“Sentence,” a short story by Donald Barthelme

“Sentence”
by
Donald Barthelme

 

Or a long sentence moving at a certain pace down the page aiming for the bottom-if not the bottom of this page then some other page-where it can rest, or stop for a moment to think out the questions raised by its own (temporary) existence, which ends when the page is turned, or the sentence falls out of the mind that holds it (temporarily) in some kind of embrace, not necessarily an ardent one, but more perhaps the kind of embrace enjoyed (or endured), by a wife who has just waked up and is on her way to the bathroom in the morning to wash her hair, and is bumped into by her husband, who has been lounging at the breakfast table reading the newspaper, and doesn’t see her coming out of the bedroom, but, when he bumps into her, or is bumped into by her, raises his hands to embrace her lightly, transiently, because he knows that if he gives her a real embrace so early in the morning, before she has properly shaken the dreams out of her head, and got her duds on, she won’t respond, and may even become slightly angry, and say something wounding, and so the husband invests in this embrace not so much physical or emotional pressure as he might, because he doesn’t want to waste anything-with this sort of feeling, then, the sentence passes through the mind more or less, and there is another way of describing the situation too, which is to say that the sentence crawls through the mind like something someone says to you while you are listening very hard to the FM radio, some rock group there, with its thrilling sound, and so, with your attention or the major part of it at least already rewarded, there is not much mind room you can give to the remark, especially considering that you have probably just quarreled with that person, the maker of the remark, over the radio being too loud, or something like that, and the view you take, of the remark, is that you’d really rather not hear it, but if you have to hear it, you want to listen to it for the smallest possible length of time, and during a commercial, because immediately after the commercial they’re going to play a new rock song by your favorite group, a cut that has never been aired before, and you want to hear it and respond to it in a new way, a way that accords with whatever you’re feeling at the moment, or might feel, if the threat of new experience could be (temporarily) overbalanced by the promise of possible positive benefits, or what the mind construes as such, remembering that these are often, really, disguised defeats (not that such defeats are not, at times, good for your character, teaching you that it is not by success alone that one surmounts life, but that setbacks, too, contribute to that roughening of the personality that, by providing a textured surface to place against that of life, enables you to leave slight traces, or smudges, on the face of human history-your mark) and after all, benefit-seeking always has something of the smell of raw vanity about it, as if you wished to decorate your own brow with laurel, or wear your medals to a cookout, when the invitation had said nothing about them, and although the ego is always hungry (we are told) it is well to remember that ongoing success is nearly as meaningless as ongoing lack of success, which can make you sick, and that it is good to leave a few crumbs on the table for the rest of your brethren, not to sweep it all into the little beaded purse of your soul but to allow others, too, part of the gratification, and if you share in this way you will find the clouds smiling on you, and the postman bringing you letters, and bicycles available when you want to rent them, and many other signs, however guarded and limited, of the community’s (temporary) approval of you, or at least of it’s willingness to let you believe (temporarily) that it finds you not so lacking in commendable virtues as it had previously allowed you to think, from its scorn of your merits, as it might be put, or anyway its consistent refusal to recognize your basic humanness and its secret blackball of the project of your remaining alive, made in executive session by its ruling bodies, which, as everyone knows, carry out concealed programs of reward and punishment, under the rose, causing faint alterations of the status quo, behind your back, at various points along the periphery of community life, together with other enterprises not dissimilar in tone, such as producing films that have special qualities, or attributes, such as a film where the second half of it is a holy mystery, and girls and women are not permitted to see it, or writing novels in which the final chapter is a plastic bag filled with water, which you can touch, but not drink: in this way, or ways, the underground mental life of the collectivity is botched, or denied, or turned into something else never imagined by the planners, who, returning from the latest seminar in crisis management and being asked what they have learned, say they have learned how to throw up their hands; the sentence meanwhile, although not insensible of these considerations, has a festering conscience of its own, which persuades it to follow its star, and to move with all deliberate speed from one place to another, without losing any of the “riders” it may have picked up just being there, on the page, and turning this way and that, to see what is over there, under that oddly-shaped tree, or over there, reflected in the rain barrel of the imagination, even though it is true that in our young manhood we were taught that short, punchy sentences were best (but what did he mean? doesn’t “punchy” mean punch-drunk? I think he probably intended to say “short, punching sentences,” meaning sentences that lashed out at you, bloodying your brain if possible, and looking up the word just now I came across the nearby “punkah,” which is a large fan suspended from the ceiling in India, operated by an attendant pulling a rope-that is what I want for my sentence, to keep it cool!) we are mature enough now to stand the shock of learning that much of what we were taught in our youth was wrong, or improperly understood by those who were teaching it, or perhaps shaded a bit, the shading resulting from the personal needs of the teachers, who as human beings had a tendency to introduce some of their heart’s blood into their work, and sometimes this may not have been of the first water, this heart’s blood, and even if they thought they were moving the “knowledge” out, as the Board of Education had mandated, they could have noticed that their sentences weren’t having the knockdown power of the new weapons whose bullets tumble end-over-end (but it is true that we didn’t have these weapons at that time) and they might have taken into account the fundamental dubiousness of their project (but all the intelligently conceived projects have been eaten up already, like the moon and the stars) leaving us, in our best clothes, with only things to do like conducting vigorous wars of attrition against our wives, who have now thoroughly come awake, and slipped into their striped bells, and pulled sweaters over their torsi, and adamantly refused to wear any bras under the sweaters, carefully explaining the political significance of this refusal to anyone who will listen, or look, but not touch, because that has nothing to do with it, so they say; leaving us, as it were, with only things to do like floating sheets of Reynolds Wrap around the room, trying to find out how many we can keep in the air at the same time, which at least gives us a sense of participation, as though we were Buddha, looking down at the mystery of your smile, which needs to be investigated, and I think I’ll do that right now, while there’s still enough light, if you’ll sit down over there, in the best chair, and take off all your clothes, and put your feet in that electric toe caddy (which prevents pneumonia) and slip into this permanent press hospital gown, to cover your nakedness-why, if you do all that, we’ll be ready to begin! after I wash my hands, because you pick up an amazing amount of exuviae in this city, just by walking around in the open air, and nodding to acquaintances, and speaking to friends, and copulating with lovers, in the ordinary course (and death to our enemies! by and by)-but I’m getting a little uptight, just about washing my hands, because I can’t find the soap, which somebody has used and not put back in the soap dish, all of which is extremely irritating, if you have a beautiful patient sitting in the examining room, naked inside her gown, and peering at her moles in the mirror, with her immense brown eyes following your every movement (when they are not watching the moles, expecting them, as in a Disney nature film, to exfoliate) and her immense brown head wondering what you’re going to do to her, the pierced places in the head letting that question leak out, while the therapist decides just to wash his hands in plain water, and hang the soap! and does so, and then looks around for a towel, but all the towels have been collected by the towel service, and are not there, so he wipes his hands on his pants, in the back (so as to avoid suspicious stains on the front) thinking: what must she think of me? and, all this is very unprofessional and at-sea looking! trying to visualize the contretemps from her point of view, if she has one (but how can she? she is not in the washroom) and then stopping, because it is finally his own point of view that he cares about and not hers, and with this firmly in mind, and a light, confident step, such as you might find in the works of Bulwer-Lytton, he enters the space she occupies so prettily and, taking her by the hand, proceeds to tear off the stiff white hospital gown (but no, we cannot have that kind of pornographic merde in this majestic and high-minded sentence, which will probably end up in the Library of Congress) (that was just something that took place inside his consciousness, as he looked at her, and since we know that consciousness is always consciousness of something, she is not entirely without responsibility in the matter) so, then, taking her by the hand, he falls into the stupendous white puree of her abyss, no, I mean rather that he asks her how long it has been since her last visit, and she says a fortnight, and he shudders, and tells her that with a condition like hers (she is an immensely popular soldier, and her troops win all their battles by pretending to be forests, the enemy discovering, at the last moment, that those trees they have eaten their lunch under have eyes and swords) (which reminds me of the performance, in 1845, of Robert-Houdin, called The Fantastic Orange Tree, wherein Robert-Houdin borrowed a lady’s handkerchief, rubbed it between his hands and passed it into the center of an egg, after which he passed the egg into the center of a lemon, after which he passed the lemon into the center of an orange, then pressed the orange between his hands, making it smaller and smaller, until only a powder remained, whereupon he asked for a small potted orange tree and sprinkled the powder thereupon, upon which the tree burst into blossom, the blossoms turning into oranges, the oranges turning into butterflies, and the butterflies turning into beautiful young ladies, who then married members of the audience), a condition so damaging to real-time social intercourse of any kind, the best thing she can do is give up, and lay down her arms, and he will lie down in them, and together they will permit themselves a bit of the old slap and tickle, she wearing only her Mr. Christopher medal, on its silver chain, and he (for such is the latitude granted the professional classes) worrying about the sentence, about its thin wires of dramatic tension, which have been omitted, about whether we should write down some natural events occurring in the sky (birds, lightning bolts), and about a possible coup d’etat within the sentence, whereby its chief verb would be-but at this moment a messenger rushes into the sentence, bleeding from a hat of thorns he’s wearing, and cries out: “You don’t know what you’re doing! Stop making this sentence, and begin instead to make Moholy-Nagy cocktails, for those are what we really need, on the frontiers of bad behavior!” and then he falls to the floor, and a trap door opens under him, and he falls through that, into a damp pit where a blue narwhal waits, its horn poised (but maybe the weight of the messenger, falling from such a height, will break off the horn)-thus, considering everything very carefully, in the sweet light of the ceremonial axes, in the run-mad skimble-skamble of information sickness, we must make a decision as to whether we should proceed, or go back, in the latter case enjoying the pathos of eradication, in which the former case reading an erotic advertisement which begins, How to Make Your Mouth a Blowtorch of Excitement (but wouldn’t that overtax our mouthwashes?) attempting, during the pause, while our burned mouths are being smeared with fat, to imagine a better sentence, worthier, more meaningful, like those in the Declaration of Independence, or a bank statement showing that you have seven thousand kroner more than you thought you had-a statement summing up the unreasonable demands that you make on life, and one that also asks the question, if you can imagine these demands, why are they not routinely met, tall fool? but of course it is not that query that this infected sentence has set out to answer (and hello! to our girl friend, Rosetta Stone, who has stuck by us through thick and thin) but some other query that we shall some day discover the nature of, and here comes Ludwig, the expert on sentence construction we have borrowed from the Bauhaus, who will-“Guten Tag, Ludwig!”-probably find a way to cure the sentence’s sprawl, by using the improved way of thinking developed in Weimer-“I am sorry to inform you that the Bauhaus no longer exists, that all of the great masters who formerly thought there are either dead or retired, and that I myself have been reduced to constructing books on how to pass the examination for police sergeant”-and Ludwig falls through the Tugendhat House into the history of man-made objects; a disappointment, to be sure, but it reminds us that the sentence itself is a man-made object, not the one we wanted of course, but still a construction of man, a structure to be treasured for its weakness, as opposed to the strength of stones

(via).

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I have personally always preferred prepositions (William H. Gass)

Philosophers can often be classified in terms of their favorite parts of speech: there are those who believe that nouns designate the only reliable aspects of being; others, of a contrary view, who see those nouns as simply unkempt nests of qualities; and all are familiar with the Heraclitean people who embrace verbs as if you could make love to water while entirely on land. I have personally always preferred prepositions, particularly of, and especially, among its many meanings, those of possession and being possessed, of belonging and exclusion.

From William H Gass’s essay “The Aesthetic Structure of the Sentence.” Collected in  Life Sentences.

The sentence is itself an odyssey | William H. Gass analyzes a sentence from Joyce’s Ulysses

Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom have stopped at a cabman’s shelter, a small coffeehouse under the Loop Line Bridge, for a cuppa and a rest on their way home. And the hope that the coffee will sober Stephen up. After an appropriate period of such hospitality, Bloom sees that it is time to leave.

James Joyce. Ulysses, (1921).

To cut a long story short Bloom, grasping the situation, was the first to rise to his feet so as not to outstay their welcome having first and foremost, being as good as his word that he would foot the bill for the occasion, taken the wise precaution to unobtrusively motion to mine host as a parting shot a scarcely perceptible sign when the others were not looking to the effect that the amount due was forthcoming, making a grand total of fourpence (the amount he deposited unobtrusively in four coppers, literally the last of the Mohicans) he having previously spotted on the printed price list for all who ran to read opposite to him in unmistakable figures, coffee ad., confectionary do, and honestly well worth twice the money once in a way, as Wetherup used to remark.

Commonplaces     Narrative Events

1. to cut a long story short     authorial intervention

2. grasp the situation     subjective interpretation

3. rise to his feet     narrative action

4. don’t outstay your welcome     rationale or justification

5. first and foremost     subjective evaluation

6. good as his word     characterization

7. foot the bill promise, therefore     a prediction

8. take the wise precaution     subjective evaluation

9. mine host     authorial archness

10. parting shot     subjective evaluation

11. scarcely perceptible sign     narrative action

12. to the effect that     subjective interpretation

13. amount due is forthcoming     subjective interpretation

14. grand total     characterization

15. literally the last of the Mohicans     authorial intervention, allusion

16. previously spotted     subjective interpretation

17. all who run can read     authorial intervention, allusion

18. honestly (in this context)     subjective interpretation

19. well worth it     subjective interpretation

20. worth twice the money     subjective interpretation

21. once in a waysubjective     allusion

22. as [Wetherup] used to [remark] say     attribution

The sentence without its commonplaces:

To be brief, Bloom, realizing they should not stay longer, was the first to rise, and having prudently and discreetly signaled to their host that he would pay the bill, quietly left his last four pennies, a sum—most reasonable—he knew was due, having earlier seen the price of their coffee and confection clearly printed on the menu.

Bloom was the first to get up so that he might also be the first to motion (to the host) that the amount due was forthcoming.

The theme of the sentence is manners: Bloom rises so he and his companion will not have sat too long over their coffees and cake, and signals discreetly (unobtrusively is used twice) that he will pay the four pence due according to the menu. The sum, and the measure of his generosity, is a pittance.

The sentence is itself an odyssey, for Bloom and Dedalus are going home. They stop (by my count) at twenty-two commonplaces on their way. Other passages might also be considered for the list, such as “when others were not looking.” Commonplaces are the goose down of good manners. They are remarks empty of content, hence never offensive; they conceal hypocrisy in an acceptable way, because, since they have no meaning in themselves anymore they cannot be deceptive. That is, we know what they mean (“how are you?”), but they do not mean what they say (I really don’t want to know how you are). Yet they soothe and are expected. We have long forgotten that “to foot the bill,” for instance, is to pay the sum at the bottom of it, though it could mean to kick a bird in the face. Bloom, we should hope, is already well above his feet when he rises to them. The principal advantage of the commonplace is that it is supremely self-effacing. It so lacks originality that it has no source. The person who utters a commonplace—to cut a long explanation short—has shifted into neutral.

From William H. Gass’s essay “Narrative Sentences.” Collected in Life Sentences.

William H. Gass: The Poet Is a Maker

–from William H. Gass’s essay “Finding a Form.”

The Collected Fictions of Gordon Lish (as Read by Gordon Lish)

Listening to Gordon Lish read selections from Iambik Audio’s compendium of his Collected Fictions for the fourth time today, it occurred to me that I should just go ahead and review the damn thing. Quit stalling. Get to it. I hope that pointing out that I’ve listened to Lish narrate ten of his odd, funny, gut-wrenching tales four times now (and will surely listen again) is enough to motivate thee, gentle reader, to follow my example—but that’s lazy, wishful thinking, right? There needs to be a proper review. Here goes—

Lish is perhaps more famous as an editor than a writer of short fiction. He worked for years at Vanity Fair and later for Knopf, and the list of writers that he championed reads like a who’s-who of contemporary greats: Don DeLillo, Cynthia Ozick, Amy Hempel, Barry Hannah, David Leavitt, and Harold Brodkey, just to name a few. The writer he is perhaps most associated with though is Raymond Carver. By paring down sentence after sentence, Lish helped Carver develop his spare, minimalist style.

It’s that attention to sentences, to the truth of each sentence, to their individual force, that shines through in the collection. Consider this beauty, from “The Death of Me,” a story about a boy (surely Gordon Lish, hero of all Gordon Lish stories) who peaks too early, winning first place in all five field events at his summer camp one fine day in 1944, and then succumbing to the realization that this apex is, frankly, the end of it all–

I felt like going to sleep and staying asleep until someone came and told me that my parents were dead and that I was all grown up and that there was a new God in heaven and that he liked me better even than the old God had.

This sentence seems to me to be the expression of an emotion that I’ve felt for which I have no name. Lish’s sentences can move through tragedy and pathos to devastating comedy, a kind of comedy that collapses the auditor. Check out a line from “Mr. Goldbaum”–

What if your father was the kind of father who was dying and he called you to him and you were his son and he said for you to come lie down on the bed with him so that he could hold you and so that you could hold him so that you both could be like that hugging with each other like that to say goodbye before you had to actually go leave each other and did it, you did it, you god down on the bed with your father and you got up close to your father and you got your arms around your father and your father was hugging you and you were hugging your father and there was one of you who could not stop it, who could not help it, but who just got a hard-on?

Lish advised, “Don’t have stories — have sentences,” but “The Death of Me” and “Mr. Goldbaum” are more than the sum of their parts, more than just a collection of sculpted, scalpeled syntax. From the 1988 collection Mourner at the Door (the only Lish book I’d read before Collected Fictions), both stories announce Lish’s major theme of death, the absurdity of death, or the absurdity of life against the inevitability of death—but also the heavy truth of death, the ugly truth of death, the powerlessness of language against the finality of death. “Spell Bereavement,” also from Mourner, is essentially a prequel to “Mr. Goldbaum”: Gordon gets the news of his father’s death from his sister and mother. The story takes place over the phone as a sort of switch-hit interrogation, as mom and sis caustically berate the speechless man, who tells us, at the end, “There are not people in my heart of hears. There are just sentences in my heart of hearts.” Why does Gordon the narrator of “Spell Bereavement” fail to respond to the news of his father’s death? He is “too disabled to talk . . . going crazy with pencil and paper so as not to miss one word.”

Lish means to capture the ecstatic truth in death, and truth is at the core of all these stories, even when they are fables of a sort, like “After the Beanstalk,” which features a bewitched princess who has been transmogrified into a dog. The tale is hilarious and cutting and sad. There’s also “Squeak in the Sycamore,” which begins as a child’s list of fears and enumerations of death and longing and nature and ends in a joke and then an insult to the reader for laughing at the joke. (Best line: “Six is: the gardener died from digging up a basilisk”). “How to Write a Poem” is a caustic rant that argues that literary theft is really a matter of stern guts, of facing truth, and “Everything I Know” problematizes the very act of storytelling — it’s a story about how we tell stories, or our versions of stories. By far the most affecting piece that Lish reads though is “Eats with Ozick and Lentricchia,” about which he tells us, before reading it, “there is not a word of it that is not true.” It is a story that hovers around the death, or the dying of, more accurately, Lish’s wife Barbara; its details are almost too cruel, too true to bear.

Lish reads his tales in a bold voice that seems to challenge the auditor at all angles, as if his sentences were prodding you, poking you, pinching you even. He claims, in one of the many asides that precede these tales, to have never really read his work aloud before, and not to have really read the work in years, but his confidence seems to belie this notion; maybe, more accurately, it conveys the intense concentration of his intellect. His tone fascinates, and then he cracks out something like: “It always astonishes me I could have written such a thing” in such a dry honest voice that, while his quip hangs ambiguous, it remains utterly sincere. There’s a wonderful moment in the recording when he moves from reading “Mr. Goldbaum” to “Spell Bereavement” and seems to notice, as if for the first time, their close connection. He then remarks–

It shames me in one kind of way to see that my writing gathers itself into such a rut, but on the other hand it does please me to have spoken again and again and again about that which occurred to me at the time to be of consequence. I haven’t written fiction or anything else really for a great number of years and this occasion, reading these pieces, is an education for me and alien, foreign, in one kind of way, because the sentences are complex, but in another kind of way, I’m reminded of who I am.

Lish’s influence cannot be underestimated, from writers like David Foster Wallace to Denis Johnson to Sam Lipsyte, and all of those who will follow in turn. Readers have a fantastic (and incredibly inexpensive, I must add) starting place in Iambik’s wonderful collection. Do yourself a favor and check this out. Very highly recommended.