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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").