08 June 2005

In Praise of Long Sentences

I've just begun reading Lucius Shepard's short novel Viator, and even though I'm only 35 pages in, it has already worked its way close to my heart by being constructed primarily (so far) of long, luxurious sentences, sentences that bloom with modifiers and clauses and details, sentences that are seldom awkward, because even though Shepard's prose has often been impressive since he first came to prominence in the early 1980s, his skill with language is now so polished and apparently effortless that sentences that feel remarkable on a first reading become even more astonishing when experienced a second or third time, and the cumulative effect of such stylistic high-wire acts being repeated page after page is to create a richness and density that many stories don't have at twice (or more) the length.

Of course you'd like an example. Here, then, is the first paragraph of the book:
Wilander had grown accustomed to his cabin aboard Viator. Small and unadorned, it suited him, partly because his aspirations were equally small and unadorned, but also beause it resonated with dreams of a romantic destiny, of extraordinary adventures in distant lands, that had died in him years before, yet seemed to have been technically fulfilled now he was quartered aboard a freighter whose captain had steered her into the shore at so great a speed, she had ridden up onto the land, almost her entire length embedded among firs and laurel and such, so that when you rounded the headland (as Wilander himself had done the previous month, standing at the bow of a tug that brought mail and supplies to that section of the Alaskan coast, big-knuckled hands gripping the rail and long legs braced, the wind whipping his pale blond hair back from his bony, lugubrious face, the pose of an explorer peering anxiously toward a mysterious smudge on the horizon), all you saw of Viator was the black speck of her stern, circular at that distance, like a period set between beautiful dark-green sentences.
(Actually, I think there's a slight problem of parallelism with big-knuckled hands gripping, the wind whipping, and the pose of an explorer peering [the hands grip, the wind whips, but the pose doesn't peer], but it could perhaps somehow be argued that it only looks like parallelism, and isn't, really, so the fault is no fault. I still like the paragraph, regardless.)

A friend of mine sometimes speaks wistfully of "lovely 18th century sentences", the sorts of things written by writers who intended to do with writing what could not be done with speech, and sought therefore to take advantage of writing's inherent, unique qualities -- the sentence as its own art. She is a devoted fan of Joseph Williams's various books, such as Style: Toward Clarity and Grace (which has an entire chapter on length), and shortly after we had met she said to me, "You must use more summative and resumptive modifiers. It's only civilized." Williams's advice tends to be aimed at technical and business writers, but his attention to the minute details of style is helpful, even if it sometimes causes his own style to be occasionally less than graceful. I do like the first paragraph of his "Length" chapter:
The ability to write clear, crisp sentences that never go beyond twenty words is a considerable achievement. You'll never confuse a reader with sprawl, wordiness, or muddy abstraction. But if you never write sentences longer than twenty words, you'll be like a pianist who uses only the middle octave: you can carry the tune, but without much variety or range. Every competent writer has to know how to write a concise sentence and how to prune a long one to readable length. But a competent writer must also know how to manage a long sentence gracefully, how to make it as clear and as vigorous as a series of short ones.
I like, too, a quotation from Gertrude Stein he begins the chapter with: "A long complicated sentence should force itself upon you, make you know yourself knowing it."

Reading Viator, I've found myself having to reread whole pages because I let myself get lost in the sound of a long sentence and forget to pay attention to the information it conveys. Some readers, I'm sure, find such an effect annoying, but for me it increases the pleasure of the book -- any putz off the street can tell a story; it's how the story is told that matters most, and that includes the sentences. Long sentences aren't appropriate to every sort of story (for instance, I just finished Shepard's Floater, where the sentences and pacing are generally more hardboiled), but it's nice to read a writer who has the skill to know when and how to employ them, and doesn't just do so for the now-cliched reason of stream-of-consciousness*.

*It's especially cliched when the sentences roll along without adequate punctuation. Faulkner did it brilliantly in his best novels, though later it seemed to become a mannerism. Joyce of course had the Molly Bloom soliloquy. Etc. etc. It can still be an effective technique, but not when used by default because the writer couldn't be bothered to think of another approach.