Sentences

I first understood the power of sentences reading Hemingway. His descriptions read as if they were filmed, not written.

Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees.

A sentence like this puts you in the place it describes, an Italian villa during Wordl War I. It was sentences like these that I so wanted to create when I first started writing seriously, not only their visual quality, but also their rhythm. The distinct Hemingway sound. It took me a long time to break away from imitation (though it still creeps in from time to time, especially strings of clauses linked with "and").

When I read, I love encountering great sentences. "Sentences are extraordinary things," writes Tom Grimes in a review of Stephen Amidon’s novel The New City. "They’re often the taken-for-granted miracles of storytelling, as transparent to readers as the fact that the sun rises and sets every day is to humans. But great sentences, like sunlight, allow us to see what otherwise would remain hidden."

Grimes’ review led me to read The New City. I wanted to read great sentences, obsessed as I was with making them. When I first read the novel seven years ago, I read great sentences, as the opening paragraph.

At first the damage didn’t look that bad. There was a jagged crack running through the front door’s glass, but that could have happened in a hundred innocent ways.  And the lobby’s disorder — sand spilled from an upright ashtray and a scattering of drug awareness pamphlets — looked like the usual by-products of teen rowdiness.  As Austin Swope stepped onto the metal staircase that helixed up into the converted silo, he began to think that maybe the security people had exaggerated when they spoke of a riot.

A great paragraph of description, visually strong, it sweeps you into the narrative as well as Hemingway. Plus there is that use of the verbal "helixed". What a surprising word, "helixed".  A perfect word to describe a spiral staircase, a word that eventually evokes the chaos that evolves the novel’s plot. (Amidon might get tsk-ed, though, by Renni Browne and Dave King, authors of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, who consider "as" constructions unsophicated, hackneyed.)

Set in in the 1970s in Newton, Maryland, a planned community, a quasi-utopian dream of city planner Barnaby Vine, The New City follows several characters, chief among them the ambitious Austin Swope, as the city, and the idea behind the city — to harmoniously bring all classes and races together — comes to clash with the one antagonist common to utopian literature, human nature. In other words, Newton fails its Freudian reality test, largely because of Swope’s ambition, his blindness toward his son Teddy’s adolescent petty jealousies, as well as a Romeo-Juliet-plot of young lovers (black boy, white girl) torn asunder. 

On the second reading, I was still moved by Amidon’s sentences, although they falter sometimes as Grimes notes: About two-thirds of the way through the novel, the narrative slows because the sentences "fluidity and caustic accuracy degenerate into imperatives. ‘He had to get out of here. He had to go talk with his dad . . . He had to act fast.’"

Maybe "falter" isn’t the right word. In the passage Grimes has quoted (spoiler warning), Swope’s son Teddy has just caused the death by drowning of Susan Truax, love interest of Joel Wooten (Joel is Teddy’s best friend, and Teddy sees Susan as a rival). Teddy has just taken an argument too far; a push meant to simply dunk Susan as payback for an insult goes horribly wrong. What Grime’s quotes is Teddy’s voice.  A panicked, urgent voice from a character that no longer has time to be fluid or caustically insightful. And Amidon picks the narrative pace up in the final third of the novel.

The sentences stand out, and illuminate the novel’s world, an imagined world that reads like reportage. Amidon has worked as a journalist. Details matter. And The New City is filled with details.

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Blindness

Earlier this week I finished reading Jose Saramago’s Blindness. I became interested in this novel after reading a post about it at Of Books and Bicycles. Set in an unamed vaguely European country, the novel follows a set of characters stricken by a mysterious “white blindness,” which seems to be some kind of contagious affliction, spread it seems simply by contact. The main characters, those initially stricken by the blindness, are quarantined by their Government in a former mental hospital. Under armed guard, and restricted to the hospital’s main compound, the internees’ lives quickly devolve into a nighmarish hell, particularly after a criminal element begins to horde food, become violent, and resort to rape. Eventually, the rest of the country submits to the blindness; the remaining internees escape to the outside world, only to discover their society and country have resorted to a state of survival, barely coping with their affliction. 

One of the curious aspects of this novel is its style, which Dorothy of Of Books and Bicycles also finds interesting. The language itself (translated from Portugese) is very lyrical, but the setences and paragraphs are loosely punctuated, frequently using run-ons (commas and periods are the only marks of punctuation used), and no paragraph breaks for dialogue. I wonder if the style is meant to simulate Portugese syntax, because from what I’ve read, it’s a style common to Saramago’s English translations.

Once you get used to the style — it actually flows fairly well — the story and its themes hold you until the end. Blindness, of course, is a constant theme in Western literature. I’ve been thinking about blindness and sight lately after reading Oedipus Rex and King Lear, and now Saramago. Blindness in Oedipus Rex tends to become a way to at once hide from sin and repent of it. In Lear loss of sight seems to lure one toward the abyss, into nothingness. Often in Blindness, this is where Saramago takes us: “…blindness is also this, to live in a world where all hope is gone.”  But unlike other works, the blindness in Saramago’s novel doesn’t fully promote change in the characters, or the human condition. Some of the characters in the novel learn to love, and cooperate, others resort to criminality and violence, particularly when interned, as they might even if they weren’t blind. The blindness doesn’t seem to be transformative or redemptive, rather it places characters in an extension of Sartre’s hell, found in Sartre’s drama No Exit. Sartre’s statement in that play is “Hell is — other people.” And Saramago seems to extend this idea in his novel, although, since not all of the blind succumb to their dark sides, perhaps Saramago isn’t fully pessimistic. Perhaps he’s suggesting “Hell may be other people.”

Saramago also seems to be working within the tradition of the dystopian novel, a la Orwell. The Government is blind to the plight of the internees. They become indifferent to them, often shooting and killing them when the soldiers guarding them begin to fear the blindness. They are dictatorial, controlling food, limiting healthcare to the point that it’s almost nil, and yet leave the internees to their own devices.