Sep 112013

Here’s a teaser to the third in my series of short essays on Building Sentences at the National Post. We are, yes, in the drumroll phase of my book launch for Savage Love.  Much appreciation to Mark Medley, the book editor at the National Post, for giving me the opportunity to write these.


Parallel construction was another one of those structures English teachers taught me in high school without also telling why it was in the least useful or beautiful. Drone, drone, eyeballs rolling back in my head; another C- on that test. Later I learned the lesson. Here is an example from Mark Anthony Jarman’s great short story “Burn Man on a Texas Porch.”

“I’m okay, okay, will be fine except I’m hoovering all the oxygen around me, and I’m burning like a circus poster, flames taking more and more of my shape–am I moving or are they? I am hooked into fire, I am hysterical light issuing beast noises in a world of smoke.”

What you have here are two sentences built on a series of parallels that invert briefly at the parenthetical em-dash and then modulate into a variant (I’m, I’m, I’m, am I, I am, I am). The simple meaning of the sentence is that the narrator is on fire. But Jarman uses parallels to throw the sentence forward in a series of waves of energy, each surge encoded with another grotesque and moving image of self-incineration. The parallels delay the end of the sentence (as the Russian Formalist Viktor Shklovsky tells us, delay is the first problem in writing a story) and create a passionately dramatic telling. Instead of mere description, the sentences become a poem.

    Each new iteration of the parallel creates more of that mysterious thing I call aesthetic space, a blank spot into which the author has to imagine new and surprising words. Form never limits a writer; it creates openings for fresh invention. It also creates an opportunity for what I call narrative yoking, syntactically juxtaposing two or more ideas to create astonishing new connections, or psychological parallelism.

Read the rest at the National Post


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