on in it that I loved. I'll have to look back and get a page number for you.

My longest sentence lately was 11 or 12 lines. That's a rarity for me. But I think it's fair to say, because of the plethora of ands the sentence contained, that I was pretty much cheating anyway.

Vampiro said...

This has long been one of my favorite longs. It's Virginia Woolf's essay "On Being Ill":

Considering how common illness is, how tremendous the spiritual change that it brings, how astonishing, when the lights of health go down, the undiscovered countries that are then disclosed, what wastes and deserts of the soul a slight attack of influenza brings to view, what precipices and lawns sprinkled with bright flowers a little rise of temperature reveals, what ancient and obdurate oaks are uprooted in us by the act of sickness, how we go down into the pit of death and feel the waters of annihilation close above our heads and wake thinking to find ourselves in the presence of the angels and the harpers when we have a tooth out and come to the surface in the dentist's arm-chair and confuse his "Rinse the mouth—rinse the mouth" with the greeting of the Deity stooping from the floor of Heaven to welcome us—when we think of this, as we are so frequently forced to think of it, it becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love and battle and jealousy among the prime themes of literature.

the plunge said...

"...latticed with yellow slashes full of dust motes."

That sentence, and especially this phrase, has been in my mental 'wow' catalog since I read it a few years ago. It's so f'n new and vivid.

cek said...

I was going to type in the sentence from 2666 until I looked back and realized that IT IS FIVE PAGES LONG. It's a little bit dubious, because there were at least two commas that just as easily could have been periods, but who am I to question Bolano or the translator, and even with two dubious commas, that's still a whole lot of sentence. And to your point, Grendel, about the necessity of proving this skill early on in a book, the sentence I'm talking about starts on page 17.

Grendel said...

Five pages. I must read this book, that you call 2666.

Grendel said...

And I am reading it now, page 80ish. It's kind of hard to put down, but it started precariously slow.