Word and sentence

One of the unexpected delights of writing for Big Other has been the occasional book that has come my way as a result, books that I probably wouldn’t have seen or even heard of any other way.

Two that I have been meaning to write about for some weeks now (except that other things got in the way, sorry guys) were Metrophilias by Brendan Connell (Better Non Sequitur Press) and The Rocket’s Red Glare by David M. Peak (Leucrota Press). Both are excellent, both are well worth reading, and I commend them to your attention without hesitation.

But it is something in the difference between the books that I want to talk about here.

Metrophilias is a collection of 36 pieces in just under 100 pages. That should give you an idea of just how long these separate pieces are. Each takes as its locus (and title) a different city, arranged alphabetically from Athens to Zurich. Each letter of the alphabet is represented at least once (Quito, Uberlandia, Xi’an and Yerevan are the ones you’re probably puzzling over). Given that a number of the pieces were previously published under different titles, we might assume that the arrangement by city is a product of putting together the book rather than the intent from first starting to write the pieces.

You notice how carefully I refer to the contents of this collection as pieces. They are not non-fiction, but neither are they stories. There is little in the way of plot in the book, not even the overarching theme of city life since several of the pieces barely reference their titular location. Where an individual item has what might be termed story it is perfunctory at best, there simply isn’t the space to advance it more than that.

Yet none of this matters. You do not read these pieces to find out what happened next, you read it simply to enjoy the words on the page. It is a writing of hints and suggestions and moods, it is prose that aspires to the state of poetry (as in the discussion that accompanied my last post). It is writing that concentrates on the word, as in this extract from ‘Benares’:

Could he deny their advances, these creatures who, in their former lives were sought after by the greatest kings, by powerful gods? The delicate touch of their thousands of feet, six-jointed legs, the glancing of their tibial spurs, was to him exquisite. Pleasure givers. Pulvilli. Vomiting saliva. Tickling labella. They began to cover his body, those numerous beings – and he, he gasped in ecstasy, – the ecstasy of the cosmic orgy.

Notice how the sentences break down, become a run-on of words. It is not the flow of the sentence, or even the flow of the writing, that matters here, but the individual punch-punch-punch of the words. Again, on the very next page we get:

It was smooth surfaces she loved, shining craniums, scalps devoid of hair, streaked with networks of veins, bold boulders yolk ancient crop earth-rite pyramidion greasy roars sparkle crack.

The commas at the beginning of this passage suggest the grammatical structure of a sentence, but by half way through the punctuation has fallen away and it is just a flood of disparate words. We are not, therefore, looking at the complex ideative structure of a sentence, the sort of structure that lends itself to the bending and twisting of story. We are looking at something both simpler and, at its most effective, more powerful. The weight is carried not by the words as part of a construct, but by the words alone: a sequence of little points rather than one big point. There is something bigger (why these particular if unconnected words?) but it is not the solid construction of something bigger but rather the tenuous echo of something whose exact size and shape we can never quite see.

In contrast we are intended to see the whole carefully built structure that is The Rocket’s Red Glare because it is all story.

This is writing at the level of the sentence. There are nicely chosen words in the book, but you don’t stop to consider them because you read them within the momentum of a sentence. Words on their own are inert, still; in Metrophilias, even if a period of time is adumbrated within the piece, we are effectively examining a frozen moment. Sentences are not still, they push us onwards, always slightly off balance, into the next step; in The Rocket’s Red Glare we never pause to examine the moment because we are always in a rush towards the next moment.

We are on a 1983 quarter (significantly, the year Peak was born) where a civilisation of germs has emerged. The story follows one young germ whose brother has fallen mysteriously ill. His quest to find a cure takes him to the big cities, introduces him to other kinds of germs, stresses the values of friendship, and exposes a conspiracy that might destroy the whole germ civilisation. The whole thing is engaging, moving, satirical (of course), and at times very funny. It is also nicely written.

But when you consider a paragraph such as this:

Raven shifted and shut the door behind her. The room was once again dark. Her body whispered against the floor as she coiled and uncoiled her body, sliding closer to Lazlow’s desk, her head bobbing back and forth with each movement.

you never forget grammar. There are individual words here that stand out from the frame: ‘whispered’, ‘coiled and uncoiled’, ‘bobbing’ – but they don’t break the frame. They are there to work within the structure of the sentence to help construct the edifice that is story. We are meant to enjoy the story, not the building blocks; just as in Metrophilias we are meant to savour the words not what the words construct. It is an indication of the spectrum covered when we use the rather bland term: fiction. Where a work is positioned along that spectrum has absolutely no relationship to quality; both these are good books, but I can imagine lovers of story being frustrated by Metrophilias, just as I can imagine lovers of poetic prose being disappointed by The Rocket’s Red Glare.

And I wonder whether that spectrum, between focus on word and focus on sentence, is as useful a way of discussing literature as the spectrum between prose and poetry we’ve already discussed?

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6 thoughts on “Word and sentence

  1. Paul, I just ordered David’s book last week. Looking forward to taking it on vacation with me next week. Really glad to see that you liked it.

    Oh, and David will be the featured reader on our next episode of Apostrophe Cast. August 11, I believe.

  2. Pingback: Two reviews « Oxygen

  3. Hi Paul,

    Thaks for the thoughtful post.

    Just wanted to say something about this part:

    “Given that a number of the pieces were previously published under different titles, we might assume that the arrangement by city is a product of putting together the book rather than the intent from first starting to write the pieces.”

    Actually, the collection was written as such from the outset, aside from maybe two or three pieces. In general, the reason some of them were originally published under different names is because the editors of those publications asked me to.

  4. Pingback: Review of 2010: Reading « Through the dark labyrinth

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