Poets and Writers http://www.pw.org -- or people on their staff -- have identified five sentences that they consider “perfect.” I thought it would be interesting to just sit here and look at them, one at a time, to try to understand what they see as perfection. Is it grammar? Images? Recognition of the sentiments? Prettiness? They don’t stipulate first sentences, but I suspect they mostly are the beginnings of the books.
My father was right: you could make anybody amazing just by insisting they were.
-”What We Know About the Lost Aztec Children” by Elizabeth McCracken
I think this one is a case of sentiments -- that upbeat entitled kind of idea that’s around in certain circles, like among teachers, the idea that parents know best and can “make” people exceptional with force of will. The sentence is simple: a compound with a colon for a joiner, and a subordinate clause as adverb modifier. I would not choose this sentence, but it’s because I am too cynical for the sentiment.
She thought of a hotel room in Mazatlan whose door had just been slammed, it seemed forever, waking up two hundred birds down in the lobby; a sunrise over the library slope at Cornell University that nobody out on it had seen because the slope faced west; a dry, disconsolate tune from the fourth movement of the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra; a whitewashed bust of Jay Gould that Pierce kept over the bed on a shelf so narrow for it she’d always had the hovering fear it would someday topple on them.
-The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon
This is a list structure, so a person would have to go to the contents and the rhythm of it to find it remarkable. It moves from simple -- the beginning of a day -- a slammed door which often happens, esp. in hired lodgings anywhere because people get up early to travel, but are there really two hundred birds in the lobby of a hotel in Mazatlan? Then that sunrise at a location some readers know but an event never seen which is anti-romantic. Bartok is too sophisticated for me but I listened to the beginning on YouTube and it’s very much a waking/dawn/birdsong sort of thing. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C68SkzGb6Ww I didn’t listen long enough for the 4th movement to see it if was dry and disconsolate. Jay Gould (not Stephen Jay Gould) was a robber baron millionaire of the 19th century and evidently “Pierce” both wants to think about him and is willing to accept hazards for the both of them. In short, for those who understand the references, this sets up a plot tension -- pretty effectively for those readers. For the rest of us, not so much.
On heart-broken pretense of entreating a cup of cold water, fiends in human form had got into lonely dwellings, nor retired until a dark deed had been done.
-Benito Cereno by Herman Melville
A sentence in three parts: The first part uses emotional language: “heart-broken,” “pretense,” “entreating” and the classic Biblical example of a gift that is simple, life-sustaining and against hoarding of the oasis. Then comes the switch, “fiends” and “lonely,” and then the pay-off, a dark deed, but the supernatural fiends are gone. It’s over, they have retired. Too late to fend off the swindle. Another good hint at the story coming now: injustice, suffering, finding the cause. And forces that are beyond human control -- maybe even understanding.
I sleep with a glass of water on the nightstand so I can see by its level if the coastal earth is trembling or if the shaking is still me.
-”In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried” by Amy Hempel
Here’s another three part sentence. Many people habitually sleep with a glass of water on the nightstand in case of waking up thirsty. In fact, hostesses will often provide a glass and carafe. But then this simple image is related to a planetary and quite real danger that cannot be predicted and sometimes not really detected: the shifting of the Pacific Coast fault. For my aunt in Santa Ana the warning was the tinkling of her bone china teacups on their hooks when the motion came. Everyone there is alert, ready to take action. But in the third part, the first-person narrator moves the trembling from the land to herself and the difficulty of distinguishing between the two. We don’t know why she would tremble -- is it about fear of earthquakes or something else? So we want to find out.
“I get the idea perfectly, Mickey,” said Archimboldi, thinking all the while that this man was not only irritating but ridiculous, with the particular ridiculousness of self-dramatizers and poor fools convinced they’ve been present at a decisive moment in history, when it’s common knowledge, thought Archimboldi, that history, which is a simple whore, has no decisive moments but is a proliferation of instants, brief interludes that vie with one another in monstrousness.”
-2666 by Roberto Bolaño
This sentence is quite different. I think the quote marks at the end are an error, so the quoted material is short: “I get the idea perfectly,” says this man with a fancy name (is he the same as the object of obsession on “Alias,” the parodic television thriller, who is a kind of mock da Vinci?). He is speaking to someone with a vernacular name, “Mickey.” Irish? Mickey is irritating, ridiculous, self-dramatizing, and thinks of history as significant with turning points that he actually witnesses. But Archimboldi, arrogantly and with the entitlement of the intellectual implies that he knows all about lowlifes like whores (maybe he does!) and shows his superiority by denouncing the triviality and meaninglessness of little connections, each more monstrous than the other. All this multisyllabic superiority is very European -- maybe even Spanish. Is Mickey American? Uncouth, primitive, uneducated? Then why is Archimboldi telling him about getting the idea “perfectly”? There must be a plot afoot. Will it be a proliferation of monstrous instants? One gets the impression that the writer is half Archimboldi, but also “Mickey.” It’s all in his head, a war of consciousnesses.
So it appears that the persons choosing these sentences are looking for narrative value, the potential for story. Even that first simple statement holds a challenge: can one really make someone amazing through simple assertion? Let’s see you do it. Or fail to do it.
These are not “pretty” sentences, describing conventional scenery. They are ironic, even bitter, all about facing reality and implying that disaster is on the way. In that dimension they reflect upon the mentality of choosers at PandW and through them the culture of writers today. No doubt the choosers have read the whole books from which they derive these sentences and that has some impact on them. Elizabeth McCracken, insider and writing faculty; Thomas Pynchon, “dense”, mathematical, experimental and political; Herman Melville, much in favor lately; Amy Hempel, another insider on writing faculty; Roberto Bolano, "the most significant Latin American literary voice of his generation" according to the NYTimes. Pretty safe choices, esp. the women.
If you want to try it yourself, below is a link to last year’s sentences. Can you detect a shift in culture? A change in taste?