But what is it, then, a writer’s education? Where does it happen, and how? I feel fairly sure I know where it doesn’t happen: in seminar rooms, crowded with prejudices and neuroses, where a more or less randomly gathered group of twelve or fourteen others responds to twenty or thirty context-less pages. Those rooms can be useful places; they can, when one has a careful teacher or brilliant peers, alert one to paths for investigation one hadn’t scented out for oneself. (The question of how to develop a pedagogy that encourages this usefulness is one of my enduring preoccupations.) But I’m dubious of the value of workshops as places where a writer meaningfully deepens their relationship to their chosen medium, to the material, the stuff, with which they’ll spend a lifetime working: scenes, sentences, sounds, meanings. And I don’t think this education happens in reading books or essays on “craft”—the rubric under which I write this essay—since the stories writers tell about our processes of making are so often (you’ve been warned) fantasies, self-flattering or self-castigating, the value of which lies only in their result. At best a writer’s conception of craft is an imaginary garden nourishing the real toads of stories and novels and poems. The danger of both workshops and the idea of art as “craft” is the suggestion of routinization, that there are articulable, transmissible, replicable steps to becoming a writer, or to solving the problems of a particular poem or sentence, as there are such steps in the making of a table, say, or a soufflé. One sometimes hears mention in workshops and craft lectures of tools and toolkits, as though the teacher had imparted some portable wisdom that might be tucked away and retrieved when needed. But one can have objective definitions of tables and soufflés, and so be more or less sure at least of the kind of thing one wants to make; whereas it is a condition of artmaking, at least of modern artmaking, that the thingness of what we make can’t be taken for granted, that we must not just fill received forms but, as Wallace Stevens says, construct new stages, feeling out afresh what a novel or a poem can be.
The question of an artistic education is how to develop meaningfully useful practices—orientations toward making, toward sound and language and image—without knowing what use we will put them to, what end we’re seeking. There are no toolkits; the solutions we find are inventions of the moment, conjured by the exigencies of the problems we encounter, which are always particular to a project. We can’t take our tools with us, and this is why every artist I know, beginning a novel or poem or piece of music, feels like they’re starting anew, from a position of utter ignorance. What an artist needs is not to learn a set of rules or replicable problem-solving steps—things that, inculcated, often mean years lost getting rid of them—but instead the cultivation of a problem-solving intelligence. The means for that cultivation, perhaps the only means, is intense and idiosyncratic engagement with other works of art. “Nor is there singing school but studying / Monuments of its own magnificence,” writes Yeats. Very often this education happens across disciplines and media—music and painting have been sources, for me, of models of problem-solving intelligence at least as often as works of literature; but I want to think here about a very particular, very intense kind of reading that has also been useful to me. Again, this usefulness doesn’t come from seeking a technique to copy, but an intelligence to emulate. Not craft, but craftiness.
Often I’m alerted to the possibility for such education by a particular readerly pleasure: being stopped in my tracks by an extraordinary sentence. Sometimes such a sentence will exert a kind of magnetic fascination; I’ll find myself returning to it again and again, feeling an almost compulsive need to live with it as intensely as I can. It’s hard to say what characterizes such sentences, since superficially they have nothing in common: they can be short or long, mandarin or plainspoken, concrete or abstract; they often surprise me by their shape, by an odd sense of weight or torque, but they can also be elegantly poised. They wake me up; they give me a sense that something I had taken for granted in the physics of language, in how one can build things with words, might not be as settled as I thought. It’s worth saying that every artist’s education is individual, a matter of temperament; some artists learn by negative example, gaining traction through critique, the articulation of grievance and dissatisfaction. I lean the other way; learning for me happens through admiration, at least the learning I’m conscious of, the learning I seek. One of these temperaments isn’t better than the other; they’re each ways of seeking pleasure, determined by a particular kind of libidinal wiring. No recent book has given me more pleasure, at this level of sentence-making, than Raven Leilani’s 2020 debut novel, Luster. Much of the commentary around the book has focused on its subject matter—a young woman making mostly terrible choices—and especially on its candor regarding sex; but for me its primary accomplishment is architectural, the sense I have, reading it, of wandering a cityscape formed of unaccustomed shapes. It’s hard to generalize about a Leilani sentence: she’s drawn, in her first novel, to fragments, and also to elaborate, sometimes crazily branching constructions; to millennial internet speak and pornographic filth, and also to lyricism and starched formality; to baroque rhetorical figure and to a plainness that eschews rhetoric. I’m interested in her sentences for their expressive, controlled looseness and flexibility; for the way that syntax blurs into scene; for the sense, always, that their shapes are responsive to the psychology of her narrator. And also for how, as I pour my attention into them, they seem to deepen and expand, inexhaustible.
This sentence, from fairly late in the book, might be as close to typical as one can come:
He lets himself into my room and we trip over ourselves while we undress, the contact tenuous and inexact, kisses spoiled by fervor, full of air and teeth and always off the intended mark, though I am just happy to be touched.
There’s a peculiar sense of airiness and density to this sentence, with its syntactically anchored extremities and loose center. It begins with two independent clauses—“he lets himself” and “we trip over ourselves,” each adverbially modified, the first by a prepositional phrase (“into my room”), the second by a subordinate clause: “while we undress.” This is straightforward, solid scene work, narrating action, situating us in place and in the urgency of the ongoing present tense; but then the sentence pauses, it billows out, languorous, with two absolute noun phrases, free of architectural function: “the contact tenuous and inexact, kisses spoiled by fervor.” Each of the nouns is modified, the second extravagantly: kisses “spoiled” like fruit gone bad but spoiled “by fervor,” so that, as I take it, there’s a kind of pleasure in the spoiling, or at least a confirmation of mutual desire; and the extravagance is heightened by a further modification, with the apposite phrase that specifies precisely how the kisses are spoiled, “full of air and teeth and always off the intended mark.” The repetitions of “and” in this phrase, the third and fourth iterations in this forty-three-word sentence, flail like little fists. (“Full of air and teeth” is a pretty good description of this sentence, actually, and of many of Leilani’s sentences; why is it that remarkable sentences, whatever else they’re about, seem also to be about themselves?) Three little billows, three flourishes, and already the sentence seems less concerned with the scene work it started with than with precise description, the action of perception itself, the conveying of psychological state. It might be fair to say that Leilani is a writer who, like Baldwin or James, shows her chops most fiercely in modification; the density of her sentences comes from their search for the right qualifications. Here, the adjective “intended” is especially canny. One can imagine a copyeditor wanting to strike it as redundant—“mark” already conveys the sense of intention, it doesn’t need underscoring. But it’s not superfluous, I don’t think; it’s generous, it opens space for the acknowledgment of the kind of pleasure I sense in “spoiled by fervor.” Desire, in its urgent eagerness, disrupts our intentions, but also it can make the whole body a “mark,” so that anywhere one is touched, even fumblingly or confusedly, sparks with rightness. It allows for the happiness declared at the end of the sentence, when architecture returns, tacking those billows down into the solidity, the clear structure of a dependent clause: “though I am just happy to be touched.” But the solidity gives way, at least a little, under pressure. One can sense a slight equivocation of attribution in the adverb, a minor ambivalence: does the weight of “just” fall on “happy,” leaving her pleasure cloudless despite the awkwardness of the encounter? Or does it fall instead, as it seems to me, on “to be touched,” cutting against the affirmative reading of this moment I’ve offered? Maybe this isn’t a happiness achieved through a surfeit of desire; maybe it’s a happiness won by very low expectations. Or maybe it’s hard to tell, making this minor wobble of an adverb a little allegory for questions near to the novel’s heart.
Edie, the novel’s narrator, is never quite sure of her pleasure. She’s overwhelmed by desire, which has often led her to act in destructive ways. She seems to have no friends or even, outside of work and a roommate who remains a ghostly presence, acquaintances. Her mother died, by suicide, when she was young; her father, often absent from her childhood and from whom she was estranged as an adult, has also recently passed. She uses sex as an analgesic for overwhelming loneliness, grief, and rage; it seems, at times, her single access to sociality. She grew up feeling invisible, a Black woman in an overwhelmingly white town in upstate New York; her first sexual partner, she tells us, was also “the first man who saw me.” (How often we use sex as a way of being seen.) Her affairs end disastrously, with Edie haunting men’s houses or sending threatening texts; one giddily harrowing scene finds her in a coworker’s office brandishing a ceremonial sword. Twenty-three, she makes her tenuous living overseeing a children’s book imprint at a publishing house, where she has had sex with at least fifteen of her coworkers, sometimes on company time; one of the crises of the novel comes when she’s fired because of complaints of sexual harassment from colleagues. The novel’s primary action centers on her affair with Eric, an affluent, married white man twice her age, whom she finds on an internet chat site and who is experimenting, with his wife’s knowledge and apparent consent, with opening up his thirteen-year marriage. Reading the novel, one never feels that this is a good idea, exactly, but neither is the relationship portrayed in an unrelentingly negative light. Edie feels attended to by Eric in a way that seems new to her; they find genuine (if always partial and intermittent) intimacy in sharing their pasts; they also find real pleasure together. The relationship spurs Edie, an aspiring artist, to begin painting again—at the novel’s start her paints have congealed over two years of disuse—and her progress as an artist tracks, one feels, her progress (also partial, also intermittent) as a person. Because everyone in the novel is a little unhinged (this is one of its virtues), the affair leads to Edie spending several months in Eric’s house, living alongside his wife and their adopted daughter, who is, Edie is surprised to discover, Black. At this point, Eric, for the first third or so of the novel Edie’s obsessive focus, fades into the periphery. One of the most interesting aspects of Luster is how it turns the accustomed heterosexual logic of the novel—the way men are drawn together over the body of a woman—on its head: sex with Eric is the catalyst for a charged, intense, ambivalent relationship between Edie and Eric’s wife, and also a spiky, sororal attachment between Edie and Eric’s daughter.
Edie and Eric have an extended courtship, first online, and then in a long series of chaste dates, over the course of which Edie grows desperate for consummation. Her dreams become “delirious expressions of thirst—long stretches of yellow desert, cathedrals hemmed in dripping moss”; after months of chastity, she’s “so ready to fuck that when someone brushes up against me on the train I make a scary, involuntary noise.” The urgency she feels is registered in the texture of the prose, which recounts their third to twelfth dates, up to “day fifty-two of our excruciatingly chaste courtship,” in a single paragraph of four pages, an approach to paragraphing that appears nowhere other than this section. The paragraph in which Edie and Eric finally have sex is almost as long, and the 406-word sentence recounting the act itself is a bravura performance, unique in the novel for its length but also for its virtuosity and the amount of work it does—scene, sex, characterization, meditation. I think it’s among the remarkable high-wire acts in recent North American prose. Rebecca, Eric’s wife, has written a list of rules for Eric’s experiments in adultery, but rules in this novel are noted only for the pleasure of breaking them, and so Eric and Edie are in Eric’s bedroom, where he has placed all of the family photographs face down—an act of premeditation that both alarms and thrills her. They’ve already had a long night together, including a nearly surrealistic scene in a seventies-themed club where they seem (it’s not entirely clear) to share heroin in the bathroom, and the whole sequence is registered in prose that is decidedly different from what has come before: the novel’s second and third longest sentences are also in this section. We’ve been primed for this sentence, then, but not in a way that dulls its effect or velocity, or the sense it gives of transgression.
Here it is:
Slowly, he eases me down onto his grand, slightly left-leaning cock, and for a moment I do rethink my atheism, for a moment I consider the possibility of God as a chaotic, amorphous evil who made autoimmune disease but gave us miraculous genitals to cope, and so I fuck him desperately with the force of this epiphany and Eric is talkative and filthy but there is some derangement about his face, this pink contortion that introduces the whites of his eyes in a way that makes me afraid he might say something we cannot recover from just yet, so I cover his mouth and say shut up, shut the fuck up, which is more aggressive than I would normally be at this point but it gets the job done and in general if you need a pick-me-up I welcome you to make a white man your bitch though I feel panicked all of a sudden to have not used a condom and I’m looking around the room and there is a bathroom attached, and in the bathroom are what look to be extra towels and that makes me so emotional that he pauses and in one instant a concerned host rises out of his violent sexual mania, slowing the proceedings into the dangerous territory of eye contact and lips and tongue where mistakes get made and you forget that everything eventually dies, so it is not my fault that during this juncture I call him daddy and it is definitely not my fault that this gets him off so swiftly that he says he loves me and we are collapsing back in satiation and horror, not speaking until he gets me a car home and says take care of yourself like, please go, and as the car is pulling away he is standing there on the porch in a floral silk robe that is clearly his wife’s, looking like he has not so much had an orgasm as experienced an arduous exorcism, and a cat is sitting at his feet, utterly bemused by the white clapboard and verdant lawn, which makes me hate this cat as the city rises around me in a bouquet of dust, industrial soot, and overripe squash, insisting upon its own enormity like some big-dick postmodernist fiction and still beautiful despite its knowledge of itself, even as the last merciless days of July leave large swaths of the city wilted and blank.
It's worth noting at the start how much literal ground this covers, from a bedroom in a suburb of Jersey to New York City, and also how economical it is in its scene work. Throughout the novel Leilani makes use of a remarkably fluid movement between fully dramatized scene and expository narration, allowing for a sense of embodiedness even through the very swift transitions we have here, which elide the logistics of getting dressed, descending stairs, the awkward minutes spent waiting for a car. Even description of scene is dispatched in a phrase (“white clapboard and verdant lawn”), not to mention off-loaded onto the perceptions of a cat. Again one has a sense of something dense and airy at once: airy in the speed with which it moves, its lack of concern with the nitty-gritty of bodies traversing space; and dense in the way that each of its many clauses is packed with information. Dense, too, in the sense it gives of how much and how varied work sex writing can do: dramatizing the psychology of the narrator; illuminating the very complex interpersonal dynamics between these characters, as well as the way those dynamics are inflected by historical and social forces; providing an occasion for expansively metaphysical reflections.
Though the sentence carries a remarkable erotic charge, there’s very little explicit description of sex. The little there is is front-loaded, opulent with modification: “Slowly, he eases me down onto his grand, slightly left-leaning cock.” We start in a subdued mode—“slowly,” “eases”—which will very quickly change; but for the moment there’s a sense of a luxury in the way the prose lingers, taking the time to shade in detail, to get the description exactly right, doubling up on modification: “slightly left-leaning cock.” After this, immediately the register shifts; from one of the few instances of sexually explicit diction we move to metaphysics: “and for a moment I do rethink my atheism, for a moment I consider the possibility of God as a chaotic, amorphous evil who made autoimmune disease but gave us miraculous genitals to cope.” The surprise of this, the tinge of humor and irony and millennial diction (“chaotic”), can make it easy to miss the claim being made for the stakes of what is meant to be, after all, a casual sexual encounter. The radical surplus of sex, its too-muchness—all in it that seems “miraculous”—can at least for a moment motivate a revolution, even a reversal, of cosmology. Edie’s partial, compromised, still bracing theodicy has more resonance in the context of the novel as a whole, in which she frequently meditates on, and longs for, the faith she once had as a Seventh-Day Adventist. We can see this in a very beautiful sentence, from much later in the novel, about the Sabbath:
But most of the time, though I wasn’t allowed to dance and knew that everyone was having fun without me, I liked the quiet, the languor of a single hour, of a day when you are deliberate, thankful for what was made deliberately, retina and turnips and densely coiled stars, things so complex I could barely render them in paint.
This is a radically different kind of sentence from the others we’ve considered, more rhetorically poised, pivoting on the transformation of “deliberate” from adjective to adverb. That transformation is moving because it registers harmony between the self, on one hand, and both the action of the Creator and the cosmos created, on the other—a harmony that extends from high (“densely coiled stars”) to low (“turnips”).
In the sex between Edie and Eric, the suggestion of a vertical axis granting access to metaphysical significance in diction like “God” and “miraculous” seems to fade after this clause. But that’s not quite right—metaphysics doesn’t merely fade away, wisp-like; it’s more substantial than that, it’s plugged back into the sex: “and so I fuck him desperately with the force of this epiphany.” The desperation is signaled by the doubling of both conjunction (“and so”) and adverbial modification, “desperately” elaborated by a prepositional phrase that establishes a circuit between metaphysical epiphany and fucking. Something admirable in Leilani’s everywhere unstable and promiscuous style is how utterly she lays claim, at every point, to carnality and abstraction. It’s an insistence on the wholeness of personhood that’s encoded, as we’ll see, in the style of her prose. Metaphysics makes a brief return at the end of the passage, not affirming the relationship between Edie and Eric now but foreclosing it: “looking like he has not so much had an orgasm as experienced an arduous exorcism.” If an epiphany involves taking something in, some insight that Edie then, in a kind of ideal libidinal economy, passes along to Eric, here Eric has rejected it. Ardor has morphed to something “arduous”; the success of exorcism is evident in the young woman now ferried away, an epiphany refused.
Really, terms like affirmation and negation are too blunt to characterize the quicksilver ambivalent shifts of feeling between Eric and Edie that Leilani charts. Not just shifts of feeling; also, importantly, shifts of power. Edie is susceptible to what she calls “the potent drug of a keen power imbalance,” and also to the lure of the violence that can erupt from it. In their only sexual contact before this scene, Edie makes Eric, penitent after angrily shoving her to the ground, beg for forgiveness while she gives him a blowjob; their next sexual contact will come after she invites him to strike her hard enough to bruise her face. “And when we fight in private,” she muses early on, imagining an ideal lover, “I want him to maybe accidentally punch me.” Power exchange in this scene is fluid and benign, until it isn’t. As in almost all of their sexual encounters (later she will imagine telling Rebecca that “when I fuck her husband, I’m the one who does the fucking”), Edie is on top, a position of dominance, but it’s Eric who controls the opening move, “easing” Edie down. But “ease” implies care, agency asserted for the benefit for another, and agency is reclaimed by Edie with “I fuck him desperately.” She takes power more explicitly, more performatively, when she covers Eric’s mouth and says “shut up, shut the fuck up,” but this, too, is a form of care, protecting both of them from Eric’s “derangement,” from the something he might say that would injure them—injure their relation—in a way that would be irreparable. I take this unpardonable “something” to be at least potentially racist in nature, in part because the book never loses sight of both the risks and the opportunities race poses for sexual pleasure. In seeing Eric, Edie has broken her own rule never to be the first Black woman a white man dates, unable to bear the mixture of discomfort and self-congratulation she senses in the situation. (“I cannot endure the nervous renditions of backpacker rap, the conspicuous effort to be colloquial, or the smugness of pink men in kente cloth.”) The fact that racism can be coterminous with desire is everywhere present in Edie’s sexual encounters: she remembers a coworker who calls her a racist epithet while they’re having sex, followed by “mommy”; later, after she loses her publishing job, a stint working at a camgirl site will end when an apparently inoffensive man suddenly uses the same epithet and tells her to die.
So we know what the stakes are in whatever it is Edie keeps Eric from saying; her “shut up, shut the fuck up,” which might seem like the end of sociality, is in fact what allows sociality to continue. It also provides an opportunity for pleasure, as Edie finds: “and in general if you need a pick-me-up I welcome you to make a white man your bitch.” And again this is compatible with this particular libidinal economy: the degradation it implies is one Edie can be fairly sure Eric, at least in this moment, will enjoy. What derails the encounter is not degradation but tenderness, a more immediately legible care that suggests emotions that both Edie and Eric see as beyond the terms of their contract. The valence of Edie’s calling Eric “daddy” is unclear, whether it’s an attempt to retreat from tenderness to the safer territory of carnal vernacular, or whether it reveals a depth of need that the reader, at this point, can only guess at, since the full story of her relationship with her father is parceled out, bit by bit, over the novel. Whatever the case, it precipitates disaster in the form of Eric’s declaration of love, which both characters seem to take not as an affirmation of the present but as a promise about the future, a promise to which they can’t fully commit, a condition Leilani notes in a wonderful phrase, “satiation and horror.” She notes it, too, in one of only two instances in the sentence of the present progressive (“we are collapsing”), which functions in the moment like a filmic close-up, sharpening and suspending our experience of time. At this point, the power that has drifted back and forth between Edie and Eric, ludic, libidinal, becomes fixed, stern, anything but erotic, as Eric assumes the authority of his class and property ownership and more or less ejects Edie from his home. It’s this assertion of power that Edie will reject, as we’re told in the very short paragraph that follows this one and ends the chapter, telescoping time as dramatically as the sentence we’ve been considering suspends it: after a week without a word from Eric, Edie returns to his home, finds it empty, and lets herself inside, where Eric’s wife discovers her fondling her wardrobe, and invites her to stay.
The most impressive accomplishment of the sentence is tracking the kind of vacillation of feeling that can lead Edie to be one moment submissive, the next so assertive as to brandish a sword or break into a suburban home. From the ecstatic affirmation of her theodicy, to the dread of what Eric might, in his excitement, say, to her panic at not wearing a condom, the sentence is seismographically sensitive to gradations of bravado and vulnerability. At times this bravado takes the form of performance, an address to an audience, as in the sudden appearance of the second person in “if you need a pick-me-up I welcome you to make a white man your bitch.” Characteristically, this front triggers an eruption of vulnerability, clear in her panic over unprotected sex, something that seems to occur to her just now, and, even more, in her sudden surveying of the room—the second instance of present progressive in the sentence—and noting of extra towels in the bathroom. (A few pages earlier, she has imagined Eric’s home with extra towels, a sign of affluence and caretaking, of quotidian, offhand abundance, of providence, that she has never known.) The tenderness her vulnerability evokes in Eric carries her into territory that reminds us of the stakes we saw earlier, in the suggestion of a theological dimension to their coupling, when Edie suggests the danger is to forget “that everything eventually dies”—that is, I think, to suspend a despair whose depth one suspects even she is not fully aware of. Again there is the sense of performance, of justification before an audience, in “it is not my fault . . . and it is definitely not my fault,” which also, maybe, insulates Edie in narration from the moment that was, as she experienced it, her point of greatest vulnerability; it places us proleptically in the recoil even before we reach satiation. There’s no indication that Edie protests being sent home in such a summary fashion, or that she attempts to assert any kind of claim or even make plans to see Eric again (the horror is hers as well); and, anyway, Eric’s rejection of any claim she might make is clear in the fact that he has literally wrapped himself in his wife, seeing Edie off in her “floral silk robe.” But it isn’t hard to read her resentment in the hatred she expresses for Eric’s cat, as well as in the irony with which she arms herself as she returns to the city, the aestheticized deprecation of “a bouquet of dust, industrial soot, and overripe squash,” the armored, erudite, irreverent comparison of the city to “big-dick postmodern fiction,” a retreat into academic literary expertise that serves as further insulation against the intensity of her feelings a few moments before. In what may be my favorite little grace note in the passage, Leilani lets us know that Edie’s ironic armor doesn’t work: she’s still vulnerable to her feelings; the city, for all it has battered and frustrated her, for all it has rejected her ardor, is still “beautiful.”
To say more about the work the sentence is doing, and especially about how it not only reports on experience but dramatizes, itself becomes an experience, we need to be more explicit about how it’s put together. A disclaimer, which I give often: I am obsessed with syntax, and convinced that explicitness about a sentence’s construction is necessary to seeing into its secrets; I’m also a product of US public schools during an age when, for whatever reason, North American education had decided that explicit instruction of grammar was somehow wounding of the spirit. My grammatical knowledge is either spottily self-taught or gleaned from instruction in other languages—and I very quickly slam against the limits of that knowledge. Even within those limits, things are pretty impressionistic and imprecise. But the wonderful thing about stylistic analysis, as I tell my students, is that even very dumb observations can turn out to be profound. Already we can see that this is a sentence that flouts the usual syntactical expectations, and also that its construction is key to the ways Leilani structures drama and emotion. Much of the sentence’s propulsion comes from the mere profusion of conjugated verbs, of which I count at least forty-nine, and from its assertively paratactic structure: of the nineteen main clauses I count, thirteen are joined by “and”; “so” and “but” appear twice. (The third clause in the sentence appears without a conjunction, sutured instead by the repetition of “for a moment.”) Leilani avoids monotony by radically varying the length of the sentence’s segments, from a segment as short as “Eric is talkative and filthy” to the elaborate, seventy-three-word final chunk. Verbs always immediately follow their subjects (I only see one inversion: “are what look to be extra towels”); there’s not a single example of mid-branching, where a phrase or clause separates a subject and a verb, or a verb and its object. Instead, the segments are made up of eagerly right-branching constructions, like this one:
but there is some derangement about his face, this pink contortion that introduces his eyes in a way that makes me afraid he might say something we cannot recover from just yet
The kernel clause, “there is some derangement about his face,” is elaborated by an apposition (“this pink contortion”), which is itself elaborated by a relative clause (“that introduces his eyes in a way”), which sparks a further relative clause (“that makes me afraid”), which takes another that-clause as its object, though the conjunction has been zeroed out (“[that] he might say something”), which is then further characterized by a second zero-that clause, this one relative (“[that] we cannot recover from just yet”). One has the sense of an intelligence rushing forward in an improvisatory way, propelled by a momentum not entirely in its control.
Noting the fundamentally paratactic structure of the sentence and its typically right-branching constructions is important because they are key to how Leilani conveys psychology. I’ve sometimes said that syntax can function in prose like the orchestral accompaniment of a bel canto aria, establishing emotion without explicitly naming it. The received wisdom of English-language prose is that hypotaxis, subordinated syntax, with its becauses and whereases and therefores, is the syntax of analysis; parataxis, on the other hand, the kind of syntactical structure that governs the large-scale movement of Leilani’s sentence, is the syntax of experience. The sense it gives is of a consciousness overwhelmed by experience, a consciousness that hasn’t yet been able to organize diffuse impressions or events into the logical and temporal hierarchies subordination establishes. Everything only connected by “and” and “and”: it’s the syntax of childhood (think of Huck Finn), and also of trauma. This is not a specious distinction: determining whether a writer favors paratactic or hypotactic syntax is a profound characterization of their style, as becomes immediately clear when you juxtapose a writer like Hemingway with a writer like James. Leilani’s sentence does have the paratactic effect, I think, as it tumbles through the present tense, of submerging us in experience. (The effect is heightened by Leilani’s eccentric, musical, expressively chaotic use of commas.) But this isn’t a sufficient description of the sentence, which, if it is paratactic in its skeletal structure, accommodates a great deal of hypotactic flesh, especially in the relative clauses that constantly refer back to further characterize, qualify, correct something previously said. In fact, I think the sentence challenges the conventional distinction between hypotaxis and parataxis; certainly it explodes the affective distinction associated with that choice, between immediacy and analysis, undergoing experience and processing it. It’s tempting to think of Eliot’s old lament of the dissociation of sensibility, the split between thinking and feeling that, he argued, occurred somewhere around the eighteenth century and has afflicted English literature ever since. It’s hard to accept this as a fair characterization of Leilani’s work, which is at once so carnal and so cerebral, so embodied and so invested in analysis, with bodies and theological speculation ever at hand. In this she resembles other writers who seem to me to challenge the conventional divide between hypotactic and paratactic syntax, like the poets Frank Bidart and Carl Phillips, writers who have also profoundly addressed sex in their work, and for whom sex is, as it is for Leilani, radically productive of consciousness.
I said before that syntax is key to how we register this passage not merely as a report on experience but as an experience itself, even as it frequently pulls away from scenic narration. I’ve already suggested that one of the reasons the sentence feels so experiential, so overwhelmed, despite all of the hypotactic, analytical flesh on its paratactic bones, is simply the profusion of clauses, the speed with which it delivers conjunctions and relative pronouns. But this isn’t mechanical, as if Leilani were just throwing everything at us she could; instead it’s highly, finely modulated. For most of the passage, conjunctions and relative pronouns come at a pace of two or three a line. But consider what happens precisely when Edie admits to feeling “so emotional.” This shocks Eric into a pause, and it shocks the sentence into a pause as well: we have a subordinating conjunction (“that” introducing a result clause), followed by a coordinating conjunction (“and”), and then there are nearly three lines without a conjunction, with instead an atemporal participial phrase, elaborated by two prepositional phrases: “slowing the proceedings into the dangerous territory of eye contact and lips and tongue.” Again Leilani’s repetitions of “and,” not strictly necessary, are expressive, serving here to extend the reprieve from the sentence’s headlongness—the way it, like Eric, floats out of mania for a moment. Though it’s also true that, even as it tumbles forward, the sentence everywhere allows for contrary motion: dominated by right-branching structures, it is animated, too, by a repeated left-branching construction, tiny adverbs and adverbial phrases pulling against the forward momentum. These occur frequently in the first half of the sentence, beginning with the first word, “Slowly,” continuing with “for a moment,” “in general,” “in one instant.” The most sustained manipulation of time occurs at the end of the sentence, where coordinating conjunctions fall away entirely—“and a cat is sitting” is the last example; for the final seven lines, we have only a relative pronoun, “which,” and then two subordinated “as” clauses, “as the city rises around me” (which is expanded by another atemporal participial phrase, “insisting upon its own enormity”) and “even as the last merciless days of July.” Leilani is not just recounting Edie’s emotional state; she’s putting us within it: our heartbeats slow as Edie’s heartbeats slow, we calm as she calms, because the sentence has become our pulse.
I’ve always been astonished by how dense art can be, how much information a painting or a poem or a sentence can hold. One of the functions of art is to be ample in this way, to offer a container for the surplus of meaning, of value, that surrounds us, that we ourselves are—the information our workaday means of communication and perception either fail to capture or actively filter out. Sometimes, standing before a painting by Cézanne or listening to a Josquin motet, I feel that however I pour my attention into them there are spaces left unfilled, so that it would take a lifetime, more than a lifetime, to see them or listen to them adequately. It seems to me in such moments that art is, in this sense, incarnational: an impossible, absurd meeting point between the finite and the infinite. That’s a grand notion, and a grand way of putting it; and one of the most valuable things about teaching is the pressure students put on one’s pretensions to grandeur. In the years that I taught high school sophomores the kind of close reading I’ve tried to demonstrate in this essay, they generally had two objections. The first was a sense that the whole endeavor was bunk, that I was ascribing intentionality to something accidental, an objection that usually took the form of skepticism that anyone could be conscious of the tiny details on which close reading bestows such great significance. But it’s not the artist’s job to be conscious, to have explicit awareness of patterns of syntax or diction; the artist’s job is merely—merely!—to write and rewrite, to tinker and fidget and be generally and insufferably obsessive, until the thing they are making feels right. (Sometimes this rightness is definitive, as when Yeats said “a poem comes right with a click like a closing box”; sometimes it’s approximate, incomplete, as when Valéry said a poem is never finished, only abandoned.) It’s our job, I would tell my students, as scholars or critics, as readers, to try to figure out why it felt right, which means telling a story about the choices a writer has made. I feel fairly confident of that response, though there’s a slightly different way of putting the challenge that’s harder to answer, which is the claim that the significance close reading finds in literary texts is not something inherent to the object itself but something we bestow, a product of our own ingenuity. So, when I was a graduate student in theory classes, we read critics who applied such ingenuity to non-aesthetic texts, to newspaper articles and encyclopedia entries, and found that they too could be made to yield pattern and apparently significant formal choices. Well, maybe. I find these arguments, sometimes very sophisticated, more difficult to dispute but also almost entirely unconvincing. I do believe that meaning inheres in art, that it possesses a kind of indwellingness, a splendor, that exists independently of individual perception. But the idea that meaning exists not entirely bottled up in a text but is instead created at the meeting point between text and reader doesn’t really trouble the privileged status I want to give to art, which provides objects of sufficient interest and complexity to engage our ingenuity, and engage it endlessly. The idea that there is no difference between a newspaper article and a Gwendolyn Brooks poem seems to me a scholastic absurdity, demanding I deny the truth of immediate experience. Sometimes absurd contradictions of immediate experience turn out to be true—the earth really does circle the sun—but, well, I would need more convincing. There’s a reason, it seems to me, that people turn to poems for comfort and sustenance, that they read them before sleep, that they memorize and recite them, that they do this over centuries—independent of the particular hegemonic reign of canons or English departments, or whatever—and don’t do the same with newspaper articles or encyclopedia entries. The authority for claiming a privileged place for art doesn’t need to rest on densely reasoned argument or analysis. A sufficiently compelling authority for the privilege of art is pleasure.
To which my sophomores, whether convinced by any of this or not, would offer their second challenge: but what is it for, which is at once a profound and devastating question and also, in important ways, irrelevant. Neither education nor art need have a clearly defined instrumental use, which isn’t to say that they aren’t useful; they enrich our lives in ways that are impossible to predict and difficult to account for. A liberal arts education is an aesthetic education, in the sense that it attempts to equip us for an unknowable end, an end that doesn’t exist until we arrive at it. What is it that I’ve learned from attempting to enter into Leilani’s sentence in this way? What do I carry away that I can use? Certainly it’s not a question of simple imitation. I’m never going to write like Leilani; many of the writers I’ve learned most from—Philip Roth, Émile Zola, Iris Murdoch—are quite distant, in superficial ways, from my own practice. I don’t think about the syntax of my own sentences when I’m drafting; if anything I try to forget all considerations of craft or technique, to work from a place as near to ignorance as I can manage. So I’m not sure I can say what I’ve learned from the intense kind of reading that I feel has been central to my education as an artist; certainly I can’t articulate any clear lesson, any easily portable nugget of knowledge to carry away from it. But then it’s difficult to say what knowledge is in art making. How do we know anything, as artists? How do we know that one word is better than another, one image more apt, one out of the million possibilities that face a character the one that fits? We can make elaborate arguments about these things, but I’m never convinced by them, in part because I know how good I can be at justifying even my worst choices, and also how good I can be at demolishing my best. The only knowledge we can have, I think, is pleasure, by which I mean what feels right to us, what satisfies us in the deep way that can sometimes, when things are going very well, make a choice feel the opposite of arbitrary, feel inevitable. The goal of an aesthetic education is to attempt to gain as broad and complicated a sense of pleasure as possible—a sense of pleasure that isn’t merely indulgence, that encompasses the difficult and astringent—and then to cultivate a sensibility such that this pleasure offers us meaningful knowledge. This is what painters were doing, back in the day, when an apprenticeship in visual art meant long hours in museums copying great works, or when learning to compose meant writing out, note by note, the scores of Bach, and it’s what I’m trying to do, I guess, when considering, clause by clause, a sentence that seems to me great. It isn’t an effort at surface imitation but an attempt to tune, at a deeper-than-conscious level, one’s sensibility to the highest aesthetic virtues, to beauty and bravery and truth.