Sunday, December 26, 2010

One long sentence

Ed Park's piece in this week's Times Book Review is a carefully researched, clever little essay about the obscure phenomenon of the one-sentence novel, but I have to admit it kind of rubs me the wrong way.  My irritation can be summed up in the line "Not many writers have had the nerve to go this route."

Nerve?  Really?  This is not the word I would use.  I'll admit that, if I came up with an idea for a novel that could be best be expressed in a single book-length sentence, I would have to take a deep breath before diving in.  But it seems to me that this is the kind of fake formal experimentation that a writer is more likely to use as cover for his incompetence than for any kind of genuine insight into character, situation, or language.

Of course you could dismiss any literary trick as a gimmick, but this one seems gimmickier to me than most, especially since the writer generally finds new ways to separate ideas and establish rhythm, and the reader quickly gets accustomed to them.  That is, nobody's really being challenged here--it's all proof-of-concept.  If you're going to break it up with conjunctions or semicolons or what have you, you might as well restore the periods, indentations, and chapter breaks, and devote more of your energy to evoking the wrinkles in grandma's forehead or the smell of jasmine wafting over the piazza.*

That said, I certainly haven't read 'em all.  Prove me wrong, readers.  Show me a book-length sentence that gives you that special kind of lovin' only breathless literary nerditude can provide.

* j/k.  Please don't evoke those things.

7 comments:

rmellis said...

I read that first as "jasmine wafting over the pizza," which would indeed take nerve to evoke.

My grandmother actually had an interesting pattern of wrinkles on her forehead, because of a childhood flaming-marshmallow accident.

jrlennon said...

Well, you've got your day's writing work cut out for you!

rmellis said...

Okay, so how is this experiment different from your beloved "no-e" thing? Hm?

jrlennon said...

Well...I use the no-e thing as an exercise. I don't actually teach the novel...

bookfraud said...

If a one-sentence novel fits the story the writer is trying to tell, I imagine that it's appropriate--one of the examples in Park's piece, "Autumn of the Patriarch," has one-sentence chapters, and it works beyond reason. And I don't think that anyone would accuse Garcia-Marquez of incompetence or lacking insight.

That said, yeah, it strikes me as a gimmick rather than a true vehicle to tell a story. Unless you're really, really at the top of your craft, it's like trying to fly a stealth fighter jet after you've just gotten your pilot's license on a Piper Cub.

Dylan Hicks said...

I certainly admire some of the whoppers mentioned in Park's piece (Joyce, Beckett), but most of the one-sentence novels he cited were unknown to me. I did just read what I suppose would be called a one-sentence novel, Evan Lavender-Smith's "Avatar," though there's no period, so I'm not sure if that counts. It's a very fine book, and quite readable despite the absent punctuation. I agree that most long sentences are, as Park acknowledges, simply run-ons, and it sometimes peeves me when writers are praised for their "long, intricate ..." sentences when what they've mainly done is ask periods to be something they aren't traditionally supposed to be in English, namely, periods. I guess in German the comma is allowed to work more like a period, which might account for some of Thomas Bernhard's very long sentences.

Levi Stahl said...

I'd argue that Ed Park's own writing offers your answer. The sentence that makes up the final chapter of how own novel Personal Days doesn't quite qualify, because it's not book-length, but it's long (16,000+ words) enough to do for this point, and it really works: the pulse and rhythm and rush of it all suits the surprise shift in tone and momentum and emotion that comes in the final part of the novel. Amd, while it's been a few years since I've read it, I don't remember it feeling like cheating, like it was really a bunch of clauses offering obvious mental resting points similar to periods; it feels, in the memory, like one long, long, long sentence.