Sentences: A Love Story
My Love for the Sentence
I am in love with sentences. I am a philanderer of sentences, a polyamorous glutton, a syntax satyr, a serial sentencer. And I have no intention of ever changing my ways, no 12-step program for me, even though, with each passing year, I become more of an oddball, more of a freak. I’ve seen the looks you give me, you fans of the Kardashians, you “Real Housewives,” you chuggers of graphic novels, you internet surfers, you typers. I’ve heard the mutters and giggles. And I just don’t care. My lovers are true.
In the fall the war was always there, but we did not go to it anymore.
Did ever a story start out more beguilingly than Hemingway’s “In Another Country”? I first read this story almost fifty years ago, and its hook is still embedded in my neck. If any single sentence can lay claim to my addiction, to giving me that first blue rush of intoxication, that first frisson of syntactic sexuality, it is this one. I was a young man then, my brain swamped with testosterone and sloshing in fear while I waited, trembling, for the long arm of Vietnam to yank me out of the meadow and into the jungle. I felt certain that my country had earmarked me for death, had already inscribed my fatality on Walter Cronkite’s nightly list, number 9, number 9, number 9, number 9….
And then along came the sentence from off the Italian front of the First World War, written by a young man with his genitals full of shrapnel. In the fall the war was always there, but we did not go to it anymore. Why such sadness in that sentence? Why not a more celebratory tone?
By the time I first read that sentence, I had already seen the empty look in the eyes of former classmates home on leave, and I had viewed a few sent home in body bags. I had to read only that one sentence to know why Hemingway’s mustered-out narrator would always be sad, would always shoulder that rucksack of sorrow through every day of his life. The rest of the story merely confirmed what my trembling viscera already knew, that even if you are lucky enough to survive war and never have to go to it again, it will never leave you; it will always live inside.
That sentence—more than Apocalypse Now, more than the wrenching The Things They Carried or The Naked and the Dead or From Here To Eternity, more than Platoon or Full Metal Jacket or Bat 21 or Blackhawk Down or Lone Survivor, more than a thousand other glaring images of war—stabbed and scarred my soul.
Mother died today. Or, maybe yesterday; I can’t be sure.
Deep in London’s rumbling Tube, searching for enough light to read by, I was hungry, so hungry. But I could not eat for another day or two because I had spent three times my daily ration on this slender little volume, The Outsider, by Albert Camus. I bought it at a Farringdon Road book stall because of the title, handed over the £4.55 while cursing the stranger who, while I had been enjoying my weekly shower in the dollar-a-night hostel, had plundered my backpack and left me with only the money in my pocket. Since then I had had to punch two extra holes in my belt, yet I was not ready to go home. There was still Stonehenge to see, Salisbury Cathedral, the White Horse, the Royal Botanic Gardens…. Sleeping in the bushes wasn’t so bad, not when you could eat words and drink the moors’ gray air. Isn’t that what an Outsider would do, and isn’t that precisely what I was?
All this I was thinking when I purchased the book, and as I entered down into the darkness with no intention of climbing on a train, no money to do so, just wanting to get out of the sun for a while, to find a bench from which the bobbies would not chase me.
Mother died today. The pang, the pinch, the ache for a mother’s love—it all flew back to me with those three words. The taste of my mother’s bread pudding, the cinnamon rolls warm from the oven. And oh, the punctuation of that sentence—how exquisite it was! How precise! Camus might have written, Or maybe yesterday, I can’t be sure. But there is a nonchalance to that punctuation, an implied indifference, and Camus’s narrator is anything but indifferent. Because of the pause after Or, I could hear the man thinking. Or, he thinks, and looks up from the telegram, gazes squinting into a sun-bleached sky. And then the even longer pause after yesterday, the slow, grating stop of a semicolon. It is a surprise to him, this post-semicolon revelation. No, he can’t be sure. How can one ever be sure?
I adore Camus because of that comma and that semicolon. Thanks to his punctuation, I knew that he was an outsider just like me, a ponderer, a scrutinizer of angles, always uncertain, always unsure.
Such kinship for a mere four pounds, fifty-five pence! Screw the money. Who needs food? I had a feast of words and punctuation right there in my hands.
Roosters wear out if you stare at them too much.
In that one sentence, Marquez’s naked genius reveals itself. What makes a writer truly unique is not vocabulary or plot or the size of her latest advance, but that uncommon way of seeing the world. Take these two phrases, for example, from “The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World”: “…even though they were looking at him there was no room for him in their imagination.” And “They wanted to tie the anchor from a cargo ship to him so that he would sink easily into the deepest waters, where fish are blind and divers die of nostalgia….”
I was in my early thirties and ready to throw in the towel as a fiction writer. Minimalism and MFA programs had sucked all the vitality out of American literature, reducing its richness and diversity to a homogenized blend of bland language, boring characters, bleak settings, and hopeless resolutions. Then I came across Garcia Marquez’s wondrous A Hundred Years of Solitude. And suddenly the lights of language flared on again.
Show me a story by Garcia Marquez and I will show you a sentence where a simple twist has been applied, a tiny knot or bow of words, and the sentence has been transformed, lifted out of the ordinary and into the magical, out of the mud of mundane and into the sparkling sublime.
Today I write. I’ll kill myself tomorrow.
I have no idea who said this. I have googled the words in every configuration conceivable and I’m still batting zero. Maybe I said it. Maybe I only thought it. Maybe I was sitting there on the edge of my bed one afternoon, looking fondly at the revolver, fondling the bottle of aspirin, floundering for anything that might promise an alleviation of despair, and along came that string of simple words, that alchemical juxtaposition of letters and syllables. A chant. A mantra. Whatever gets you through the night.
And so I wonder: How is it that words, mere words, mere plebian, pedestrian, mere commonplace words, can exert such power? How can they throw off such incendiary sparks, such scintillation and suggestion?
For an increasingly few of us, no other palliative will suffice. But would it be so bad, would the world be a less endurable place, if the addiction were to spread? What if, in the back alleys and taverns of America, in the mean streets and abandoned houses, the sidewalks filled with well-dressed automatons, wherever minds erode and bodies whither, where spirits flag and souls turn to dust…what if, in such places, a simple fix were available, a quick, inexpensive hit whispered into your ear, enough to sustain you through another day, another night of dripping rain?
Let us go then, you and I, when the evening is spread out against the sky like a patient etherized upon a table….
Magda flopped onward with her little pencil legs scribbling this way and that, in search of the shawl….
“She would of been a good woman,” The Misfit said, “if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”
RANDALL SILVIS is the internationally acclaimed author of more than a dozen novels, one story collection, and one book of narrative nonfiction. His essays, articles, poems, and short stories have appeared in various online and print magazines. He lives in Pennsylvania and is the author of Two Days Gone and Walking the Bones from Sourcebooks Landmark. Visit Thrillers That Give You Shivers, and enter to win a $1,000 gift card and other items from your favorite Sourcebooks authors.