Monday, December 3, 2007

A Damned Good Sentence

That would be one among many in the new Denis Johnson, which I'm slogging my way through presently. Slogging not because it's bad--in fact, so far, it's awesome. But because there are tons of characters engaged in situations whose import is not yet clear, and I'm tired and usually a glass and a half of wine into my evening when I sit down to read it.

So. Here, a priest is on a ten-kilometer walk down a dirt road. It gets extremely windy. And then:

An infestation of tiny black beetles numerous as raindrops roamed the gusts and sailed past.

So there you have it. That is a great sentence. It isn't raining, see, but the beetles are creating a kind of rain. But he doesn't use a simile for it--"beetles fell like raindrops," or "beetles flew throught the air like rain"--instead, he says they're numerous as raindrops, thus telling you how many there are while putting the idea of rain into your head. That is a high-level bit of technique right there. Okay, and then the beetles, they're not just allowing the wind to carry them. They're trying to fly, right?--so he has to try to describe the way the beetles are flying, but really they are being blown more than they're flying, but they are still flying.

roamed the gusts

That is just perfect. They're good with this, the beetles--they're riding in the wind and flying around within it. It's all of a piece. They roamed the gusts and sailed past.

That's the kind of sentence that separates great writers from competent ones. It isn't fancy, it isn't "impressive," it isn't trying to prove anything. It is just saying this one particular thing as eloquently and efficiently as possible. It packs the words with more meaning than they look like they can hold. The book is full of sentences like that, which is why it's taking some time for me to get through's very rich. But it's very, very good.

An aside, too: Rhian just emailed me this reminiscence of W6 hero Stanley Elkin by writer Abby Frucht. You might check it out.


TIV: the individual voice said...

That is the most gorgeous thing I've read all day. Thanks.

5 Red Pandas said...

*Sigh*. I wish you and Rhian could both be my writing teachers.

Library school has its interesting moments but none as potentially fun and inspiring as discussing good sentences.

*She struggles to go back to her paper on copyright...*

aos said...

Thanks for the Elkin link. He's always been a favourite. An idiosyncratic pleasure.

Loved his comsumerist rhapsodies.

Expeditus said...

Beautiful writing. Thanks for sharing it. I like John Banville for his ability to do this sort of thing with words. He has an effortless way with imagery, slightly oblique but really spot-on. I'm left in wonder at how he can imagine things (a landscape, a detail, anything) so perfectly. Of course, sometimes he seems to pile it on a bit, but I'd be tempted to show off a bit too.
Literature: I come for the stories, but I stay for the sentences.

Anonymous said...

But isn't "numerous as raindrops" still a simile?

CresceNet said...
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jrlennon said...

Hmm, yes, "numerous as raindrops" IS a simile, sorry! I meant only that he was obliquely comparing the beetles to raindrops, rather than directly.