There are sentences I read that stop my heart. Used to be that’s as far as I got: “Damn, that’s a great sentence. Come on heart, get moving.” Since I’ve been studying writing, which means also practicing the art/skill of close reading, I’ve been able go a step further in my appreciation of these great sentences. So every once in a while I’m going to spend some time on the old blog looking at one of these little gems.
This being the first Sentences I Love post, I thought I’d go with one from my favorite book, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad. It comes from near the end of “Chapter 4: Safari.”
In fact, this particular memory is one she’ll return to again and again, for the rest of her life, long after Rolph has shot himself in the head in their father’s house at twenty-eight: her brother as a boy, hair slicked flat, eyes sparkling, shyly learning to dance.
This sentence appears in the middle of a paragraph. Prior to the sentence, the reader is with Charlie, the “she” of the sentence, and her brother Rolph on a dance floor. After the sentence, Egan spins out into Charlie’s far future, charting the ramifications of Rolph’s suicide. This sentence, therefore, acts as the hinge on which Egan swings the reader into the future. Now, a lot of work has gone on earlier in the story in order to prepare the reader for this moment: the story opens with Rolph trying to get Charlie to remember a rainy night in Hawaii; there is a similar spin into the future early in the story concerning one of the warrior-dancers that comes to the camp Charlie and Rolph’s group is staying at; etc. All that prep work, though, can’t do the work this sentence needs to do. Those details and structural choices simply set the stage for this moment. This sentence is the moment.
I should also point out that this is the first mention of Rolph’s fate. There is no allusion to his suicide prior to this sentence. The stakes, in other words, are very high.
Let’s dive in. The opening of the sentence is elongated—the “In fact” at the start of the sentence isn’t necessary, but it slows the reader down. The same can be said for the adjective “particular.” The knee-jerk reaction in editing would be to strike these two as redundant. Of course the narrator is telling us a fact, that is her job, and “particular” slows the sentence without adding any crucial distinctions. Workshoppers would also be quick to strike one or the other of “again and again” or “for the rest of her life” for the same reason of redundancy. Yes, they both add shades of meaning, but one can be inferred from the other, so get that red pen out because these phrases are keeping the reader from the meat of the sentence.
And that is the point. Egan, and by implication Charlie, is trying to keep the reader from the revelation because it is painful. The effect is as haunting as it is technically wonky—all those extra beats give the reader the impression of hesitancy, which makes the revelation all the more powerful. Without them, the reader is left with “This memory is one she’ll return to for the rest of her life, long after Rolph has shot himself in the head in their father’s house at twenty-eight…” Without the extra padding, the suicide doesn’t come so much as revelation but as “Gotcha!”
For the same reason, Egan wisely pushes past the revelation, adding the a restatement of the memory Charlie will come back to, which also happens to be the moment of present time in the story, Charlie and Rolph on the dance floor. This circling back also cleverly prepares the reader for the movement into the future that the following sentences will make. By reframing the present time as a memory, Egan gently shifts the readers sense of time. And by carrying on past the revelation of the suicide and into an emotionally charged description of Rolph, emotions that come from Charlie, Egan engages the reader’s emotions in a way that the simple “Gotcha!” of ending after “twenty-eight” wouldn’t.
To be absolutely clear, I am NOT claiming that Egan had all of this consciously mind as she wrote. She may have, of course, but it is just as likely that, through her engagement and dedication to the work, to telling the story, this version of the sentence simply felt the most “right,” and that feeling comes from the reasons that I’ve pointed out. This is, I think, I big stumbling block in the teaching of writing—a lot of writing teachers present this kind of craft analysis without any kind of caveat and that can make the writing a student studies seem unattainable. “I’m supposed to think about all that while also figuring out where my story is going and who my characters are and.. GAH!” Instead, think of this kind of analysis as something an author put thought into during revision, a noticing and strengthening of what is already natural occurring in the work. Chances are Egan herself has never thought about this sentence in quite these terms (again, she may have). Looking at how a sentence or a paragraph or a whole story or novel works is still a useful tool and will, hopefully, help you (and me) write more thoughtfully and deliberately.