“Dining Room” from Selah Saterstrom’s The Pink Institution (Coffee House, 2004):
“Willie called his daughters into the dining room. He picked up a dining room table chair and threw it into a closed window. The window shattered. He said, ‘That’s a lesson about virginity. Do you understand?’ to which they replied, ‘Yes sir.'”
Okay, wow, I’ve probably quoted this passage here on Big Other like six or seven times. What I love here is the economy of language. Yes, this is a poem, but it’s also a full story. We learn so much about Willie, about his daughters, about their psychologies. And I love the deadpan delivery, the sonic pleasures (called, daughters, dining, picked, dining, closed, window, window, shattered, said, do, understand, etc.).
from Lydia Millet’s My Happy Life (Soft Skull, 2007):
“Then he sprayed a can into the bag and tied it around his neck over his head. Flopping, he danced. With his face pinkly invisible. We could see his mouth stretched like an O between the letters of the pink writing on the bag, A&P. When he fell down and we were all of us crying, I, being the oldest, called Children’s Protective Services and said, ‘Mr Rubens put a bag on his head.'”
When I first read this book, and when I came to this passage, I think I had one of those formative moments. I liked reading again. I mean, I like to read, but I don’t always love what I read. I think so many students are forced to read books they don’t like, and then they’re taught “how” to read those books (probably as if there is a right or wrong way), and then they grow up hating reading. I was lucky. I had a few great English teachers, and I grew up reading, enjoying reading, long before that. But then there are those moments in my adult reading life where I feel like I’ve discovered something new about reading. That’s what this book did for me. And it has to do with the phrasings. What does it mean, out of context, that “Mr Rubens put a bag on his head”? Maybe it’s funny. Certainly “Flopping, he danced” is kind of funny. But not in this context. I love the simplicity of language, the precision of clarity, and yet the multi-layered reading experiences one can have.
from “The Disappeared” in Blake Butler’s Scorch Atlas (Featherproof, 2009):
“The government whispered terrorism. On the news they used our nation’s other problems as distraction: the wilting trees; the mold-grown buildings, high-rise rooftops clung together; the color shift of oceans; the climaxed death rate of new babies. The way the shores washed up with blood foam. How at night you couldn’t see the moon.”
I think I’ve said before that you can feel an iambic rhythm in Blake Butler’s writing. I feel it most in this last sentence. It’s the insistence that I love and its cumulative effect; and, let’s be honest here, I just love this guy’s writing so much. The sadness in his stories, the madness. The anger and grief and misery and hope. Also, worth noting, freshmen and sophomores tend to really dig his writing, too. He’s great to teach. Not that this has anything to do with anything here, but my point is a lot of people like his work. Probably because he knows his way around sentences. His sentences are fun to read, and then they ruin you.
from “The Preventer of Sorrows” in Gary Lutz’s Stories in the Worst Way (Calamari, 2009):
“The properties of rooms are sometimes said to differ from house to house. I once rented a room in a row house on a through street. The room, it was insisted, was a convenience by which some extra, unruly space had been rectangled off to enclose someone for whom carnalities had become moot.”
I love this. I think I read someone somewhere recently who said that it’s not always easy to understand a Gary Lutz sentence. But there are a lot of people who would say that Lutz is one of today’s masters of the sentence. This guy writes fiction, but listen to the sonic effect of that line: “I once rented a room in a row house on a through street.” He’s a poet, but he writes fiction. Love it.
from Robert Steiner’s Negative Space (Counterpoint, 2010):
“In the hour before sunrise, I lie beside the woman I love, studying her face in the darkness, as if I have studied it in a dream, just as I used to awaken in the night, covering her body with mine because in a dream my body covered hers. I know she is unfaithful to me because I dream of it, so in the darkness I see in her sleeping face the need to be elsewhere, to be someone else elsewhere, with someone who is not me.”
This is just so sad, so emotional. The end of the sentence is heartbreaking. I wish I could write sentences like these. Reading sentences like these, like all of these I’ve listed here, inspire me to want to try harder. Work harder. Get better. Break hearts or die trying. You know?