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.

Fantastic Paragraphs (ii)

In my last post in the “Fantastic Paragraphs” series, I considered a paragraph from a novel, whose construction–and deviations from our expectations of what a paragraph should do–reveals a lot about the mind of the narrator. Here, I quote a paragraph that I credit with driving home to me the genius of James Joyce.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was the first Joyce book I read, and the one I have read the most. I have a chapter about it in my book, as well as a short article about it in James Joyce Quarterly. Though many people find it less charming than Dubliners and less humorous than Ulysses, I still love this novel. I also love to teach it. But on my first reading, I struggled through the first pages. To be honest, I barely understood anything. But when I reached the paragraph where the hero Stephen Dedalus, still a young boy at boarding school, lies in his bed in the dormroom and tries to imagine where the prefect goes to after putting him and the other boys to bed, I suddenly realized why James Joyce is so often considered one of the best stylists in English:

The prefect’s shoes went away. Where? Down the staircase and along the corridors or to his room at the end? He saw the dark. Was it true about the black dog that walked there at night with eyes as big as carriagelamps? They said it was the ghost of a murderer. A long shiver of fear flowed over his body. He saw the dark entrance hall of the castle. Old servants in old dress were in the ironingroom above the staircase. It was long ago. The old servants were quiet. There was a fire there but the hall was still dark. A figure came up the staircase from the hall. He wore the white cloak of a marshal; his face was pale and strange; he held his hand pressed to his side. He looked out of strange eyes at the old servants. They looked at him and saw their master’s face and cloak and knew that he had received his deathwound. But only the dark was where they looked: only dark silent air. Their master had received his deathwound on the battlefield of Prague far away over the sea. He was standing on the field; his hand was pressed to his side; his face was pale and strange and he wore the white cloak of a marshal.

James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916)

More than anything, it’s the repetition–reminiscent of a folksong–that gets me. “He wore the white cloak of a marshal; his face was pale and strange; he held his hand pressed to his side” halfway through the paragraph is mirrored by “… his hand was pressed to his side; his face was pale and strange and he wore the white cloak of a marshal.” I have never been able to account for the effect this repetition has on me, but it was profound and immediate. My marginal note in my copy of the novel is, for the last sentence of this paragraph, “best line in the novel.” It’s not just repetition, obviously. It’s a pretty typical example of one of Joyce’s favourite rhetorical figures: chiasmus, or crossing-over. Rather than repeating the same elements in the same order, Joyce repeats them like this: A B C D | D C B A. He does this all the time in his early fiction, but to me this paragraph’s last sentence is the most memorable instance in his writing.

Now it might sound like I’m not talking about a fantastic paragraph but, rather, a fantastic sentence. But I think this fantastic sentence, coming at the end of the paragraph, makes the whole paragraph so suitably strange and spooky, filled with the awe, fear and curiosity of a young boy at night in a strange place…

Fantastic Paragraphs (i)

When it comes to paragraphs in academic writing, I can think of no better approach than Joseph Williams’s as explained in Style: Toward Clarity and Grace. I often teach a distilled version of Williams’s model for coherent and cohesive paragraphs, but his explanation is far more nuanced and capacious than what I cover in workshops.

But for this series of posts what I’m interested in is primarily the ways that creative writers use and abuse the form of the paragraph for effects of various kinds: humour, surprise, reflections of a character’s deranged mind, etc. These strange and interesting paragraphs get much of their power from how they deviate from our expectations of what a paragraph should do.

My first “case study” is a paragraph early in one of the most incredible novels I’ve read recent, Gerard Murnane’s Border Districts (2017). Impossible to explain, this novel is one of my top-ranked books of recent years, generally similar–but only very generally–to other amazing novels including Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy and Claire-Louise Bennett’s Pond. I think you can get a fairly good sense of the novel from the paragraph I quote, in which the elderly narrator reflects, over the course is many paragraphs, on his Catholic upbringing. Here it is:

The Holy Ghost, called nowadays the Holy Spirit, was sometimes referred to as the forgotten person of the Blessed Trinity. Not only did I never forget him; he was by far my favourite of the three divine persons. When I was in my tenth year and attending a school conducted by a different order of brothers from those mentioned earlier, my class teacher was a young layman who was in love with the Virgin Mary. He claimed no more than to have a special devotion to the Blessed Virgin, as he mostly called her, but I, who was continually falling in love with personages known to me only from illustrations in newspapers or magazines or from fictional texts–I never doubted that my teacher was truly in love. More than thirty years later, while I was reading some or another passage in the fiction of Marcel Proust about the odd ways of some of another character in love, I remembered that my teacher of long ago would use any pretext for bringing the name of his beloved into classroom discussions. I sensed that my classmates were embarrassed by our teacher’s special devotion, as he called it, but I felt a certain sympathy for him. I was not in love with Mary, but I felt as though I ought to have been so. Of course the name Mary hereabout denotes a mental image. My trouble was that I had never seen on any picture or statue of Mary such a face as I was apt to fall in love with. More than ten years later, I saw too late just such a face as would have won me over earlier. I have not forgotten that this paragraph began as an account of my liking for the Holy Ghost.

Gerard Murnane, Border Districts (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2017): 25-6.