If we continue along this road, whole areas of feeling and cognition and experience will be lost to us. We will not be able to read one another very well if we can’t read Proust’s labyrinthine sentences, admitting us to those half-lit realms where memory blurs into imagination, and we hide from the person we care for or punish the thing that we love. And how can we feel the layers, the sprawl, the many-sidedness of Istanbul in all its crowding amplitude without the 700-word sentence, transcribing its features, that Orhan Pamuk offered in tribute to his lifelong love?
To pick up a book is, ideally, to enter a world of intimacy and continuity; the best volumes usher us into a larger universe, a more spacious state of mind akin to the one I feel when hearing Bach (or Sigur Ros), watching a Terrence Malick film. I cherish Thomas Pynchon’s prose (in Mason & Dixon, say), not just because it’s beautiful, but because his long, impeccable sentences take me, with each clause, farther from the normal and the predictable, and deeper into dimensions I hadn’t dared to contemplate. I can’t get enough of Philip Roth because both the energy and the complication of his sentences, at his best, pull me into a furious debate in which I see a mind alive, self-questioning, wildly controlled in its engagement with the world. His is a prose that banishes all simplicities while never letting go of passion.
Not every fashioner of many-comma’d sentences works for every one of us—I happen to find Henry James unreadable, his fussily unfolding clauses less a reflection of his noticing everything than of his inability to make up his mind or bring anything to closure: a kind of mental stutter. But the promise of the long sentence is that it will take you beyond the known, far from shore, into depths and mysteries you can’t get your mind, or most of your words, around.
When I read the great exemplar of this, Herman Melville—when I feel the building tension as Martin Luther King, in Letter from Birmingham Jail, swells with clause after Biblical clause of all the things people of his skin color cannot do–I feel as if I’m stepping out of the crowded, overlit, fluorescent culture of my local convenience store and being taken up to a very high place from which I can see across time and space, in both myself and in the world. It’s as if I’ve been rescued, for a moment, from the jostle and rush of the 405 and led back to something inside me that has room for certainty and doubt at once.
Watch Annie Dillard light up and rise up and ease down as she finds, near the end of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, “a maple key, a single winged seed from a pair. Hullo. I threw it into the wind and it flew off again, bristling with animate purpose, not like a thing dropped or windblown, pushed by the witless winds of convection currents hauling round the world’s rondure where they must, but like a creature muscled and vigorous, or a creature spread thin to that other wind, the wind of the spirit which bloweth where it listeth, lighting, and raising up, and easing down.”
I love books, I read and write them, for the same reason I love to talk with a friend for ten hours, not ten minutes (let alone, as is the case with the average Web page, ten seconds). The longer our talk goes, ideally, the less I feel pushed and bullied into the unbreathing boxes of black and white, Republican or Democrat, us or them. The long sentence is how we begin to free ourselves from the machine-like world of bullet points and the inhumanity of ballot-box yeahs or nays.
There’ll always be a place for the short sentence, and no one could thrill more than I to the eerie incantations of De Lillo, building up menace with each reiterated note, or the compressed wisdom of a Wilde; it’s the elegant conciseness of their phrases that allow us to carry around the ideas of an Emerson (or Lao Tzu) as if they were commandments or proverbs of universal application.
But we’ve got shortness and speed up the wazoo these days; what I long for is something that will sustain me and stretch me till something snaps, take me so far beyond a simple clause or a single formulation that suddenly, unexpectedly, I find myself in a place that feels as spacious and strange as life itself.
The long sentence opens the very doors that a short sentence simply slams shut. Though the sentence I sent my copy-editor consisted of just one word. “No.”