Writers harvest words like sun-ripened fruit, a bite into succulence. We collect them like jewels, for their beauty or their oddities. We juggle them into cadences, sliding the pieces until they fit, just right.
We collect sentences too sometimes, elegant combinations — what James Baldwin describes as language that is “as clean as a bone”. I tend to gravitate towards language with a twist, seeds of its own unraveling. I like contradictions, surprises, words that turn on a dime. The unexpected. I love a writer who can give me pause.
Lately, I love John Irving. Irving is a master at language that simultaneously dresses a character and strips him bare. You can imagine the people of his novels sitting on your couch, drinking coffee or belting down scotch — though you might not always want them there.
In The Cider House Rules, Irving presents the St. Cloud’s stationmaster, a man wavering between self-righteousness and paranoia who manages to remain heartbreakingly-ordinary all the same. The stationmaster spends his time split between mail order catalogs and newsletters from an apocalyptic religious sect. The fusion of those two preoccupations fills him with dread, and with troubling dreams.
In particular, “The flying dead in bras and girdles especially frightened the stationmaster.” Although we are, at this point, just getting to know a character whose main utilitarian function in the novel is his unusual death, Irving’s sentence gives us a clear picture of a man both drawn to and terrified of strange combinations — “the flying dead in bras and girdles.” It is a deft stroke that sums up a character who is a neat antithesis to Wilbur Larch, the novel’s backbone, a man adept at juggling contradictions. In a single line, Irving shows us what he’s aiming at — and what he’d like to miss. He accomplishes so much with so little — a meager eleven words conjure harbingers of the apocalypse in mail-order lingerie. This is a sentence with sticking power, certainly.
In a completely different genre and age, Hans Christian Andersen uses a brilliant parallel metaphor to illustrate his main character’s undoing. In “The Snow Queen,” a young boy named Kay gets a splinter in his eye, a splinter from a magic mirror that shows people good where there is evil and evil where there is good. Another splinter pierces his heart and turns it into a lump of ice. Kay is then vulnerable to the seduction of the Snow Queen, who steals him away.
As he is being rushed toward her, “Terror seized him; he tried to say the Lord’s Prayer, but all he could remember was multiplication tables.” The strength of the sentence lies in the juxtaposition of the Lord’s Prayer and multiplication tables — the difference between the faith that Kay has lost and the mindless repetition of “facts” that will not sustain him. In “The Snow Queen”, it is Gerda’s faith that leads her to travel the world, find Kay, and release him.
Both sentences, Irving’s and Andersen’s, work so well because they are built upon unusual linkages — “the flying dead in bras and girdles”, or the slippage between the Lord’s Prayer and multiplication facts. Those wavering connections make us pause, rethink where we are going and if we’re quite sure of the map. Are we, like the stationmaster, afraid of detours? Will we rely on presumption, like Kay, or faith, like Gerda, to guide us? In very different tales, we end up in a similar place: inside a smattering of words stitched together to unravel what we think we know. That’s good stuff.
Ultimately the power of words lies in how we see them and where we let them take us. I’d love to hear about your favorite language gems, and the journeys they have inspired.