Thursday, July 24, 2008

Long Sentences I Like and Long Sentences I Don’t Like (Or “How Not to Read While Poolside in Vegas”)

I always have a hard time finding beach/poolside reads. Narrow indeed is the range of reading fare that mixes well with both the sound of techno music from a deejay somewhere off to your right and the smell of tequila from the fat guy to your left.

Such interferences compound another problem I have: copy editor’s disease – defined just now by me as the irksome tendency to focus not on words’ meaning but on their arrangement.

Usually, any time I’m off to tempt the melanoma gods, I have in tow a copy of the day’s newspaper and something in paperback. Sometimes, that paperback is a good book, sometimes it’s a bad book. Either way, it’s usually a bad choice for beach/poolside read – just as a newspaper is usually a bad choice, too.

For example, Tuesday I was poolside at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas with a copy of the Los Angeles Times and a copy of Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses. They were the worst possible choices for someone struggling amid Vegas smells and sounds to score some textual escapism.

Not three minutes after picking up the Times, I stopped dead at this sentence.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Monday dismissed Iran’s response to
a proposed solution on Tehran’s nuclear program in Geneva over the weekend as
‘small talk’ meant to buy time.
That’s a lot of tacked-on prepositional phrases ...

on Monday
to a proposed solution
on Tehran’s nuclear program
in Geneva

over the weekend

as small talk

... plus another tacked-on modifier ...

meant to buy time

I understand that, in news writing, it’s often necessary to cram several ideas into a sentence in order to assure they’re weighted properly. But still. Yuck.

I put down my newspaper. I picked up All the Pretty Horses. I came across this sentence.
At the hour he’d always choose when the shadows were long and the ancient road was shaped before him in the rose and canted light like a dream of the past where the painted ponies and the riders of that lost nation came down out of the north with their faces chalked and their long hair plaited and each armed for war which was their life and the women and children and women with children at their breasts all of them pledged in blood and redeemable in blood only.

This is the kind of sentence that no high school composition teacher would tolerate. Yet, for me at least, it worked. And it was all the more brilliant for the fact that I didn’t completely understand it.

The sentence was a sort of stream-of-consciousness straying away from the cowboy who was the subject of the paragraph and off to a place just over the horizon where Indian lives and histories made an otherwise desolate land nothing short of mystical.

It worked for me. But confronted by someone who hated McCarthy’s sentence, I would be at a complete loss to defend it. Yes, its literary context gives it an unfair advantage over the article -- amounting to near carte blanch. But, to me, the success of this sentence is more about McCarthy’s ear and his ability to extract slavish compliance from every word he wields.

How to truly understand the difference? I don't know. But these are the kinds of questions that torment me every time I find myself armed with SPF 50 but not armed with a guilty-pleasure paperback a la The Da Vinci Code.

So, if anyone else out there is "special" enough to find such sentence comparisons interesting: Do try this at home, kids. Just don’t try it poolside in Vegas.

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