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Thursday, November 28, 2013

The Day the Book Found Me

Integrity means sticking to your principles. It means honoring what is right and true in your soul. I have long been a supporter of the independent book store, choosing City Lights Books in San Francisco, or Copperfields in Napa and Petaluma, Book Soup, or Reader's Books or any one of the hundreds of small book stores sprinkled throughout Northern California to Amazon books and Barnes and Noble, preferring actual print books to e-books and e-readers of the Kindle, Nook, Ipad variety; so to sign a publishing contract for my novella Ghost Notes, with a company that solely produces e-books, felt like I had compromised my principles.

I have nothing against e-books. Their speed is fantastic. My dislike is aesthetic. I don't like holding an electronic device to read a book. I don't like their perceived interactivity. I like holding a real book, curling up with a real book, writing notes in the margins with my pencil in a real book, dog-earing a real book. After I've finished with a real book, it should look like it's been through a war--its spine cracked, coffee or wine or cigarette stains decorating the pages. For me, and I suspect for millions of others, this is one of the sensual appeals of a book. I don't begrudge others who enjoy e-books. To each his own. 

One of the joys of buying a real book is the process of discovery. I enter a bookstore, sometimes without a clear mind as to what I want or need, and as I peruse the shelves, my eyes gliding over authors' names and titles, I select certain books with appealing jackets or author reputation of quality (prizes won), or return to those classics of literature I haven't yet read.

 I will roam the sections--Fiction might take me to Philosophy,  New Releases to Cooking, Gardening to Music, Art and Architecture to Poetry, and so on. I will peruse the tables of discounted books, skim the short synopses, open the flap of a hard cover and read author bios, look at credentials. enter a book at random and read a sentence or a paragraph. If the style seems compelling, the voice distinct, I might read a whole chapter. 

Some inner voice will tell me I need this book, or it will tell me to move on. Having discovered a few of my favorite authors this way--Paul Harding, for one, Ethan Canin another--this process of discovery restores to me the book buying magic. Sometimes, I'll admit, the book I buy might languish on my shelves for months, even years, before I pick it up again. When I do, it returns me to that day the book found me. 

What I always knew was one day was this: I would find my own work sitting on the shelves of my favorite independent booksellers for some young writer/reader to come along and discover me. It's impossible to replicate that feeling in the virtual e-book world. How do you do that? How do you recreate the magic of a book choosing you? 

On to a bigger point. I like owning things. I like collecting things. There is great value in seeing your trove of LP records (when there was such a thing), tiers of cassette tapes, VHS's, then CD's and DVD's. I like seeing the shelves of my library fill up with books, each with a history of how I discovered it and where, when. It speaks to who I was when I bought it, and who I am now. We are made and unmade by the things we own and display, for they represent our values. Nowadays, the modern digital world forces a choice upon us, security, convenience, expediency, immediate gratification to randomness, inconvenience, slowness, delayed gratification. Not much of a choice is it? Or is it. The latter set speaks to our wholeness, our humanity; the former to our sense of incompleteness. 

Even as I had signed my publication contract with an e-book company, I felt wrong about it, as if I had compromised my integrity as a writer and reader. So, last week I cancelled my publishing contract with so-called publishing company Haus of Millian. The company markets itself as an "independent publishing company, producing gorgeously stylized electronic books." The books, two to date, are both either penned by, or jointly penned by, its sole "indentured servant", a woman with more identities than a Batman villain. I knew something was amiss. I could go on about her incessant Twittering, Facebook updating, tailgate parties, trips to Las Vegas to roam the sushi bars, etc. when she should have been working on my book, but that would be to belabor the point. In retrospect, the constant stalling--no publication date, no book trailer (as promised), no consultation on book cover design, layout (as promised), etc. added up to a set of broken promises I could not deal with.

So I sacrificed my goal of being a published writer, delayed my immediate gratification of seeing my book in digital form, to the traditional publication route. The road is long and hard, but I believe in my strengths as a writer, believe in my voice, believe in my integrity and can honestly say Never again! 

Ideally the combination of traditional book publishing and e-book publishing seems the right mix, one which I will pursue for the future. My novella, Ghost Notes, has already been finalist for the SFWP 2013 Fiction Awards and semifinalist for the Faulkner Society's 2013 Fiction Awards, so there is hope that an agent and publisher will find my work compelling enough to turn it into a book for a reader to discover on the shelf of their local bookstore. 

Nothing would please me more than connecting with people on a visceral level. Nothing would please me more than having some reader dog ear my book, write in its margins, underline a sentence or a paragraph, use the book and abuse the book, interact with my work as I have done with so many others. This process personalizes the book: it makes my work also theirs.  

Monday, October 7, 2013

Update on my Novella, Ghost Notes

Dear Family, Friends, Future Friends, Future Readers,

My publisher Haus of Millian has an important update on the publication of my novella (short novel) Ghost Notes, due out soon. Please visit the link below and sign up to get your advance copy. Blurbs and reviews, though not necessary, are very very welcome!

If you have trouble viewing or submitting this form, you can fill it out online:

Reserve your pre-release copy of Ghost Notes

Thank you for your interest in a pre-release copy of Ghost Notes by SK Kalsi. This electronic book will be delivered directly to your kindle device from the publisher by your request and only with your permission via your kindle device(s) and account.To receive your pre-release copy of Ghost Notes, complete the form below and approve the email address as an authorized sender to your kindle email address. We respect your privacy and will use your kindle address for the sole purpose of delivering Ghost Notes. Your information will not be shared with anyone for any reason. For quick and easy instructions on how to approve the delivery of your electronic book, check out the video below.
It is our hope that you'll enjoy reading Ghost Notes and that you'll tweet about it, talk about it and share your reviews on, any other place you like to talk about books--reviews help other readers discover what may be their next favorite book.
Your reviews are GOLD!
Thank you for your time and attention. Enjoy your copy of Ghost Notes!
T. Maxximillian Dafoe
Publisher, Haus of Millian

Thank you all for your continued interest, support, faith and encouragement towards my writing.


Saturday, September 7, 2013

A Trip to Visit Dr. Lee, Endocrinologist

This isn't an exciting post. It offers no anecdotes, or pearls of wisdom. It offers no advice. It isn't very literary, but it is honest, so sometimes you have to trade style for honesty and hope people won't be bored by the truth. 

Since my diagnosis, for the past week and a half, as I waited to see Dr. Lee, my endocrinologist, I have been testing my blood sugar up to six times a day, leaving my fingers sore. My stomach has become a pincushion for the insulin shots and hurts, because when insulin enters the system it burns. My eyes are perpetually blurry and my near vision has worsened, so much so that it is difficult to read anything. I have quit smoking, restricted my diet to greens, proteins (fish and chicken), gluten free carbs, and completely cut out sugar. I'll have a glass of red wine a night, my only indulgence. 

I have found I have more energy at night, which leave me awake till three or four in the morning. I'll listen to music, watch TV, write a little here and there. But as I grapple with this new situation, I feel depressed often, berate myself over the bad choices I've made. 

My parents came on Thursday to visit me and my wife and I updated them on my condition. A pall of sadness has descended on our family, and although I know my condition is not a death sentence if I don't want it to be, it is a wake up call to change my life. Yesterday we ate lunch at a Tapas place downtown Napa, then had a dinner of a mixed greens salad and grilled salmon. My wife has become an expert in making salads, but I can't see myself eating salads for dinner for the rest of my life. 

This disease is intrusive. It takes over your life. It stresses you out. You have to evaluate everything, manage your hunger levels, your carb and sugar intake. Food is my enemy, well, certain foods. It has made me aware of how much garbage is sold in restaurants, coffee shops, cafes that cater to the pleasure centers in the brain--sugary foods that release endorphins and provide false energy. 

Today I would visit Dr. Lee. She would tell me what kind of diabetes I have, create a new schedule of medicine and doses, and order more tests if she saw fit. I woke up today feeling  sore all over and lethargic, like the way you feel when you have the flu. After a light breakfast, egg whites omelette, a bowl of strawberries and blue berries, half a whole wheat toast with butter, I fell onto the couch exhausted and slept. I moved to my bedroom and slept. For a snack, I ate a few strawberries, a few crackers and cheddar cheese. I slapt. For lunch I ate a green salad with grilled chicken. I slept. 

At 2:45 we, my wife and mother and I, left to see Dr. Lee. She's not far, about three miles from the house and after a little trouble we found her office. I filled out the paperwork. We waited for about fifteen minutes before the nurse ushered us into the room. She checked my weight, height, blood pressure, which were all fine. 

Long story short: Dr. Lee, young, pretty, supremely confident and professional, checked my feet, my heart and lungs, and after answering our questions and asking me some of her own, gave us the verdict. I have type 2 diabetes, BUT, I would no longer have to take insulin shots. What a relief. She said that with the proper diet and exercise, I would be able to reverse my symptoms and be free of diabetes forever, BUT, only if I made the right choices. Her verdict sounded like a symphony.  

I have had the scare of a lifetime. I have been given a glimpse of my future as a diabetic and learned a hard lesson. My promise to myself and to my wife and to my future children is to manage my health, to abide by a fitness and nutrition regimen for the rest of my life. It's not so bad to be healthy, is it? One doesn't need to pursue a hard drinking and smoking, sugary and high cholesterol lifestyle to feel as if you're living a "romantic" life. I am done being overindulgent. I just want to live a quality life, free from vices, free from pain and sickness. 

Monday, August 26, 2013

A Word on Vices

I'd like to talk about the things that kill us: Vices. 

What a week. A diagnostic one. A trip to the doctor this past monday found me urinating in a cup for a quick analysis, then my blood drawn and sent to the lab for further tests. The doctor suspected something, but stayed uncommitted. She told me to go home and rest. I did. I spent the day on the couch, nursing a headache. Overcome by lethargy, blurry vision, and insatiable thirst, I watched TV, slept, ate and drank water. I thought I had cancer. 

Tuesday I stayed in bed most of the day. Slept. I slipped in and out of consciousness and refrained from eating sugar. Irritable, I fought with my wife for no reason; maudlin, I cried over nothing. 

Wednesday, I began feeling better. I even told a joke or two. Seeing my wife smile was a wonderful thing. I wrote. I waited for the blood reports to come in. Whatever news it would give me would be awful, I knew, but there was a slight hope, a chance that I might be spared the fate that killed my grandmother and my grandfather. 

Thursday, the doctor called me. Her suspicions were confirmed. She said I have type 2 diabetes, advanced stage. She says I must have had it for years. My heart sank. What else? She said my LDL cholesterol was at critical levels. She ordered me to see her diabetes specialist Dr. Hana the following day. I  made the appointment online. 

Friday, my wife and I drove to San Francisco to the medical clinic, met with Dr. Hana. After another urine analysis she suggested I check into a hospital. I refused. What was all this fuss? We settled on a different plan. I would drink a gallon of water, eat a light breakfast and see her in a couple of hours. 

While at breakfast Dr. Hana called. She said she spoke to her colleagues about my case and they ordered her to order me to the ER. Her voice sounded urgent. I told her I would drive back to Napa, where we live, and check into Queen of the Valley. 

I spent a night in the ER. The nurses set up a saline drip that pumped fluid into my veins. Every few hours a nurse or doctor would visit me and check my blood pressure, inject me with insulin, give me pill to swallow. I slipped in and out of consciousness. 

Through it all my wife's love and care and attention sustained me. She saved my life. Every few hours I was taught the facts of diabetes, how to manage it. The nurses instructed me on how to use the blood glucose monitor, how to inject myself with insulin. The nutritionist visited me to teach me how to read the food labels on packaging. I was handed packets to read, all while my head felt ready to burst. 

The reality: I am a diabetic. My relationship to food and drink has instantly changed. I am no longer free to eat and drink what I want, to abuse my body with alcohol, nicotine, sodas, coffee, cream, fatty bacon and red meat, et. al. I am forced by my failed pancreas to inject myself four times a day with insulin, consume pills to keep me alive. 

I know that by following a proper diet and getting plenty of exercise and rest, I can overcome my dependence on insulin and the drugs, but that reality seems far-fetched at this moment. Right now, I am, no pun intended, digesting this new situation. It is sobering to think that a man who has never been in the hospital (except for the day he was born), who has never broken a bone, or undergone surgery of any kind, now has to face this life-threatening disease. Will my toes be amputated? Will I go blind? Will I lose my hearing? Writers are trained to see the glass half empty. 

There is more to say and it is late and I am dizzy from the insulin shot that burns in my stomach and works its way through my system. There is more for me to say and I will say it. I will try. I only hope I have the words. At this moment, I don't have perspective. Not yet. This feeling in me is still raw. 

Monday, August 12, 2013

A Quick Note on Editing

A bit of honesty right here. I struggle with reading. I struggle with writing. Now that I am in the editing phase of my novella, I struggle with editing. What really upsets me is looking back on the self that wrote a sentence that later makes me cringe, or reading a paragraph I've written, thinking it good, only to be disappointed by the lack of depth contained therein. Luckily, though, I haven't found a "method"to cure me of bad writing, except that I have come to the understanding that disappointment, frustration, even that sick little feeling you get when something you've written goes out into the world you know isn't your finest, are all helpful reminders that writing, like life, are unfinished projects that continue to evolve, mature, grow.

If I were writing genre fiction, not that I'm knocking genre fiction, I would be less inclined to obsess over sentences, focusing on plot and character as it relates to theme, and using the sentence only to carry the weight of those ideas. But as a literary minded writer, a closet poet, a man in love with the artful phrase, I can only say that I am compelled to try and write musically. This comes at a cost. Alienation for some; disappointment for me.

I wish when I said, "It's done, or, done enough," I didn't have to read back what I had written in a month and decided that what I had thought "done" was simply another draft. It pains me to look over and edit a previous draft, then another, then another, and hone further, refine further, excise each page of everything that rings false. But that is the process of writing, a symptom of the writing life. You simply have to dive back in. It is imperative that before the next time you send something out into the world (even something as a Blog post), that it accurately reflects your thoughts at the time you thought them, and on a mechanical level it is vital you catch your basic mistakes in punctuation and grammar.

I am speaking to myself here. I am a notoriously bad typer and these modern keyboards don't instill confidence in me, especially when I have to fix a missed keystroke, or a wrong one. I have to stop, address the red line beneath a misspelled word on the page and it's them my thoughts go awry...sometimes. But let me make no excuses for myself. Let me press on and write and commit to my commitments to improve. Writing, after all, is a journey of self, of self-discovery, of self-mastery, and all that takes a bit of time.

(I know I'll read this later and find something in it I hate!)

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

A Brief Discussion of a Cormac McCarthy Sentence

Dear Nina,

Excuse my last email.

From Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian: 

"They were twenty-four hours without water and the barren mural of sand and sky was beginning to shimmer and swim and the periodic arrows sprang aslant from the sands about them like the tufted stalks of mutant desert growths propagating angrily into the dry desert air." 279.

It starts out as a passive sentence, pointing to the vulnerability of these characters moving through a landscape threatening to undermine their lives. Had Cormac began without "They were" and just with the active base clause, "Twenty four hours without water and the barren mural of sand and sky shimmerED and swAM, etc." might have improved the urgency of the thoughts, but thrown the sentence into past tense, thus detracting from the passivity these characters must feel-- a passivity which, I think, is necessary to show.

Once again we have polysendeton, the use of conjunctions linking clauses together: "and the barren mural of sand AND sky...AND swim AND the periodic arrows, etc." The word that comes to mind is locomotion, a breathlessness, almost like a child spinning a tale to tell his older brothers of the ineluctable mystery of what he's experienced.

I love also the alliteration, the "Ss" slipping in, providing a hissing quality like that of a snake in grass, or biblical Eden (lost one at that): "hourS, Sand, Sky, waS, Swim, arrowS, Sprang, Slant, Sands, StalkS." There is also an internal rime in the base clause, "Four, hours, withOUT," which provides, in my opinion, a coiling up effect, something harnessing energy and ready to strike, releasing all those gorgeous "Ss."

Looking closely at his active verbs, we find "shimmer," "swim," "sprang," and "propagating." Whereas "shimmer and swim" modifies the phrase "mural of sand" Cormac deploys a metaphor of water and light to keep us off balance. We feel as if this scene is a mirage, with the surrealism of arrows poking up "from the sands about them." And once again, "Sprang has that viperine quality that corresponds to the hissing sounds.

We find here the undertones of landscape made into hell, something evil and threatening. I particularly liked the metaphor at the end, a trope Cormac uses often and unsparingly. Although simile most often helps readers link two disparate images which share traits in common, helping us see clearer, Cormac's simile also employs personification, thus humanizing the death and tragedy found here; for the arrows springing aslant from the sands do so "angrily."

The word "mutant" is interesting here as well, as it suggests that the arrows have withered, changed, and also that they seem inhuman, as if even the hands that pulled bow and string and shot the arrows into space to land here were inhuman, too. This idea fits nicely with the whole notions of violence found in the book. The Glanton Gang, after all, are looking for scalps, and see in the native Indians something subhuman.

The sentence ends with that parched quality with which the sentence began and also alliteration: "dry desert air." We begin with a group of men parched, having gone without water in the barren desert. We end with arrows poking out of the ground in the "dry desert air." There is a sense of foreboding that violence is sure to come, that these the end is death for one and all, that death is the ultimate end.

That's all I have.



PS Today I started reading The Voice of the River by Melanie Rae Thon. Interesting structure, interesting style. 

Dear Surya,
This sentence runs counter to how I’d write it. It’s long, flowing, lyrical; yet the characters are without water. Shorter sentences create more anxiety. So at first blush, this sentence is interesting to me for what it isn’t.
You’ve done a great job analyzing this sentence. So I’ll try to add rather than repeat.

As I said above, shorter sentence create more tension. Yet when I read this sentence, I feel anxiety. Why? First we get, as you noted, the gentle alliteration of “s” and sibilant sounds--sand/sky/shimmer/swim. And you have the lovely image created by the word “mural.” McCarthy makes you see this landscape by adding this word, which does the work of defamiliarization. If the sentence ended there, I’d say it failed to mimic what the characters were experiencing. That is, style would have departed from content.

But then McCarthy does something interesting. As he uses more conjunctions, he includes more plosive consonants—(plosives are p,t,k,b,d,g)—and they create a harsh sound. We’ve moved away from the soft flow of “sand and sky were beginning to shimmer and swim,” and onto a land that is described with plosives---“periodic/aslant/tufted/stalks/mutant/desert/propagating/angrily/dry/desert.”

With this movement to harsher sounds, we also move away from the water imagery. The characters are twenty-four hours without water and at first the desert, “the barren mural of sand and sky” seems to be providing them with water via a mirage –“shimmer and swim.” But by the end of the sentence, the characters will not find salvation in this landscape. Water imagery is gone, replaced by “periodic arrows” and “tufted stalks of mutant desert growths,” and “dry desert air.” What great movement!

The sentence ends on an ugly image with interesting diction through a simile: “like the tufted stalks of mutant desert growths propagating angrily into the dry desert air.” That adjective, “mutant,” as you noted, leaps off the page. I keep coming back to the movement of the sentence—how it starts with beauty and here we are ending with mutant.  Mutant is related to “mutation,” which means change or a significant and basic alteration. Something is about to change in this world. At the same time, when I let myself free associate, I come up with words like alien, strange, not human. Yes, the Glanton Gang is looking for scalps. And they are in an inhospital landscape—the desert—which is not fit for human life.

Now I want to reread Blood Meridian.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

A Death in the Family - James Agee

If you haven't read James Agee's masterpiece A death in the Family, you must.  It's a brilliant account of grief and loss told from an omniscient POV in prose that takes your breath away. 
 For example, here's what I found fairly late in the novel:

"Without either desiring to see her face, or caring how it looked, she saw that it had changed; through the deep, clear veil her gray eyes watched her gray eyes watch her through the deep, clear veil." 

The entire novel is full of sentences that simply astonish you. Agee, deeply influenced by William Faulkner, cannot help but attempt to surpass the master. Amazingly, Agee still manages to sound original while employing much of Faulkner's style. 

Here's what I love about this sentence: It begins negatively, "without," in an existential "either/or" mode which, as you remember from Kierkegaard, posits how a choice, silent and ineffable, must be made to secure identity, meaning. Here the subject of the sentence, Mary, who has just lost her husband, must attend his funeral. She no longer cares for her vanity, because the man in whose direction she launched her vanity (her husband Jay) is dead. Agee doesn't have to say, "Jay's death changed her," or something blunt and obvious as that, he puts those thoughts as physical action for us to see it: "she saw it had changed." Mary has neither desire nor care. The essence of her femininity is and her mothering have vanished. 

The semi-colon that splits the sentence in two parts is an artful use of punctuation, as it show the split between Mary and Jay, Mary's past and present, Mary's tortured circularity of having the world spin around her, reliving the night Jay left, and reliving the events of his death as told to her. Incidentally, in describing Jay's death in an auto accident Agee has the car Jay was driving landing upside down, its wheels spinning; it's a crucial image that returns again and again through revolving, spinning, rotating imagery in various ways throughout the novel. But Agee's true victory over language, image, emotion and idea, occurs in the second half of the sentence, utilizing repetition, inverted syntax, and alliteration.

We have "veil" and "gray " which rhyme internally, but anchoring the sentence is the word "watched," sitting dead center; it has the surprising effect of watching the reader. As readers we eavesdrop on the lives of characters and this sentence has the marvelous ability to eavesdrop on us. It also shows us that Mary is regarding herself as an object, "the grieving widow," perhaps, "the suffering woman." It is this level of detachment from the events of facing her dead husband's body that feels like a necessary reaction. She must detach. She must, but alas (further down the page) we see that as much as she might want to try and be distant, her body won't let her. 

If you've read the book, then put it on your list of to read again. It has so many gifts of language and insight. So much heartbreak. So much love and hurt, understanding and compassion. 

Here are a few other tastes from the novel:

"Their little sounds, as they approached their father, vanished upon it like the infinitesimal whisperings of snow, falling on open water."

"Her mother's arm came round him; he felt her hand on the crest of his shoulder. He slid his arm around her and felt her hand become alive on his shoulder and felt his sister's arm. He touched her bare arm tenderly, and felt her hand grapple for and take his arm. He put his hand around her arm and felt how little it was he could feel a vein beating against the bone, just below her armpit."

"He spoke as if all that he said were in every idea and in every syllable final, finished, perfected beyond disquisition long before he was born; and truth and eternity dwelt like clearest water in the rhythms of his languafe and in the contours of his voice; his voice accepted and bore this language like the bed of a brook."

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Art of a Faulkner Sentence, ala Surya and Nina


Here we go again.  Me and Nina going at it on a William Faulkner sentence.  We just might be the geekiest sentence lovers....ever!

My opening salvo:

Hi Nina,

Faulkner's As I lay Dying is a trove a beautiful and interesting sentences.  His syntax confounds!  There is so much to choose from so I thought I'd go out on a limb and try to explicate this (Forgive me Mr. Faulkner):

"Cash's face is also gravely composed; he and I look at one another with long probing looks, looks that plunge unimpeded through one another's eyes and into the ultimate secret place where for an instant Cash and Darl crouch flagrant and unabashed in all the old terror and the old foreboding, alert and secret and without shame." 

What jumps out at me are the following:  Repetition, anadiplosis, polysendeton. 

The sentence begins with a subject complement.  The phrase "gravely composed," following the "to be" verb form "is" defines the possessive noun "face."  Faulkner could have switched the phrases and written, "Gravely composed is Cash's face," but doing so creates a terrible  omission of the word "also" (such a little adverb), which establishes a time relation.   I suppose he could have interjected "also" into the phrase, but doing so would create an odd construction, and strange rhythm: "Gravely composed is also Cash's face" just doesn't sound right.  So kudos to Mr. Faulkner for his sense of rhythm and melody.  anyway, such an omission would also (pun intended) defeat the sentence of its relational significance, for example, the narrator, in this section Darl, wants to show that Cash is not the picture of strength but of hidden anxiety.  So, "also" does some real work here. 

I love the anadiplosis, "...looks, looks..." because it reveals the difference between reality and appearance to Darl.  So much of this book is about seeing, looking, perceiving, being perceived, that repeating the word mid-sentence, also points to the idea that in the middle of their journey (taking Addie Bundren's dead body across the county to bury her), it is perception of truth that Darl calls into question.  The verb "plunge" resonates with me; it foreshadows the plunge into the river where the family lose their mules. 

Interesting to note how Darl, the narrator, becomes perceived as well; his very existence is thrust into the 3rd person where he views himself from outside: "Cash and Darl crouch flagrant and unabashed..."  The sentence concludes with several repetitions of the word "old" and the conjunction "and" linking abstract ideas.  The past is ever present.  One cannot escape their heritage, their genealogy, class status, etc.  Faulkner doesn't have to say this: he shows it through the word "old."  What economy!! 

I count, after that second "look," no less than six "ands."  Hooray for polysendeton, one of my favorite schemes.  What polysyndeton (and I love saying the word) does is create a sense of linked harmony between "looks, eyes, secrets, Cash, Darl ,flagrant, unabashed, old, terror, foreboding, alert, secret, shame," a seemingly incongruous list that upon closer scrutiny reveal the deep state of Darl's mind.  The sentence that follows this, a short one, "When we speak our voices are quiet, detached" has been earned by the previous one.  And I suppose that is what this long sentence does for me: it helps establish emotion, psychology, while showing theme; it earns or proves the right for Darl's and Cash's voice to be "quiet, detached." 

There is so much more to be said. 



And Nina's response:

Hi Surya,

If this is nerdy, so be it.

What I love about this sentence is how it mimics what is happening to Cash and Darl. It opens with a base clause, and then, after the semi-colon, another base clause, “he and I look…” and then Faulkner does what he does so well, he begins to nest modifiers, modifying the looks between Darl and Cash, how they plunge into the secret place, and in that place (I feel the look burrowing in) they are, together, crouched in all the old terror and foreboding, alert and secret and without shame. So the sentence burrows through modifiers just as they are burrowing into each other.

I also really like the rhythms here—listen to the hard and soft stresses: “he and I look at one another with long probing looks...” the “long probing looks” are three hard stresses (with that soft stress associated with ‘ing’). And with those stresses, especially with ‘probing’ and the long ‘o,’ I slow way down in this sentence and look with them. Cool!

The soft stresses here, “for an instant,” and the sentence picks up speed to find the two of them crouched in this ultimate secret place. You noted “plunge,” but he also uses “flagrant”—burning, fiery hot, and also flouting of a law or morality, and soon in the story the barn will burn and the body will stink. So here, we have, just like plunge, the weaving in of words that direct us to theme.

You mentioned ‘also,’ how necessary it was for rhythm and melody. “Also” is nice assonance with “composed”—that long ‘o’ sound. Using “also” sets up a pattern of rhythm— “Cash’s face,” a hard stress and a soft stress, which is echoed with “also,” which is a hard stress and a soft.  There’s also assonance with ‘face/gravely’ and ‘plunge/unimpeded/one/another.’ Why note all this? It creates rhythm and music to the ear.

At the end of the sentence, all those long ‘o’s’ at the end also slow me down- “old/old/foreboding” so I sit, finally, with  those two in the secret place feeling the foreboding and the terror, without shame. Those hard stresses at the end ‘without shame’ (out/shame), make it sound like an act of defiance, as if they are shouting they will feel no shame, don’t make them feel it, because they won’t abide.


Thursday, May 2, 2013

Sentence Breakdown: Nina Schuyler Style!

Here we are discussing a Walker Percy sentence from The Moviegoer. 

Hi Nina,

So the collection of stunning sentences grows with this, a beastly gem I found in Walker Percy's novel The Moviegoer. It's a little (a lot?) long, but I think the sentence bears real fruit upon conclusion. I thought to stay away from an explication of tropes and sentence type, etc. thinking you might have more meaningful things to say on the subject. So here goes...

"Some years later, after Scott's death, we came my father and I to the Field Museum, a long dismal peristyle dwindling away into the howling distance, and inside stood before a tableau of Stone Age man, father mother and child crouched around an artificial ember in postures of minatory quiet--until, feeling my father's eye on me, I turned and saw what he required of me--very special father and son we were that summer, he staking his everything this time on a perfect comradeship--and I, seeing in his eyes the terrible request, requiring from me his very life; I, through a child's cool perversity or some atavistic recoil from an intimacy too intimate, turned him down, turned away, refused him what I knew I could not give."

There's a lot going on here all of which flows from the tension between father and son. For purposes of explication it isn't necessary to discuss Scott except to understand that his death meant something to both of them.

Situated in the narrator Binx Bolling's memory of his father, this sentence/paragraph has enough abstractness and just the right sprinkling of detail to convince readers that Binx has fully processed the experience. Percy focuses not on the minutiae of visiting the Field Museum, revealing colors, sights, sounds, textures, smells, but pleading gesture for "comradeship" his father makes, one which Binx rejects.

The sentence begins in indeterminate time "Some years later," employing the plural pronoun "we" to suggest togetherness (albeit a forced one), which Percy then parses out as "my father and I" to suggest, even at the heart of this memory, a separateness. The Field Museum is described only as "a long peristyle dwindling away into the howling distance," which I think is extremely apt considering Binx's memory of this event, for a peristyle is a row of columns, individual columns, ordered like a colonnade, and yet Percy describes them as if receding into "the howling distance." Through understatement, Percy suggests that the past also howls at Binx, forcing him to address unresolved issues. 

Father and son find themselves before "a tableau of Stone Age Man," reinforcing this idea of the past "howling" into the present. Like the past, father and son look upon a family frozen in time, thus reinforcing this idea of a false "we," for the family are statues, unable to see or feel or touch one another. Interesting how he omits the comma between "father mother" then employs a conjunction between "mother and child." A subtle hint into the family dynamic? a typo? Given Percy's meticulous attention to syntax and grammar, I think the former. He means to show by punctuation how the adult world (with its gestures and actions, rules and codes and mores, habits and customs and attentions, etc.) is incommunicable to a child's world.

 Percy positions the Stone Age family in "postures of minatory quiet" suggesting a nascent threat of some sort, and that threat seems to push through this forced ritualized domesticity and enters the realm of the present. Binx feels his father's eye on him and it ravels something inside: In that expression, unstated by Percy which we receive only by suggestion (feigned comradeship, friendship, a requirement of absolution perhaps), which feel potent as venom. The serum? Rejection. Remember in the beginning of the sentence how Percy has them arriving, "we came my father and I..." so now he has Binx leaving, emotionally and psychologically. It's a great way to show movement. Binx cannot accept his father nor the desperation he feels his father wields, so by ending with rejection it creates a sort of trajectory for Binx.

This sentence/paragraph summarizes a great many themes of the book, madness, love, art, the past, acceptance/rejection, freedom and responsibility, coming of age.

It's really a wonderful look at crafting stunning sentences that serve not only to show what happened, but also how, when and where, and ultimately why.


PS Apologizing in advance for my typos and muddy thinking :) 



You've found another great sentence!

A qualifier: I have not read this novel, so it will be interesting to see what this sentence reveals (at least to me) and how it captures the story as a whole.

A left branching sentence, which opens with two phrases, "Some years later," "after Scott's death," and then we come to the beginning of the base clause. With this left branching, periodic sentence, the narrator exhibits control over the memory, which suggests this is a retrospective narrator--an older man recalling this occasion, this summer with his father.

I, too, was struck by the way the syntax interrupted here: "we came my father and I"--the modifier "my father and I" (an appositive that amplifies the word "we") is place out of order. Traditionally, it would be: "we, my father and I, came..." It's also interesting that it is not offset by commas. I like your interpretation of this--how first there is a unification of the narrator with his father, but then, on second thought, the narrator feels the need (and the ending shows us why) to separate. That is doesn't come immediately after the "we" draws even more attention to itself.

Two compelling images here: the Field Museum and the tableau. The museum is home to history, the artifacts of the past. The father and son are entering the world of the past. He personifies the past with the phrase, "the howling distance." Yes, the past, this memory, is howling in this older narrator's mind. It's calling him back to remember. This is the language of the adult narrator, with the words "peristyle," and "dwindling." The tableau, as you note, is time frozen in stone. The narrator slips in "artificial" which suggests the way he looks at this domestic scene of father mother and child, but even more telling in the adjective, "minatory," which means threatening or menacing. The narrator is revealing so much of his state of mind, as it pertains to family, domesticity, the past. What also struck me is how this entire sentence (yes, one sentence! extended through the em dash and the semi-colon, is like that tableau--a solid mass of the past).

A second independent clause begins "I turned and saw..." I heard the young narrator's voice slip in with the words, "very special father and son," --that hyperbolic and ironic tone," and "he staking his everything"--again, a hyperbolic turn of phrase, indicating youth. He repeats "required," which appears again as "requiring," By repeating the word, the reader senses that it is the requirements of his father, his history, his legacy from which he'll turn and reject.

By modifying "recoil," with the word "atavistic," we are sent, once again, to the past. Atavistic--a throwback recurrence in an organism or part of an organism of a form typical of ancestors more remote than parents. Ironic, then, that the narrator will reject his father, yet succumb, perhaps to some other inheritance from the past. The sentence reaches a higher emotional pitch with the use of anaphora at the end, "turned him down, turned away," (the repetition of "turned"). 


Saturday, April 27, 2013

New reading list

I am not sure how and why books and authors "find" me, but whenever I put out a question into the world, I am led to pick up a book at a bookstore or library and, reading through a few pages, am seized upon by a sentence of such heartbreaking beauty that I have to read the book. Then I go on and read all I can by that particular author, analyzing syntax, grammar, word choice, character, etc. while marveling at the intelligence and immense imagination of the prose.

Currently Reading:

Wallace Stegner - Angle of Repose
Wallace Stegner - Collected Short Stories
James Salter - A Sport and a Pastime

Books on deck:

Phillip Roth - Portnoy's Complaint
Phillip Roth - American Pastoral
Phillip Roth - The Human Stain
Phillip Roth - Everyman
William Faulkner - A Fable
William Faulkner - The Reivers
William Faulkner - The Wild Palms

That should carry me through June :)

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

A brief exchange between me and author Nina Schuyler

Hi Nina,

From James Salter again, also from his novel Light Years.
> "The air overhead, glittering, infinite, the moist earth beneath--one could taste this earth, its richness, its density, bathe in the air like a stream."
> Before launching into this lovely sentence, Salter first establishes time, "In the morning the light came in silence. The house slept. The air overhead, etc." Then he covers the other elements, "air, earth, water," while expanding the idea of air into something infused with light "glittering," then expands it further into an abstract idea, "infinite," then returns from the abstract to the sensual, "richness" and "density," before utilizing that amazing simile that catches one off-guard, making air and light something you can swim around in, "bathe in the air like a stream."
> Love it,
> S

And her response:

What a beautiful sentence! I also like the surprise of "taste this earth." He's not afraid to repeat--we have "air" and "earth" twice in this short sentence.
Such exuberance here, such a love of the world.


Saturday, April 20, 2013

Boston Marathon Bombers and Our Values

On June 23, 1985, three days shy of my fifteenth birthday, I lost my cousin Indra in a terrorist attack.  Like the Boston Marathon Bombings, my cousin also died because of a bomb.  Air India Flight 182, carrying Indra, left Toronto for England and exploded over the North Irish Sea.  Her body was never recovered.

The bomb that killed Indra was set in a suitcase.  Somehow the suitcase slipped past all security checks and measures and made its way into the baggage compartment of that plane.  Human error, incompetence, oversight, negligence, lackadaisical security standards, broken machinery, all come to bear on the issue of blame.  After all was said and done, no one was truly held accountable for Indra's murder.

Instead of a pressure cooker bomb,  used by the Tsarnaevs to murder three and maim hundreds, the bomb that killed Indra and 328 people, passengers and crew, was constructed out of a radio tuner.  Like the Boston Marathon Bombings, in the Air India disaster, a second bomb placed in another airline bound for Narita, Japan, cleared the Pacific Ocean and exploded at the Narita International Airport.

Indra, like those who perished in Boston, like those who died over Lockerbee,  in Madrid, in London, on 9/11, at Oklahoma City, like all those who die as victims for so-called causes that have nothing to do with them, die for nothing if we forget them.  But the cruel fact is they are as quickly forgotten by the public once our attention shifts to the killers.  We whose interests shift from the tragedy of the attack, to finding the terrorists, then to seeking justice, seem to forget the victims.  Perhaps it's a coping mechanism.  Why remind ourselves of the people that died?  Isn't forgetting part of our collective catharsis once the murderers have been killed?  It's no longer the public's worry.  I don't fault the public for this.  I am not so self-righteous to ask people to hold public vigils year after year after year, for if we did, not a day would go by without memorializing the dead.  It's a sobering thought.I am sure we will construct a memorial. That would be nice. But it still won't stop another attack.  Someday.  Somewhere. 

Remembering the dead are for the families of those victims; it is they who have to truly live with the loss.  But as time lengthens, the families still never quite seem able to move on.  My uncle Rattan, Indra's father, continues to live in the shadow of Indra's memory even now, after twenty plus years. Even I am collateral damage.

Indra, when she died, was a bubbly, beautiful, goal-oriented young woman in her early twenties, who worked two jobs and whose dream was to visit India.  She had friends who adored her, and being the second youngest of six, she had, from what I remember, a spirited personality.  She would tease me, call me her unofficial "boyfriend" (I was twelve), spray perfume on me, terrorize me with her kisses. I loved her as my cousin, but feared her, too.  If I got too close to her she would attack me with tickles that sent me screaming and her chasing me.  Then in one instant, she was gone.

What is it in a person that convinces them to kill?  What persuades them that taking human life is the only option?  I will never understand that mentality.   As bad as my life has gotten, I never, ever, thought of constructing a bomb, or picking up a gun and killing people.  Not once.  I never believed that taking human life was an option.  How does one become so desensitized?  Perhaps in the days and weeks that follow we will learn what went on in Dzhokar Tsarnaev's mind, this nineteen year old child with his entire life ahead of him.  Why did he decide to kill in the cowardly way he did?  Why did he feel it was the only option in his life?  I would love to ask him what he hoped to gain by killing innocent people.  I am sure the authorities will ask him.  I am sure he will tell them something.  

But any answer that we receive from him or others like him in the future (for they will continue to come), will not be adequate.  It will not be adequate because Indra is dead.  She cannot come back. His answers will not bring her back.  His reasons will not bring her back.  His immaturity and misguidance, his inferiority complex, his misdirected hatred form American life, his anti-Christianism, his pro-fundamentalism, his inability to get a girlfriend, his impotence, his deep rooted homosexual tendencies for his brother, his rape as a child by a mysterious stranger, his addiction to Halo 3 or World of Warcraft or the UFC, etc. etc. etc. will never be adequate answers or causes.  For Indra is still dead and those who died in Boston cannot come back.  Whose to say that the next bomber/terrorist/machine gun murderer, won't have similar "reasons"?  Even after we kill Dzhokar, I am afraid justice will not be served.  Families will continue to grieve.  Terrorists will continue to be born.

What I know is this: I am tired of violence.  I am tired of this culture that glorifies violence at the expense of what brings us together.  I am tired of the statements, "He was such a good kid, mild, would never hurt a fly."  I am tired of paranoid gun advocates claiming guns aren't the problem but that people are the problem,  and when it comes to passing legislation on keeping guns out of the hands of crazy people, or criminals, nothing gets done.  I am tired of the 2nd Amendment being misrepresented, for it does not grant the right for people to own bazookas, tanks, missiles, a nuclear bomb, just as it doesn't grant the right for people to own military assault rifles. Give them muskets and have them go at it.  Or if you really want to prove you're a man, hunt your deer and buck, your wolves and bears, your fowl and rodents with a bow and arrow and a knife.

I am not arrogant enough to claim I know what causes a mind to snap.  What causes someone like Dzhokar and his brother to turn into mad bombers? Maybe they do feel that the only way to regain a sense of power is to murder innocent people, for the line between fame and infamy is crossed by  committing one evil deed.  Maybe by punishing people who appear happier than themselves, who own more, who live freer lives, is the only way to make them feel better about themselves.  I don't know. 

If a terrorist simply took one step back and had a pang of conscience, if they simply took a step back and asked themselves, Is this right?  Does the cause I believe in justify this act?  Would God, or Allah, or Muhammad, or Jesus, or Guru Nanak, or whomever it is they believe in, advocate killing innocent people, babies, girls, children, mothers, daughters, fathers, brothers?  Where in their scriptures does it say that killing innocents is sanctioned by God?  What kind of god would support such a message?
There are always lessons to be learned, in fact terrorist attacks like this demand we learn something. But more than learning we must continue to feel in our hearts how lucky we are to be alive.  Of the three that died in Boston, hundreds, thousands survived, and perhaps they, even the injured and maimed, must be taking stock:  Have I done enough?  Have I lived my dream?  Have I taken the time to be a better person?  Maybe it's time to put work aside and take that dream vacation.  I need to call my mother, grandpa, grandma.  I need to tell someone I haven't spoken to in years that I love them and miss them and that I forgive them.  And so on.  These things make us human.  These are our values.  This is what makes our humanity strong: love in the face of hatred, fear, anger. 

I regret I didn't spend more time with Indra, but then, I never expected her life to be cut so short.  I regret also I didn't spend more time with my grandparents.  Now, faced with the fact of my aging parents, I wish for more time with them.  I accept their shortcomings as gifts, their strengths as blessings, and cherish their love.  Human life is precious, something the Tsaernevs couldn't understand.