You know, I order everything.
You know everything I order.
I know everything you order.
You order everythingâ€”and I know.
I order everythingâ€”and you know.
Everything I order, you know.
Everything I know, you order.
I order you: know everything.
Order everything! I know you.
You and I know, order is everything.
The most basic level on which the order of information is critical is within the sentence. Syntax creates meaning. It can provide clarity, but it can also create mystery and tension. Mystery and tension, it can create. Created is mystery; alsoâ€¦â€¦.tension.
Here is the first sentence of Thomas Bernhardâ€™s novel Correction:
After a mild pulmonary infection, tended too little and too late, had suddenly turned into a severe pneumonia that took its toll of my entire body and laid me up for at least three months at nearby Wels, which has a hospital renowned in the field of so-called internal medicine, I accepted an invitation from Hoeller, a so-called taxidermist in the Aurach valley, not for the end of October, as the doctors urged, but for early in October, as I insisted, and then went on my own so-called responsibility straight to the Aurach valley and to Hoellerâ€™s house, without even a detour to visit my parents in Stocket, straight into the so-called Hoeller garret, to begin sifting and perhaps even arranging the literary remains of my friend, who was also a friend of the taxidermist Hoeller, Roithamer, after Roithamerâ€™s suicide, I went to work sifting and sorting the papers he had willed to me, consisting of thousands of slips covered with Roithamerâ€™s handwriting plus a bulky manuscript entitled â€śAbout Altensam and everything connected with Altensam, with special attention to the Cone.â€ť
None of the information in that sentence is difficult to comprehend; but the arrangement of the information is deeply, and intentionally, disorienting. A variety of information passes by that seems quite worthy of being the subject of the sentenceâ€”or of a sentenceâ€”and of our attentionâ€”but the syntax, as well as the length of the sentence, seems to make everything subordinate. Weâ€™re confronted with surprising qualifiers: â€śthe field of so-called internal medicine,â€ť â€śa so-called taxidermist.â€ť Thereâ€™s even a sort of syntactical joke, via a parenthetical clause: â€śwent on my own so-called responsibility straight to the Aurach valley and to Hoellerâ€™s house, without even a detour to visit my parents in Stocket, straight into the so-called Hoeller garret.â€ť That mention of not taking a detour is a detour on our voyage through the sentence. The end of that journeyâ€”the mention of Roithamerâ€™s manuscript–feels oddly anti-climactic. After a rush of relief that the sentence has finally stopped, our first impulse might be to go back and look again at all the things the narrator has alluded to, the narrative premise heâ€™s suggested.
Long sentences, repeated phrases, and unorthodox punctuation are defining elements of Bernhardâ€™s prose. I do not offer it here as a model we should all set off to imitate; personally, I have to work up a certain amount of intellectual energy to engage with Bernhardâ€™s work, which is made more challenging because he isnâ€™t very fond of giving his reader opportunities to stop and reflect. In the edition I own, Correction is 271 pages long. Itâ€™s divided into two chapters, each of which consists of a single paragraph.
By all accounts, Bernhard was a pretty miserable fellow, a fact that offers some consolation to the reader seventy or eighty pages into the first paragraph. Misery does love company; so Iâ€™ll offer you one more sentence from the book, a slightly shorter and much more direct one. Sixteen pages into the novel, our narrator is standing in Hoellerâ€™s garret, contemplating the task ahead of himâ€”going through his deceased friendâ€™s papers and, more important, trying to comprehend his lifeâ€™s work. The narrator says,
As I stood there looking around Hoellerâ€™s garret it was instantly clear to me that my thinking would now have to conform to Hoellerâ€™s garret, to think other than Hoeller-garret-thoughts in Hoellerâ€™s garret was simply impossible, and so I decided to familiarize myself gradually with the prescribed mode of thinking in this place, to study it so as to learn to think along these lines, entering Hoellerâ€™s garret and learning to adjust, to entrust and subject oneself to these mandatory lines of thought and make some progress in them is not easy.
We understand that Bernard, the author, is talking to us, his reader, about the challenge he knows heâ€™s given us; and he is, in his way, offering a sign of compassion.
Itâ€™s often easier to see something in its most extreme form. It may be obvious that to read Bernhard we must, like his narrator, “familiarize ourselves with the prescribed mode of thinking in this [book], to study it so as to learn to think along those linesâ€¦because to entrust and subject oneself to these mandatory lines of thought and make some progress in them is not easy.â€ť This is what many of us discovered for ourselves as we learned to read â€śdifficultâ€ť writers, which, depending on your own tastes, could mean the James Joyce of Ulysses, the Faulkner of Absalom! Absalom!, Proust, Pynchon, Hemingway, or even, for some readers, Alice Munro or Mavis Gallant. This, too, is something we try to help our students overcomeâ€”the resistance to engaging with new ways of conveying information through language, which is to say newâ€”and so difficult, at least initially–ways of thinking.
But this adjustment we make as readers to a writerâ€™s delivery of information isnâ€™t necessarily a matter of difficulty. Fans of Jane Austen admire her not so much for her plots but for her wit, which relies heavily on what she chooses to tell us when, and how she chooses to tell it to us (â€śIt is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.â€ť The combination of bold assertion and the passive voice makes the narrator present yet remote; and â€śmust be in want of a wifeâ€ť falls into place with the timing of a punch line.). The same holds true for Dickens and, in our day, writers as wide-ranging as David Foster Wallace, Charles Baxter, Don DeLillo, Lydia Davis, and Richard Russoâ€”to read their work is to enter a world defined by, among other things, the particular way they convey information through the arrangement of language.
Iâ€™ll offer two more examples, both from work that will probably seem much less challenging, much more immediately accessible, but which is no less aware of its sentence-level strategy than Bernhardâ€™s novel.
Within a sentence, diction can be used to clarify or to strategically obscure. The first sentence of Antonya Nelsonâ€™s short story â€śStrike Anywhere,â€ť is, â€śThis was the next time after what was supposed to be the last time.â€ť
Again, thereâ€™s nothing about that language or its arrangement that is difficult to comprehend; the trouble is, weâ€™ve got signifiers, but no specific content. â€śThis was the next time after what was supposed to be the last time.â€ť What is â€śthisâ€ť? we think. The next time for what? The last time for what? All we know for sure is that â€śthisâ€ť is an occasion, and itâ€™s significant because it wasnâ€™t supposed to happen.
The next sentence puts us at ease by offering clear and explicit informationâ€”two characters and a bit of action: â€śThe father parked at the curb before the White Front, and the boy found himself making a prayer.â€ť
So weâ€™ve got a boy and his father, and the boy seems to be worried. The tension is maintained, but so is the mysteryâ€”we still donâ€™t know whatâ€™s going on, or why itâ€™s important. The boyâ€™s worry mirrors our own unease about not knowing what the narrator is referring to.
The paragraph continues, â€śIt was Sunday, after all, and this was what his mother did when faced with his fatherâ€™s stubborn refusal to do what he said heâ€™d do. Or not do what he said heâ€™d not do.â€ť
That first sentence created a desire to know certain information: What is this significant event? And why isnâ€™t it supposed to happen? We still donâ€™t have an answer, but the context for the question is becoming increasingly clearâ€”so while weâ€™re eager to have those initial questions answered, weâ€™re content to wait a little longer, because weâ€™re getting what seems to be important information. By the third paragraph, when we learn the father and son are parked in front of a bar, we think weâ€™ve got a clue; but by that time the focus of the narrative is no longer the simple fact of whatâ€™s going on, but the difficult situation the boy is in, and his fatherâ€™s obliviousness, or self-interest, and the motherâ€™s influence, or lack of it. The story has shifted our attention from a minor mystery to a more significant one. On some level or another nearly every successful story works this way, leading us from one mystery to another, like stepping stones across a river.
This is a useful example because we might sometimes tell ourselves that every sentence in a story should be beautiful, or finely wrought, or exquisitely detailed, or that it should present the reader with a new and brilliant figure of speech. But that first sentence–â€śThis was the next time after what was supposed to be the last time.â€ťâ€”is one I might be inclined to mark in a student manuscript, scrawling something like â€śvagueâ€™ or â€śconfusingâ€ťâ€”because it would probably be followed by similarly abstract assertions. The combination of the abstract and the concrete, coupled with the deliberate release of contextualizing information, is what makes this writing strategic. In that first sentence, Nelson is not trying to find her way into the storyâ€”sheâ€™s deliberately creating questions she knows weâ€™ll want answers to.
Simply omitting information doesnâ€™t create a sense of mystery or tension; you donâ€™t know my shoe size, but you donâ€™t care. The reader needs to be made to want to know whatâ€™s being withheld or obscured. If the reader isnâ€™t provoked to want to know more, the story has no forward momentum, no sense of urgency.
Like Nelson, Charles Dâ€™Ambrosio writes clear and precise prose which moves seamlessly from the colloquial to high diction and back. For our purposes Iâ€™d like to isolate a few sentences in his story â€śThe Scheme of Thingsâ€ť to show how they subtly prepare the reader for a bit of trickery. The story begins with description of one of the two main characters:
Lance vanished behind the white door of the menâ€™s room and when he came out a few minutes later he was utterly changed. Gone was the tangled nest of thinning black hair, gone was the shadow of beard, gone, too, was the grime on his hands, the crescents of black beneath his blunt, chewed nails. Shaving had sharpened the lines of his jaw and revealed the face of a younger manâ€¦.He looked as clean and bland as an evangelist.
That first sentence, â€śLance vanished behind the white door of the menâ€™s room and when he came out a few minutes later he was utterly changed,â€ť and especially the use of â€śvanishedâ€ť and â€śutterly,â€ť might suggest something of a magic trick. Lance didnâ€™t simply open the door, or go into the menâ€™s roomâ€”he â€śvanished.â€ť He didnâ€™t just look different; he was â€śutterly changed.â€ť The next sentence is a nice bit of sleight-of-hand, as Dâ€™Ambrosio tells us what Lance looked like earlier by telling us whatâ€™s missing; Gone was the black hair, gone was the beard and so on. That emphasis on what has disappeared makes ominous the otherwise simple statement, â€śHe looked as clean and bland as an evangelist.â€ť One thing we know by this point in the first paragraph: Lance is no evangelist; and we suspect he is up to no good.
Having established that possibility, the story introduces the other main character, Kirsten, and the boy at the service station who inspects their damaged car. When the boy goes to get material for a temporary repair, Lance sits on the hood and looks around. We see brown clouds of soil, dust on the leaves of a few dying elms, some trailers across the street, and then this:
One of the trailer doors swung open. Two Indians and a cowgirl climbed down the wooden steps. It was Halloween.
On first reading, this arrangement of information feels like a deadpan joke. The narrator could have told us earlier that it was Halloweenâ€”that certainly would have given us a different context for Lanceâ€™s transformation. But it would have been a wasted gesture in the first paragraph, given the storyâ€™s purposes. Here are those plain and direct sentences again:
One of the trailer doors swung open. Two Indians and a cowgirl climbed down the wooden steps. It was Halloween.
Notice what the second sentence doesnâ€™t say: â€śThree children, two dressed as Indians and one as a cowgirl, climbed down the wooden steps.â€ť No, the omniscient third person narrator asserts that what exits the trailer are â€śTwo Indians and a cowgirl.â€ť Also absent: the word â€ścostume.â€ť
So on the next page we accept the narratorâ€™s assertion that when Kirsten, the other main character, walks toward the intersection, â€śGhosts and witches crossed from house to house, holding paper sacks and pillowcases.â€ť Not children dressed as ghosts and witches, not people in costumes.
The narrator then rewards our close reading by adding to the motif:
The street lights sputtered nervously in the fading twilightâ€¦The casual clothes that Lance had bought her in Key Biscayne, Florida, had come to seem like a costume and were now especially flimsy and ridiculous here in Tiffin, Iowa.
Lance vanishes and reappears, looking as bland as an evangelist; Indians and cowgirls and ghosts and witches walk the streets; but Kirsten feels as if her clothes are a costume. Subtext is beginning to take shape, but we have no way to see that the next lines are part of it:
A young girl crossed the road, and Kirsten followed her, She thought she might befriend the girl and take her homeâ€¦.
The interaction with the little girl transpires over the course of two pages; then thereâ€™s some other action; and so quite some time passes before we learn that the little girl Kirsten met was actually killed in an accident years ago. She is what some of us might call a ghost.
If there were no preparation for that revelation, the story would feel like a cheat. But from its very first sentence, the story has announced that people are not what they appear to be; and by introducing those two Indians and a cowgirl before we know itâ€™s Halloween, the story has essentially telegraphed the illusion thatâ€™s about to follow. Rather than feel tricked, when we realize that the little girl was a ghost, we recognize that the narrator was telling us more than we could understand, withholding information but also drawing our attention to the very thing we should be looking at.
At the start I said that the first level at which the release of information is important is within the sentence. But information is significant even on a smaller level. Just two weeks ago, for an undergraduate workshop, the students and I read the draft of a story about a young man required to attend a rehab clinic. The subject is serious and the writerâ€™s treatment of it was serious. But one phrase gave many of us extraordinary delight. It comes when the main character is assessing one of his fellow addicts; weâ€™re told that this young woman suffered from â€śelf inflicted wounds.â€ť
The artful withholding of a single letter transformed an otherwise mundane tale into a fascinating one. Iâ€™m certain Iâ€™m not the only reader who immediately pictured a little man digging his pointy ears into the womanâ€™s shin, then returning to his tree to bake more cookies.
But I can hear you now: â€śThat was probably a mistake, a typographical error.â€ť While I went out of my way not to ask the author, the abashed look on his face when someone quoted the phrase, gleefully, makes me suspect you might be right.
So Iâ€™ll conclude with what I know is a deliberate omissionâ€”this from no less a writer than F. Scott Fitzgerald, and from no less a novel than The Great Gatsby. We all know those wonderful sentences in Gatsby, from â€śIn my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that Iâ€™ve been turning over in my mind ever sinceâ€ť straight through to â€śSo we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.â€ť
But here are a few sentences you probably donâ€™t remember:
â€śIâ€™m very sad, old sportâ€¦Daisy wants us to run off together. She came over this afternoon with a suitcase all packed and ready in the car.â€ť Gatsby shook his head wearily. â€śI tried to explain to her that we couldnâ€™t do that, and I only made her cry.â€ť
â€śIn other words youâ€™ve got herâ€”and now you donâ€™t want her.â€ť
â€śOf course I want her,â€ť he exclaimed in horror. â€śWhyâ€”Daisyâ€™s all Iâ€™ve got left from a world so wonderful that to think of it makes me sick all overâ€¦itâ€™s all so sad because I canâ€™t make her understandâ€¦Iâ€™m only thirty-two. I might be a great man if I forgot that I once lost Daisy.â€ť (89/90)
Or how about these gems:
â€śYou know, old sport, I havenâ€™t got anythingâ€¦I thought for awhile I had a lot of things, but the truth is Iâ€™m empty, and I guess people feel it. That must be why they keep on making things up about me, so I wonâ€™t be so empty. I even make up things myself.â€ť (116/117)
To be fair, itâ€™s not the sentences themselves that are so excruciatingly awfulâ€”itâ€™s the content. They make the mistake of directly articulating what is much, much better left unsaid. Which is why Fitzgerald cut them from the final draft. [They appear in the draft published as Trimalchio.]
I offer them to you because itâ€™s heartening to remember that even wonderful writers do some truly dreadful writing. But more important, The Great Gatsby reminds us that narration is an act of translation. We arenâ€™t recording a story, weâ€™re creating it; and a defining element of the creation is the language we use, and our arrangement of it.
It is our great pleasure to publish this essay by special guest Peter Turchi. It was originally presented as part of the 2010 AWP panel “What to Say and When to Say It: Disclosure of Information for Optimal Effect in Fiction,” and is an excerpt from a forthcoming book about writing, visual art, puzzles, and mysteries.
Peter Turchi is the author of five books including, most recently, Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer. He co-edited, with Andrea Barrett, the forthcoming anthology A Kite in the Wind: Twenty Fiction Writers on Their Craft (Trinity University Press, Spring 2011), as well as The Story Behind the Story: 26 Stories by Contemporary Writers and How They Work, also co-edited with Barrett, and with Charles Baxter, Bringing the Devil to his Knees: The Craft of Fiction and the Writing Life. The recipient of fellowships from the NEA and the Guggenheim Foundation, Turchi taught in and directed the Warren Wilson College MFA Program for Writers for 15 years. He currently teaches at Warren Wilson and at Arizona State University, where he is Director of Creative Writing and Director of the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing.
- Read Antonaya Nelson’s story “Strike Anywhere,” published in the Winter/Spring 2003 issue of Failbetter.com.
- You can also read Charles D’Ambrsosio’s story “The Scheme of Things,” published in 2004 in The New Yorker.