Thursday, May 9, 2013

in the other hand

Peter Temple in The Broken Shore writes with commas between his jabs -- here's a sentence -- "She had a plastic glass in one hand, yellow wine in it, a cigarette in the other hand, a filter cigarette held close to her fingernails, which were painted pink, chipped" -- the jabs swinging into one another, each jab so short that I can feel the energy of the first one dipping only slightly before the second one picks up the slack and flings the sentence on again with a gasp, growl, grunt, or otherwise absence of words, no "with" before the yellow wine, no "and" before chipped; you could also compare that action to the action of the sea making waves, the grab, the dump, the grab, this style that mimics a physical exercise of energy.

And the reader is aware that the book is not giving them everything. Why won't you let me have my "with"? Then the mystery in the plot as well, the idea of mystery gets into the prose, and the reader is asked to solve a mystery in every sentence. What is the missing word? It's a "with" says the brain. It's an "and." But it has to do a little detective work first.

Why reticence? Why absence? What have I done? Why are you so tense, book? Characters themselves are reticent, their atmosphere infects them, nobody is open.

I can't calm a book, the tension was already intact and waiting for me to come along, and find it, and activate it with my eyes, which are wearing themselves out rubbing against these things. Here it is, pages of tension and reticence, I open the cover, I read the first chapter, the book lets me know that it is going to address me like this until the last page (could I activate it another way? Could I exercise my will and give it a light comedy tempo?). I know what's coming, I take that bath voluntarily, being slapped like this for fun, what am I getting out of it, a sort of stinging vigour, doused in this cold seawater by this stingy book that keeps its words behind its back -- senselessly -- because I know there's an "and" there, and the book knows that I know, yet nonetheless it will not change, it will let me sit there thinking, "It's doing this on purpose. It is almost ruining language but not quite."

So I'm never allowed to forget that the author is writing purposefully, not to make an argument or an intellectual point, but so that the book can be a free-floating unit of purposeful intent, like a tight fist or ball.


  1. You might enjoy a book by Arthur Quinn called Figures of Speech, an entertaining guide to figures of speech and what they can do. Temple's omission of conjunctions is an example of asyndeton, which I learned about from Quinn. You're obviously alive to the effects such figures can have. You might like Quinn.

    1. Thank you for that. The local library website is telling me they don't have it (though if I want to borrow a book by a different Arthur Quinn then I can have Hell with the Fire Out: a History of the Modoc War) but I'll see if I can hunt it down.