This is from my MFA work, 2011. A response is more like an analysis, less like a book review.
Response to The House on Salt Hay Road, by Carin Clevidence, The Tiger’s Wife, by Tea Obreht, and Bright Angel Time, by Martha McPhee.
I was recently given How to Write a Sentence for my birthday. Perhaps a none too subtle hint that my writing could improve. None-the-less, as one delves into the craft of writing, the sentence is often ignored. Fish is not talking about the mechanics of a sentence ala Strunk and White, but of both more and less aspects of the sentence. Without spending too much time on Fish’s book itself, I felt that I would approach all three of these books with one thing in mind. What was their craft usage of sentences—ala what Fish is talking about. Were there wonderful, or even not so wonderful, sentences that can be analyzed from a craft perspective? I tried to avoid repeating too much one aspect of sentences which I have approached before, which is how some authors go to great lengths to have a wonderful sentence starting or ending a chapter. It is also something which Fish spends some time with, in his chapter titled “First Sentences” and his next chapter “Last Sentences.” It is gratifying to know that this aspect of craft that I had centered on before is well recognized.
All three books are fairly new, all are written by women, and all have received critical acclaim.
Carin Clevidence has some of the more visual and colorful sentences. Her writing is intended to accentuate a mood and she avoids intimate POV quite often, relying rather on observation: “When he finished, he threw the remains to the cats, which rushed with them into the overgrown garden, dragging the entrails in the dust. (75)” This sentence style is what Fish calls a Subordinating Style (38). Within the sentence events are prior or subsequent to each other. This sort of sentence is good for moving forward in time. It is observational. It feels “real.” It doesn’t slow down the pace. Later she uses: “He mastered the trick of riding them that summer, but he never forgot the raw strength of the water or its colossal indifference. (129)” This is more additive, and associative, in Fish’s terminology (54). She continues, “Shells, pebbles, ships, men; it was all one to the flexing waves.” These sentences tend to slow us down and reflect on the metaphors and the similes. They are introspective and don’t move the story forward so much as set a mood, both of the POV and of the location. My first draft material tends to be much more in the subordinating style, simply moving the character and plot forward, but it is the latter type of sentence that seems to lend an air of literary fiction versus genre. To go a step further, these simple sentences are allegories on loneliness and the indifference of the universe.
The additive sentence may seem simpler, less rules—so to speak—but it doesn’t take long to realize that it is much harder to write an affective one. McPhee almost never uses them, making the book seem much more like a journal and observation. This works to some extent because the narrator is a young girl, or an older girl remembering her younger days after her parents split up. McPhee resorts to what I felt I should avoid in the response: she focuses her best sentences on the beginning and end of each chapter. “We slept in gas stations all across America to get to Anton. (45)” ending the chapter with “A part of me wished I could have remained suspended in Mom’s dreams, cradled, anonymous, high above two worlds. (53)” Both of these are more additive, seemingly free form than any sentence between them. This works, it is what I mentioned with Hesse’s work and others, but it is incomplete. The sentences between the beginning and end of chapter are important too. I don’t want to say that McPhee is bereft of additive sentences in the middle, but even when she comes close, such as “We were in the middle of Kansas, halfway between Esalen and home, halfway between Anton and Dad, on my irrelevant red line, suspended in Mom’s hopes and beliefs, suspended in the promise of Anton. (53)” she comes closer to Fish’s subordinating style than the beauty of a well done additive style.
When examining The Tiger’s Wife with sentence analysis in mind, I am at first tempted to say that it too suffers as Bright Angel Time by a lack of additive, creative, allegorical sentences. But, this is where the technique of analysis sentence by sentence may suffer. Tea Obreht has a bit of Salmon Rushdie in her. The individual sentences don’t tell the whole story, so to speak. “HAVING SIFTED THROUGH EVERYTHING I NOW KNOW about the tiger’s wife, I can tell you that this much is fact: in 1941, in late spring, without declaration or warning, German bombs started falling on the City and did not stop for three days. (75)” This is a chapter beginning sentence again, but it has elements of subordinating and additive to it. What is interesting is that the next paragraph is seemingly a set of subordinating sentences too:
The tiger did not know that they were bombs. He did not know anything beyond the hiss and screech of the fighters passing overhead, missiles falling, the sound of bears bellowing in another part of the fortress, the sudden silence of birds. There was smoke and terrible warmth, a gray sun rising and falling in what seemed like a matter of minutes, and the tiger, frenzied, dry-tongued, ran back and forth across the span of the rusted bars, lowing like an ox. He was alone and hungry, and that hunger, coupled with the thunderous noise of bombardment, had burned in him a kind of awareness of his own death, an imminent and innate knowledge he could neither dismiss nor succumb to. He did not know what to do with it. His water had dried up, and he rolled and rolled in the stone bed of his trough, in the uneaten bones lying in a corner of the cage, making that long sad sound that tigers make. (75)
If one thinks of the series of sentences as a giant sentence, these all follow the same pattern. Each word within a sentence builds upon itself and each sentence within the paragraph builds upon itself. The paragraph resembles the sentence. But, ultimately, the last sentence gives us something that is both subordinate and additive, for the “long sad sound that tigers make” is an allegory. It is the collective long sad sound that a population makes in a war, when they are confused and have an awareness of their own death. In this respect, I see Obreht’s sentences as more sophisticated and complex than McPhee’s and possibly Clevidence’s.
One thing McPhee does do, which Fish goes on to discuss in analyzing a sentence, is she uses the child observation, albeit in recollection, for satire. She has a short chapter—chapter 6—entitled “The Larger Scheme of Things” which starts out “Dad had told me that in the larger scheme of things he wasn’t much older than I. (54)” Each sentence in this short chapter follows, or supports, the theme set out by both the chapter title and the first sentence. It follows the theme, but does not build on it. In this sense it is almost a set of additive sentences (again using Fish’s terminology). “I was eight. He was thirty-eight.” “When my father was eight, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. (54)” “Dad said the universe was 15 billion years old. (55)” “Mom said she was only ten years older than Jan was now when she had given birth to Jane, as if that made her somehow Jane’s age. (55)” “One hundred thousand years ago came the first Homo sapiens. … Fifty million years from now the earth will be unrecognizable. … One year our father was married to our mother. (56)” All building up to “He spoke as if he weren’t man. He said that children are our only immortality. I thought of my sisters and myself standing alone in a desert at the end of time, but I didn’t understand, since at any moment we could all be wiped clean. (56)”
McPhees sentences are simple. She does not (often) write a single sentence that is a gem, that achieves what some do in one sentence, but she does managed to build up to it in multiple sentences, at least the humor and satire, if not quite the deep allegory of Obreht.
As is my wont, I tend to gravitate toward one book. The Tiger’s Wife is the clear winner, so to speak. Obreht’s writing is more consistently poetic, visceral, and stirs multiple senses:
Outside the rain had stopped, but water was still running in the gutters, coming down the street from the market and carrying with it the smell of cabbage and dead flowers. The café across the street had closed early, the patio chained off, wet chairs stacked on the tabletops. An enormous white cat was sitting under the pharmacy awning, blinking at us with distaste as we passed under the lamppost at the end of the block. By this time, I had given up on my coat buttons. (44)
She also, to completely drift away from sentences as the main thesis of analysis, employs a similar tactic as Coetzee does in Waiting for the Barbarians: she avoid specificity in locale. We do know this is the Balkans, but which city, or even government, we cannot be sure. She refers to “the City” with a capital, “the Administration” with a capital, and “the University.” This is interesting and works because she is ensuring that we don’t sympathize too much with any “side” as all sides are wrong.
All in all, examining these books with a critical eye to the basic format of a sentence was useful. It does end up making one more critical of the writing than even prior analysis. Truly great sentences, it turns out, are few and far between, even in good books.
Clevidence, Carin The House on Salt Hay Road. Uncorrected Proof. New York. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2010. Print.
Fish, Stanely. How to Write a Sentence: and how to read one. New York: Harper Collins eBooks. 2011. ePub (Nook Reader).
Obreht, Tea. The Tiger’s Wife. New York. Random House. 2011. ePub (Nook Reader).
McPhee, Martha. Bright Angel Time. New York. Harcourt Brace. 1997. Print.