Tuesday January 4th, 2011

Sentences That Threaten Not to Stop

Ed Park, author of the novel Personal Days and an editor at The Believer, recently wrote for the New York Times about gargantuan sentences. Several authors throughout history have attempted to write an entire novel as one sentence. Perhaps the most recent is Mathias Énard, whose novel Zone was recently translated to English. The book is longer than 500 pages. Park points out the technicalities that keep it from qualifying as one long sentence, but it’s close.

Park writes of the endless-sentence endeavor:

Not many writers have had the nerve to go this route: you’re locked in, committed to a rhythm and a certain claustrophobia. But might the format also be liberating? Joan Didion told The Paris Review in 1978: “What’s so hard about that first sentence is that you’re stuck with it. Everything else is going to flow out of that sentence. And by the time you’ve laid down the first two sentences, your options are all gone.” Sticking to just one sentence, ironically, might keep your options perpetually open.

The article reminded me of one of my favorite long sentences. At just 129 words, it’s a miniscule thing compared to those Park focused on, but I like an excuse to share it (again). It’s from Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, and comes when Chuck Yeager and other pilots are at a bar in the desert, celebrating his breaking of the sound barrier:

So Pancho served Yeager a big steak dinner and said they were a buncha miserable peckerwoods all the same, and the desert cooled off and the wind came up and the screen doors banged and they drank some more and bawled some songs over the cackling dry piano and the stars and the moon came out and Pancho screamed oaths no one had ever heard before and Yeager and Ridley roared and the old weatherbeaten bar boomed and the autographed pictures of a hundred dead pilots shook and clattered on the frame wires and the faces of the living fell apart in the reflections, and by and by they all left and stumbled and staggered and yelped and bayed for glory before the arthritic silhouettes of the Joshua trees.