Fantastic paragraphs (and sentences) (iii)

It’s been a while since I last posted at all, let alone in this series of posts on fantastic paragraphs and sentences. It’s not that I haven’t been reading a lot–I have, and a lot of it has been great. But this series of posts is on those rare paragraphs that can stop me in my reading tracks, and those are very few and far between.

But last night I finally encountered one. It’s about halfway through Helen DeWitt’s supremely strange novel Lightning Rods (2011). Here is the paragraph:

For the next couple of days Joe tried to put a brave face on things. He tried not to think about the PVC with a slit in the crotch which the Equal Employment Opportunities Act was going to force him to implement. If he thought about it he was just going to get depressed, and in sales you can’t afford to get depressed. You can’t afford to go around thinking. What’s the point? That negative take on the product will communicate itself to the customer, and before you know it all the hard work you put into getting your foot in the door will be down the drain.

Helen DeWitt. Ligthning Rods. New York: New Directions, 2011. p. 183.

I must say that this paragraph is rather less bizarre in the larger context of this consistently bizarre book, but even so this one stood out. Actually, it was really the second sentence in particular that stood out, making me stand back and reread the whole paragraph a few times–after I laughed, that is. Anyway, this entry really falls under both fantastic paragraphs and fantastic sentences.

What makes the second sentence a great sentence? Well, the fact that there was no way anyone–including a reader accustomed to the weird logic of DeWitt’s novel–was going to predict where it would go based on the beginning is one part of the answer. There’s something about the juxtaposition of PVC pants “with a slit in the crotch” and the “Equal Employment Opportunities Act” that is hilariously surprising, let alone the fact that in the character Joe’s head, the latter is somehow forcing him to adopt the former as a business strategy. There is also the word “implement,” which is amusingly out of whack with the register of the rest of the sentence, making it end on a discordant note.

I have more trouble accounting for what makes this a great paragraph. Its construction is unremarkable, actually, and in the context of the novel pretty much par for the course. I think it gets its greatness from elements that make the narration in this book so great in general, and that fantastic second sentence gives it something extra. I do love how DeWitt infuses her narrator’s language with the cliches and clunky idioms of business-ese, and it is the mixing of two such metaphors (“getting your foot in the door” and “down the drain”) that leaves the reader on such a funny note right at the end.

If I had to generalize what makes the second sentence and the whole paragraph fantastic then–so we might pick up something useful from an example that may appear too eccentric to teach us anything–I would say that DeWitt knows exactly that the power of a sentence and paragraph lies in the ending. An unexpected ending can make you re-view the whole, getting you to pay attention or perhaps allowing you to savour the shifts that got you to that particular end–all details you might have overlooked as you moved through them the first time around.

This is Frank Kermode’s “sense of an ending” applied to the level of sentences and paragraphs as opposed to larger units like novels–or human lives, or historical epochs.

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