Luxuriating in Long Sentences
Nina Schuyler on reclaiming concentration in an ever-changing world.
Under the Trump regime, outrages fly so fast that time feels disjointed. Coupled with the pandemic and the world closed down, it’s hard to remember what day it is. Yesterday someone gave me a check dated October 25, 2020.
So much has been lost, including my concentration. But I’m reclaiming it. Long walks, long conversations, and luxuriously long sentences. It seems counterintuitive or the wrong salve, but the long sentences in Garth Greenwell’s novel, What Belongs to You, require an attention that calms my mind. The novel is about an American teacher, living in Bulgaria, who becomes obsessed with a male hustler. Though the story is familiar, the sentences are not. They refuse Hemingway’s terse, declarative style in all its masculine hardness; they reject today’s frenetic brevity–short sentences have an inherent anxious energy, and Greenwell wants none of it.
Here is the novel’s opening sentence:
That my first encounter with Mitko B. ended in a betrayal, even a minor one, should have given me greater warning at the time, which should in turn have made my desire for him less, if not done away with it completely.
When I’m too wired, I read too fast and miss the meaning. This is, I remind myself, not a one-breath sentence. The 41-word sentence is long, in part, because of its elongated subject, delaying the verb, “should have given.” I wait even longer because of the qualifier, “even a minor one.” Greenwell sneaks in the word “time,” perhaps as a gentle reminder he is about to alter your sensation of time. The next sentence is even longer, and the paragraphs are mimetic of the protagonist’s obsession: a refusal to provide an easy exit. A good sentence imposes a logic on the world, and Greenwell’s sentences are a respite from the panicky world.
Nina Schuyler’s novel, The Translator, won the Next Generation Indie Book Award, and her book, How to Write Stunning Sentences, is a Small Press Distribution bestseller.
Garth Greenwell (born 1978) is an American novelist and poet. His novel, What Belongs to You, was published in 2016 and won the British Book Award for Debut of the Year.