The first sentence test: It is not a serious novelist’s nightmare (the possibility is so absurd); nevertheless, suppose you fancied yourself a serious novelist (a writer, as they say, of the first rank), and a wire were delivered in your dream (the telephone rang, there was a sudden knock), and this were followed by the formal announcement that you, Julia Peterkin, or you, Marjorie Rawlings, or you, Allen Drury or Michael Shaara or Alison Lurie, had been awarded the Pulitzer Prize in fiction for 1929 or ’39 or ’60 or ’75 or ’85.
So, what do you think? This is Bill Gass, and he has done worse and/ or better, depending on ‘blue pencils, blue noses, blue movies, laws, legs and stockings, the language of birds, bees, and flowers and sung by Longshoremen, that lead like look the skin has when affected by the cold, contusion, sickness, fear’ to get his point across; depending, that is, on whether you think such sentences are ‘beautiful and breathless’ (and, yes, use these words when quoting), or a type of prison (as in prison sentence), because this particular sentence, the opening one for On Being Blue (I mean the quote in this sentence; we will get back to the first sentence), via the semicolon, will go on into the next page and he doesn’t even get to Babe the Big Blue Ox; and depending if you want your sentences to actually say something, something like ‘Dick and Jane went to the corner store and brought a loaf of bread’, and hold off to page two the injunction to, “Run Spot, run,”; depends anyway on if you think such sentences should name something, or at least say something (call them facts, call then propositions) or just be…gassing.
And it depends on how much work you are willing to let ‘depend’ do in any one sentence; I had it doing too much, I think; first pointing to some simple sentence structure, and then suggesting your evaluation depends on your tolerance for verbal flora and fauna, and then luring you perilously close to committing something philosophical on names and propositions (‘say something’) or at least committing to a kind of realism, and maybe got you wondering if an account of language use was equivalent to an account of learning a language—what are you learning about anyway—and ending in some kind of childish appeal to flatulence. I could have said Out, out damn spot; and enough with the semicolons already.
In fiction, it makes sense to start with a character, put her right in that first sentence. This fiction we will call Bird in Space—
Saint Bromide surrendered to the stench of death as she forced herself to step into the darkened classroom. The purpose of the first sentence, she thought, is to get the reader to read the second sentence .It was like stepping over debris. If you don’t read the next sentence you will die a horrible death, and besides it’s a short sentence, so go on, take a look—please—I’ll be your best friend forever.
But the children had turned to clay and stone.
‘Call me Ishmael’, she announced to the darkness. Could anyone hear her voice? Was there anyone still alive? Speak the passwords and wait, she had been told.
From nowhere a voice emerged. ‘Melville’, it said. ‘Herman Melville.’
‘Bromide’ she answered bravely. ‘Felicia Saint Bromide’.
Writers do differ on the amount of planning they do. Elmore Leonard on Charley Rose the other night, claimed to start anew each day—presumably like the Buddhist monk in meditation—in order to keep himself and the reader interested. Others have charts and timelines, lists of characters, and use software designed to keep track of complex plot lines—also in the service of the reader’s interest. As my character, Felicia, points out, one function of any sentence is to get the reader to read the next one, though working too many meta-narrative considerations into the story will be counterproductive. I hope you are more interested in what happened to the kids in that school room and are at least a little intrigued by a character named ‘Saint Bromide’ than you are about the metaphysics of storytelling—or I would be, if I were intending a story here.
Do artists really not know the intended end? Don’t they at least have some inchoate goal, imperfectly formed and bound to fail? So much depends in life on setting goals, doesn’t it, even if we leave room for the happy accident, the creative mistake? Did Alexander Fleming really forget to clean that Petri dish when he discovered penicillin?
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
So much, indeed. When William Carlos Williams published this poem in 1923, Constantine Brancusi was creating the first sculpture he named Bird in Space. Both solve narrative problems simply. For W.C. Williams there is no second sentence; there may not even be a first; fifteen words hang and float around that ‘depends’ like an Alexander Calder mobile, like birds in space. Bird in Space—well, try this: take out the words ‘a red wheel barrow’ from Williams’ poem and put in the words ‘a bird in space’. So much does depend on a bird in space. It’s pretty close to perfection, that statue, and Brancusi spent 20 years polishing its perfection, making it perfect, almost as if he didn’t know how to end something that doesn’t have a noticeable beginning, as if he wasn’t aware of Wallace Stevens’ aphorism, ‘The imperfect is our paradise’—which of course he wasn’t, and I have to think would have disagreed with, would have asked Mr. Stevens troubling questions as to how imperfect this imperfect paradise is, would have wondered at such a word as ‘perfection’, how you can use it to talk about something you can’t possibly achieve.
Mr. Stevens, though, does end his poem, the one that housed his famous aphorism, The Poems of Our Climate like this—
Note that, in this bitterness, delight,
Since the imperfect is so hot in us,
Lies in flawed words and stubborn sounds.
—which suggests a sophistication about perfection and it’s opposite, and when putting together a collected edition of his poetry he wanted to name it The Whole of Harmonium reflecting back on his first book, published in 1923, Harmonium, and reflecting the musical instrument: if you play a harmonium well, harmony should result; Stevens, at least, must have been hoping for something of that sort—though to us it seems an impossible goal, as though an end does imply a whole.
Of course, it’s easy to tell when a poem or a novel ends: there are no more words on the page. Even fancy Finnegans Wake, with its fancy recirculation of text and riverrun-ecology being pulled skyward, back to Howth Castle and its environs, does end. Fall you will, but rise ye must. Tired, we put the book down—as we put all books down. A sculpture, especially if it is invested in shaping space, which Bird in Space surely is, doesn’t have to, and maybe can’t, end. I remember going to the Rodin Museum in Philadelphia, walking around afterwards, seeing for the first time how stiff and lifeless most sculpture is, as if the Gates of Hell had opened out into the world, interpreting everything in its path…
Felicia held the child in her arms. All around her the rain, the fog, the swarms of impossible insects, seemed held in suspension. Where was Herman? If he didn’t return soon with the antibiotics, the children, each and every one of them, would die. The blisters would break and bleed and suppurate, spreading and polluting the water supply. It was almost as if the Black Plague had re-emerged from the wreckage of the explosion and they were trapped in its icy fingers. It was as if the Gates of Hell had opened around them and transparent demons were now in the sky…
1923 concluded with the commencement of 1924. Though 1922 had seen the publication of both The Waste Land and Ulysses and has to take first prize for the decade, 1923 had still been quite a year for the artsy crowd: The Red Wheelbarrow, Bird in Space, Harmonium; Dorothy Sayers introduced us to Lord Peter Whimsy, William Butler Yeats won the Nobel Prize. Like our hero Felicia, the world, however, was still without penicillin. Say it: so much depends on the discovery of penicillin, though no one knew it at the time. Scuff your knee in 1923 and you could die. William Carlos Williams, Dr. William Carlos Williams, would have felt the need.
Spanning the year’s end, another W. C., one William Claude Dukenfield, who we know as W. C. Fields, was starring in the stage version of Poppy. Now, I’m not telling you Poppy is one of the great plays and that particular performance is of course long gone, but we have the 1936 movie to remind us of its virtues and vices. Set in the 1883, Poppy will go into the history books for one line: Never give a sucker an even break, and only holds our interest because of the great Mr. Fields. The film begins in a bucolic setting with one Eustice P. McGargle sitting on a bench with his daughter, remarking on the weather.
“What a gorgeous day… what a fulgent sunshine… fulgent sunshine, yes… ’twas a day of this sort, the McGillicuddy brothers murdered their mother with an axe.”
His daughter is tired of being poor, tired of being hungry. What can they do?
‘Courage my little plum, the carnival is just around the corner.’
Go ahead, read those lines again, and do your best W. C. Fields impression. Language is Field’s first and best weapon against the world. He’ll hornswaggle you with it and get a free whiskey for his trouble. ‘The carnival’ is just about the best answer for Fields. Step back son, you bother me. The question remains, though, did Fields believe in that carnival, and if he did, was he hornswaggling himself? People do that, you know.
Let’s see, could W. C. Fields say these lines?
Once, this was many years ago now, I said to an influential person, ‘Your wife, sir, is a ticklish woman,’ referring to her honor, her moral qualities, so to speak. And he suddenly retorted, ‘Did you tickle her?’ I couldn’t help myself: why not a little pleasant banter, I thought. ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘I did tickle her, sir.’ Well, at that he gave me quite a tickling…
Or play this part?
So, after all, a little hole has been made from the Hermitage to the ladies. Not that I’m implying anything holy father, I’m just… You know, on Mt. Athos—have you heard—not only are the visits of women not allowed, but no women at all, no female creatures of any kind—no hens, no hen-turkeys, no heifers…
Ah, yes, my little chickadee…it’s old man Karamazov, vamping the Elder in The Brothers Karamazov, and, no, W. C. Fields probably could not play the part; W. C. Fields always played W. C. Fields; but I would have liked to see him try. Talk about interpreting space, the two old reprobates, Fyodor Karamazov brought to you by Fyodor Dostoevsky, and W. C. Fields brought to you by W. C. Dukenfield, are interpreted space personified, characters that truly are characters. Both are experts—experts par excellence—in gassing. Both could have pulled off a line like our opening foray. (You remember, the one that began: It is not a serious novelist’s nightmare…) And they would have known how to handle a Pulitzer Prize as well: Both could play the novelist manqué, tormented souls, artists in deep struggle with the mother language. They’d milk it for all its worth.
The door opened. Felicia looked up from the basement; the children were huddled around her. A black figure descended from the night sky like a bird in space. Was it Herman and had he found the penicillin?
‘Bromide’, he said, uneasiness in his voice, fear in his voice. ‘Where are you?’
Something wicked was happening. It was like he had overturned a nest of insects. The dark sky darkened, a novelist’s nightmare of debris fell around her—ashes from the burning roof. Was this the sign of further collapse? The worst was happening. She remembered: Only great invisible crashing. She remembered the prophecy: when verbs would turn to nouns. The children to stone. No one would read further. Melville, frozen in space, return, helpless, a statue, pirouette…
Courage, my little plum, the carnival is just around the corner;