Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Syntax Club: "VII. Change"; "VIII. Click"; "IX. Space and Time"

Syntax Club: Autobiography of Red

Apologies again for the skewed schedule, but in good news I am now ~done~ with grading for the term and ~mostly done~ with peripheral end of year tasks, so hopefully things will be smoother for the rest of the novel. Please see here for previous installments of Syntax Club; feel free to post comments and thoughts and sentences you love here on the site or Twitter; if you try an exercise feel free to Tweet some of your results using the #SyntaxClub tag.


--How is this work essayistic, or possibly of value to essayists?
--What is distinctive, noteworthy, excellent, or interesting about the sentences in this work?


Geryon "somehow" makes it to adolescence: he meets a boy (Herakles) and finds himself immediately smitten and lovestruck. Entering adolescence somewhat complicates Geryon's family relationships, and he draws away from his mother to cling more closely to both Herakles and his new hobby/artistic discipline: photography.


What's valuable to an essayist here?

We get several moments of Big Idea or Aphorism or Gesture in these sections regarding the self, the other, and distance. I don't quite have a full grasp on how these are all functioning here, but it seems to be that Carson is presenting Geryon's burgeoning relationship with Herakles as an occasion "up against" a radically different being, i.e., another person, and so a relationship which clarifies, illuminates, or re-evaluates the self. Given that our whole shtick as essayists is, well, making ourselves (or at least the activity of our minds) legible to others, these notions of identity, distance, and intimacy seem pretty relevant.


Then he met Herakles and the kingdoms of his life all shifted down a few notches.
They were two superiors eels
at the bottom of the tank and they recognized each other like italics. (39)

I love the interplay between these totally unexpected metaphors: kingdoms shifting downward, eels at the bottom of a tank like italics. Describing the contours of Geryon's life as kingdoms is interesting and unexpected in that throws a grandiose, mythic light back on our coming-of-age moody gayboy subject. But it also sets us up for the animal metaphor (think biology and taxonomy) when we get to eels, who eventually recognize each other as italics, sometime else entirely. There's a ton of movement here (kingdom to eels to italics in just two dozen words or so), really--although Carson tends to avoid overtly flashy syntactical pyrotechnics she definitely makes forceful and compellingly brazen moves at times.

and there it was one of those moments

that is the opposite of blindness. (39)

Describing the first romantic recognition as sight or light or something similar would feel very overplayed, but Carson achieves a similar effect through negation or opposition; she circles around the thing. I'm reminded very indirectly of apophatic or negative theology, an entire discipline based around description via opposition or negation.

The huge night moved overhead
scattering drops of itself. (39)

A nice moment of personification (night doesn't move or scatter, after all) which creates a strong sense of atmosphere (the drizzling rain isn't just rain--it's night itself--the warm dark lull in which our two gayboys meet (where else) in a bus station.

He put Geryon's hands inside his shirt. (39)

Honestly difficult for me to think of a stronger encapsulation of gay male desire than this moment.

He had recently relinquished speech. (40)

Notice the combination of sympathy, irony, elevation, and sarcasm at work here, all jumbled together. Relinquished is a lofty way of describing teenaged sullenness, but it's also the type of phrase a clever, artistic youth might use quite seriously (compared with, say, Stephen Dedalus from Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (Joyce incidentally is absolutely definitively 110& the most essayistic fiction writer in the English language, maybe someday when I have more time, more energy, or more self-loathing we can take a look at some of his stuff together)). Carson is gently mocking Geryon's behavior. But the use of such a lofty verb also brings us back to the heroic-mythic dimension Carson has created, which exists alongside and intermingled with a contemporary coming-of-age tale. It's honestly an extraordinary act of balance to be able to maintain these things, and this verb choice does an excellent job of helping with the act.

The words dropped behind him as he went banging out the screen door. (41)

Love the way the participle banging sort, of, well, bangs its way into the middle of this otherwise middle-of-the-road sentence.

Up against another human being one's own procedures take on definition. (42)

Here we see a Big Idea or Aphorism or whatever--notice that as Carson leans more into the essayistic or thinky realm we start to see more gestures of involvement or implication: one's own could easily mean us, after all.

The instant of nature
forming between them drained every drop from the walls of his life
leaving behind just ghosts
rustling like an old map. (42)

Another example of a sentence with a phenomenal amount of movement in the metaphors.

"How does distance look" is a simple direct question. (43)

Wait--since when do we get *quotation marks* in this novel? Who is speaking this, who are they targeting it to, what is prompting it, etc? The poet makes an aside as they are thinking through something, I suppose--and that's essaying, right? Anytime I write a sentence that doesn't totally suck the poets always tell me "it is really a poem at heart", so anytime they do any amount of serious thinking at all I'm going to say "it is really an essay at heart." & notice too how seamlessly the text moves back to the level of narration after this--just a simple pivot on multiple senses of the word light.


Via Negativa

Describe an intense emotion, experience, or event through negation or opposition or contrast (see: opposite of blindness). Avoid directly referencing the thing itself.

Keep it Moving

Writing about any subject you know well, attempt 3 or more metaphoric comparisons (see: kingdoms, eels, italics) in 1-2 sentences max. Avoid "connective tissue"--let the suddenness and jarringness work in your favor if possible.

Verbs, Irony, and Sympathy

Take a sentence in a draft (a sentence you are fond of and which describes a meaningful action somehow) and rewrite it so that the verbs involved convey simultaneously a sense of sympathy/understanding for and amusement/irony/sarcasm/etc for the agent accomplishing the action.


Tomorrow we do Sex Question and Hades--what a pair.


Will Slattery helps curate things here on Essay Daily. He tweets on occasion: @wjaslattery

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