Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The sentence as found object

It 's been weeks since I first read Louis Menand's commentary on Hiding Man, Tracy Daugherty's new biography of Donald Barthelme. But I still get a shot of adrenaline every time I read this part:

In the production of found-material art, the painter has an obvious advantage, and Barthelme was aware of the problem. [....] The visual artist can deal with almost every kind of material, even sound, but the writer deals with only one kind of material: sentences. The solution, therefore, was to treat sentences as though they were found objects.

We rarely experience sentences this way, because we're trying to look through them to the things they represent, just as, in traditional easel painting, we look through the canvas, as though it were a window, onto the world it represents. That's the kind of looking and reading that modernism was committed to disrupting.

Back when I thought I was a visual artist, I was most interested in found-object art. I was drawn to the opaque, disruptive scrap, and to artists like Rauschenberg, with whom Barthelme worked as a museum director and magazine writer. But when I started writing fiction--probably because of my academic background, along with the still-current fashion for minimalist realism--I kept aiming for the window model. And failing. For whatever reason, I'm just too fond of strewing around clunky, inappropriate sentences that mar the view.

I hasten to point out that I'm talking about deliberately clunky writing in this case. But one solution for clunky writing is to go with it, build a voice out of it, rather than trying to beat it back. There might be a reason it's happening, other than pure authorial ineptitude. If you're going to go this route, however, you have to do a good job of being clear, or at least deft, with your sentences when you need to be. Show you're aware of the clunks and are controlling them, for a purpose.

I've found it incredibly liberating to contemplate fiction as collage--not on the paragraph or section level, but on the sentence level. This creates a really fascinating set of challenges. In addition to managing deliberate badness, one has to create some kind of satisfying arc, something that serves the function of plot without necessarily being plot. Barthelme does this brilliantly, in a story like "The Zombies," for instance. Somewhere underneath all this bland chatter and fake / real folklore there's a conflict, resolution, and denouement. I can't quite point to where they are, but I sense them. It's like a plot inside-out.

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