Posts Tagged ‘W C. Williams’

Bird in Space

June 7, 2009

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’.

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