Sentences I Love #1

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.

cover225x225This 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.

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Here Comes the Helicarrier: On Satisfying Chessiness and Cheesy Satisfaction

Unsurprisingly, I saw Avengers: Age of Ultron at 11pm on the Thursday before opening (the first “midnight” screening at our local theater was at 7pm—this irritated me until I attended my first post-40 late-night opening [which will also be my last because I am too old to be driving home at 3am] but now the idea makes me very happy). Also unsurprisingly, I loved it. Yes, there are problematic things but there is also a lot to love—the one-liners, the cameos and easter eggs, Wanda’s creepy finger movements.

One of the things that struck me most, though, comes near the climax of the film. Our heroes are stuck, along with a group of innocent civilians, on a chunk of city rising into the sky so that it can plummet back to Earth and set off an extinction-level event akin to the one that wiped out the dinosaurs. Captain America, his jaw never squarer, says he won’t leave the city with anyone else on it. Black Widow asks, “Who said anything about leaving?” They can stop the plan but they and everyone on the island will die saving millions of lives below them. “It’s not so bad,” she says, chinning at the clouds floating just past the edge of the chunk, “where else am I gonna get this view?”

Then comes the sound of crackling static and Nick Fury buzzes over the teams’ comms and, viola, the S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier rises through the clouds, signaling salvation as only a deus ex machina can.

And I was thrilled. The overhead shot of clouds shifting over the deck of the carrier, the sound of its turbines… It was a great moment.

And entirely, utterly cheesy.

Recently, I attended an interview and Q&A with the insanely talented Yiyun Li. In the course of the interview, she brought up the idea of “cheesiness,” particularly how she worries about sentences and sequences in her stories being cheesy. She gave no definition of cheesy, but everyone in the room knew what she meant.

As an example of this worry, she pointed out the last lines from her short story “After a Life” (from the remarkable collection A Thousand Years of Good Prayers):

Her husband comes close and strokes her hair, gray and thin now, but his touch, gentle and timid, is the same one from a lifetime ago, when they were children playing in their grandparents’ garden, where the pomegranate blossoms, fire-hued and in the shape of bells, kept the bees busy and happy.

Yiyun Li read this phenomenal sentence, a beautiful time capsule of two lives, and then asked, sincerely, “Is that cheesy?”

Almost everyone in the room made sounds indicating that no, it was not cheesy. I say almost because, in that moment, reading the line decontextualized, I realized that, uh, yeah, it is a little cheesy. It is exactly the kind of line one expects to cap a story by an author that is a favorite of The New Yorker and wins all sorts of awards: it is a lyrically presented image that smacks of symbolism. The line, beautifully written as it is, feels like a parody of the literary fiction ending.

Why then, does it feel so absolutely right?

“After a Life” is the story of Mrs. and Mr. Su, an old married couple with a severely handicapped daughter, Beibei. They have, over the years, cut themselves off from (or, in the case of their younger child, a son, been abandoned by) friends and family as they care for their daughter while keeping her a secret. Recently, Mr. Su has made a friend, Mr. Fong, a man cheating on his recently-released-from-prison wife. Mrs. Fong has begun a friendship of sorts with Mrs. Su since her return from prison, calling every day to complain about Mr. Fong and the affair she is sure he is having and that Mr. Su is covering for (in truth, both Mr. and Mrs. Su are covering for Mr. Fong). As Mr. Su goes about his day at the stockbrokerage and Mrs. Su takes care of Beibei, the facts are slowly revealed: Mr. and Mrs. Su are first cousins, were counseled against having a child when they ignored their family and married, and have lived with the consequences ever since.

It isn’t Beibei’s condition that’s eroded their marriage, though. If anything, Mr. Su believes it was the birth of their son, Jian, a healthy and bright child who is now away at college. Mrs. Su worries that Mr. Su wants a more “normal” family and Mr. Su worries that Mrs. Su has come to feel only the unhappiness of her situation with Beibei.

In the end, Beibei passes away (possibly due to an overdose of sleeping pills Mrs. Su gave her), and, as they realize what happens, the story closes with the line above. The description of Mrs. Su’s hair, gray and thin, is the present, the image of the flowers and the bees, is the past filled with life and hope, and Mr. Su’s touch is the bridge between the two. Because of the work Li has done making her readers invest in the Sus, their relationship, and their world, this “cheesy” ending instead comes off as “surprisingly right.”

In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, S.H.I.E.L.D. has been systematically debased and dismantled. The loss is, in a very real way, the impetus to create Ultron in the first placethe world has lost its shield and needs a new one, “a suit of armor around the world,” to quote Tony Stark. When audiences were first introduced to S.H.I.E.L.D., it was a shadowy organization (that was still looking for a name, in fact). Over the course of Iron Man 2, Captain America: The First Avenger, and Thor, S.H.I.E.L.D. became a trustworthy force for good. Once audiences were sold on that idea with The Avengers, the organization was corrupted and destroyed in Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. If S.H.I.E.L.D. had been summarily and handily dismantled at the beginning of Avengers: Age of Ultron, then the return of the helicarrier at the end of Act II would be nothing more than cheesy. Because Marvel took its time, did the work, and gave the audience a reason to care, the moment transcends its cheesiness, entering the realm of “surprising rightness.”

Many writing teachers/mentors/editors/what-have-you will talk of endings that are both satisfying and surprising. That can put a lot of apprentice writers on their back foot. A tall order, it seems, crafting an ending that both fulfills and defies reader expectations. What they are really talking about, though, is earning the ending, not creating it out of whole cloth. This is an exercise not only of language (because, let’s face it, you have to find a new way of presenting the cheesy) but also of structure. A story needs every moment to be fully explored and given its due. Nothing can be taken for granted. And if you do that, then your ending will rise up out of the clouds just in time to save you.

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It Follows

If you really want to conjure up a ghost
Cultivate a space for the things that hurt you most
—The Mountain Goats, “Outer Scorpion Squadron”

Horror stories need their audience (readers or viewers) to believe in the unreal aspects of the story in order to function. They need “space” inside the narrative in which the unreal can exist without destroying the real. There are several tactics to create this space. The “received tale” is one of them, presenting the unreal as second-hand information so that the audience comes to it at a remove. There is the tried and true “it may not be real” method, in which the reality of the unreal elements is called into question inside the narrative itself, allowing the audience to disbelieve in while still be affected by the “ghost” (Poe and Lovecraft, among others, go to this well often). Contrary to what one might think, even the “found footage” gimmick is one that creates space: although the audience experiences the story “first-hand,” the camera and, by extension, the character holding the camera, are actually keeping them at a distance—notice how the “cameraman” will often speak at tense moments in order to break the first-person facade—which allows the story to have its cake and eat it, too.

It Follows does something very interesting in this regard, something I’ve not seen (at least not to the same degree). Horror stories are, usually, allegories. A lot of the press for It Follows has made a big deal out of the fact that, on paper, the premise of the film is paper-thin when it comes to hiding its allegorical meaning—it’s simply “STD as Monster.” The trick that It Follows pulls off, though, is embracing the allegory to the point that it is no longer allegory, it’s the text. That last shot, Jay and Paul walking toward the camera hand in hand, Jay squeezing Paul’s hand in a subtle demonstration that she means it, is the kind of ending that pisses people off. The couple behind me in the theater sure weren’t happy, they didn’t even make it until the screen went black before they got up and left, muttering quietly, which was a change, since they had been talking loudly through the entire movie. Anyway, that scene is the perfect ending to the film. It follows. It always follows. And the kids who have wound up dead end up that way because they didn’t love/trust/respect the people from whom they “got” the monster. Paul loves Jay. And, in the end, Jay at least trusts Paul. Even if that figure walking behind them is It, we think they might be fine, because they’re together. See, only those who’ve had the monster “passed on” to them can see It. Therefore, running away from the person that gave It to you is counter-productive, but that’s just what almost everyone in the film does. Even when they aren’t “running away,” they are willfully separating themselves–for example, that strangely long scene of Greg talking with the girls after he sleeps with Jay. If he had, instead, stayed with her (and she with him, because it is shown that she doesn’t have much interest in hanging out once the deed is done and she’s out of the hospital), they may have survived.

By surfacing the allegory in this way, It Follows pulls its audience in while keeping them at enough of a distance that the unreal (here, It, the monster) has room to operate. The audience is aware of the allegory and is also aware that the film is aware of the allegory. Yara reads The Idiot on what appears to be a birth-control-pill-case Kindle. Greg’s death scene is straight-up murder-sex, complete with pearlescent ooze. There are peeping pre-teen boys, porno mags (It is going to have to kill each one of the wadded up tissues scattered around Huhg/Jeff’s mattress in the abandoned house before It finally kills him), and lingering sexual tensions all over the place in It Follows, reminding the audience at every turn that “here be allegory,” which defuses the time-bomb that is the audience’s patience for the allegory. Instead, the audience becomes invested in the allegory in the same way they become invested in the plot, through the characters. Once the audience is “with” the characters, the space inside the narrative becomes almost limitless. This is true of the other tactics for creating space–they all result in audience identification with the characters (the narrator isn’t sure the story she is relating is real; the camera-crew shows the audience exactly what they saw without judgment; etc.). The identification allows for suspension of disbelief (I hate that term, since it implies conscious effort, which the best horror stories definitely don’t require). The audience, in effect, is inside the narrative the same way the characters are and therefore excepts or denies the reality along with the characters.

It Follows is admirably smart, unafraid to ask, “See what I did there?” It borrows heavily and obviously from the classics—most directly from Carpenter, aping the wide open shots of Halloween and the dreamy, terrifying scores Carpenter often wrote himself—in a way that demands to be addressed as a component of the narrative. Are we in the 70s? The 80s? The near-future? Is this charmingly retro or depressingly of-the-now? The answer, of course, is that it is timeless because, as pointed out earlier, It follows, It always follows, It always has and always will.

In the end, It Follows isn’t the scariest horror film I’ve ever seen (although try listening to the soundtrack while walking the dog at night…) but it is one of the most truly satisfying. The horror never really ends, all you can hope for is to find someone to weather it with. There are no easy answers, no gypsy curses or restless victims of sexual violence. There are, though, lessons to be learned about homage, reference, theme, and narrative that are applicable to all kinds of stories.

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