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.