Sentences — February 13, 2009, 2:20 pm

Holiday Weekend Double-barrel Weekend Read: “The skies of Genesis are watery,” & “I still liked to think of myself as approachable”

I should confess straightaway to an unseemly feeling of delight today, brought on by the wonders of the wonderful Web. This week’s posts on a sentence by the talented Joseph O’Neill have prompted an uncommon quantity and quality of e-correspondence from readers (and even one spiffy photo of a starfish). It seems as though the little conversation that my novelist friend and I have been having about firmaments and fish has revealed, if only to cloistered little me, a rabidly passionate interest beyond my garden wall in things semantic and rhetorical. Bless all y’all.

Reader Abby Laber tells me that “This kind of mixing of firmaments through starfish has a noble history,” and points us in the direction of Galway Kinnell’s poem, “Daybreak”:

On the tidal mud, just before sunset,
dozens of starfishes
were creeping. It was
as though the mud were a sky
and enormous, imperfect stars
moved across it as slowly
as the actual stars cross heaven….

Then there’s Donovan Hohn. Harper’s readers know the prose of this elegant writer. If one ever were to need to wonder why some writers possess such grace, Donovan’s letter (which he releases me to release to you below) suggests the depth of thinking that goes into any good writer’s endeavor–the deep background, as it were, of all foreground activity. Here’s how Donovan read O’Neill’s starfish sentence:

This may be where you’re headed, but I can’t help wanting to solve your riddle. I assume that you and your correspondent recognize the most famous occurrence of the word “firmament” in English literature? Genesis 1 in the KJV?

Note in the passage pasted at bottom that the firmament divides two waters, the one above from the one below–an image that makes plenty of sense when you stand on a sea-cliff and look up and down. The skies of Genesis are watery. Into the heavenly membrane separating the waters the Lord places stars. That’s how I resolve O’Neill’s metaphor: into the netherworld (netherheavens?) of gravel, the god-like child has placed a star. I don’t think I’m stretching here. I think O’Neill is consciously alluding. Of course, that the image makes allusive sense doesn’t mean that it’s good; I’m slightly persuaded that the repetition of fishy sounds may be infelicitous, but not entirely persuaded, but mainly I’m inclined to like the passage. Here’s why:

I like that O’Neill compares his narrator’s fish tank to Creation without doing so explicitly. Really, the word “firmament” does all the metaphorical work. I also like the lightly ironic humor in the transformation of celestial lights into an artificial starfish, the heavens into gravel, the childish aquarium-keeper into God. There’s humor in the imagery but also in the high-low clash of diction and subject matter, swerving from “artificial starfish” to “firmament.” He does this a little earlier in the passage when he swerves from the Latinate and polysyllabic (“furtiveness and ornamental diversity”) into those cheap, murky weeds. But the irony of image and diction isn’t only humorous. There’s still a little wistful Proustian magic in that aquarium-as-microcosmos, no? And if I understand the context correctly, O’Neill’s pulling a kind of bank shot here, comparing the aquarium to the Chelsea Hotel and to Creation all at once.

(I say this without having read the novel–though after reading your latest post I looked up the first chapter on Amazon and was sufficiently seduced to add it to my long bookshelf of intentions.)

Them’s my two cents. Here’s the passage from Genesis:

1:6 And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.

1:7 And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so.

1:8 And God called the firmament Heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day.

1:9 And God said, Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so.

1:10 And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called he Seas: and God saw that it was good.

1:11 And God said, Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding seed, and the fruit tree yielding fruit after his kind, whose seed is in itself, upon the earth: and it was so.

1:12 And the earth brought forth grass, and herb yielding seed after his kind, and the tree yielding fruit, whose seed was in itself, after his kind: and God saw that it was good.

1:13 And the evening and the morning were the third day.

1:14 And God said, Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and years:

1:15 And let them be for lights in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth: and it was so.

1:16 And God made two great lights; the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night: he made the stars also.

1:17 And God set them in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth,

1:18 And to rule over the day and over the night, and to divide the light from the darkness: and God saw that it was good.

Hohn’s reading is rewarding–he goes deep into the language, and observes O’Neill’s bank-shot. Not all readers will want to play O’Neill’s game, of course, but I think Hohn is dead-on about the novelist’s “lightly ironic humor.” Much of what O’Neill does with tone in Netherland is, yes, subtly ironic. If you miss, or just don’t like, said tone, you’ll not unreasonably find his prose precious. Take this bit, where the narrator is reflecting on flying from NYC to London to see his wife:

That country might have some meaningful relation to my country of physical residence, and so every second weekend, when I traveled to London to be with my wife and son, I hoped that flying high into the atmosphere, over boundless massifs of vapor or small clouds dispersed like the droppings of Pegasus on an unseen platform of air, might also lift me above my personal haze. That is, I would conduct a retrospective of our affable intercontinental dealings and assemble the hope and theory that the foundation of my family might after all be secure and our old unity within reach.

I’ve got to think that O’Neill’s “dispersed like the droppings of Pegasus on an unseen platform of air” is knowingly too much (i.e. the high-flying language overreaches in the same way that the character is overreaching in his hopes that flying high will put his earthly cares behind him), just as his “conduct a retrospective of our affable intercontinental dealings” is deliberately lawyerly–that is to say it puts the real emotions at a rhetorical remove. If both of these parsings of mine make you say “Poppycock,” though, Netherland isn’t likely going to do it for you. And, as it happens, my novelist friend just wrote to say just that:

I finally hit the wall with this book on page 60. I can’t make myself read any more.

Here’s the sentence that broke the camel’s back (he’s on the train, recalling train trips from the Hague):

Always one saw evidence of tiny brick houses that the incontinent local municipalities, Voorschoten and Leidschendam and Rijswijk and Zoetermeer, pooped over the rural spaces surrounding the Hague.

“Incontinent municipalities?” “Pooped?” Please!

Whereas other readers will say: “Incontinent municipalities?” “Pooped?” Thank you!

So it goes.


For the indefatigable among you not undone by this investigation into the solitary sentence, I give you many more sentences for this long weekend. Over at The Nation, you can feast on the late Ted Solotaroff‘s memoir about the editorial life. It features an over-the-shoulder series of shots of working with the good and great Cynthia Ozick at the beginning of her critical-in-all-senses career (and Solotaroff’s piece leaves me wanting, very much, to hear Ms. Ozick’s side of things…). Said piece contains much mulling of what “good writing” means in a very properly workaday way, and is actually worth your valuable time. It contains for example, this:

One day I received a call from the reception desk: a woman named Cynthia Ozick wanted to talk about writing for Commentary. I knew her name from a few poems I had come across in the literary magazines, and though I had pretty much stopped recruiting, I still liked to think of myself as approachable.

Small, awkward, intense, she arrived with an air of shyness that turned into ardor once she got going, reminding me of certain female graduate students who were like nuns in the library stacks and passionate in the seminars. Volubly thanking me for seeing her, she said that she had just been to The New York Review of Books, where they had all but thrown her out. She went on to tell me in her tight, edgy voice, the swarming eyes behind her scholarly spectacles never leaving my face, about a long novel, eight years in the writing, that she had just submitted. She now wanted to try her hand at reviewing. She said that she was a friend of Alfred Chester. Was I his editor?

I was. Alfred was our star literary reviewer–flamboyant, irreverent, unpredictable, even from one paragraph to the next. A flaming queen with a red wig, crystalline prose style and a razor wit, he seemed about 179 degrees across the human spectrum from this literary vestal virgin. But perhaps not. His stare burned with the same intensity.

Writer and editor Solotaroff’s unfinished memoir (he passed away last summer) has been posted in two parts. Part One; and Part Two. Best weekend wishes to you from all of us here at Sentences (meaning, of course, just me).

Share
Single Page

More from Wyatt Mason:

Conversation October 2, 2015, 8:26 am

Permission to Speak Frankly

“By committing to the great emotional extremes demanded by Greek tragedy,” says Bryan Doerries, author of The Theater of War, “the actors are in effect saying to the audience: ‘If you want to match our emotional intensity, that would be fine.’”

From the October 2014 issue

You Are Not Alone Across Time

Using Sophocles to treat PTSD

From the February 2010 issue

The untamed

Joshua Ferris’s restless-novel syndrome

Get access to 167 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

February 2018

The Bodies in The Forest

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Minds of Others

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Modern Despots

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Before the Deluge

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Notes to Self

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Within Reach

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
The Minds of Others·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Progress is impossible without change,” George Bernard Shaw wrote in 1944, “and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.” But progress through persuasion has never seemed harder to achieve. Political segregation has made many Americans inaccessible, even unimaginable, to those on the other side of the partisan divide. On the rare occasions when we do come face-to-face, it is not clear what we could say to change each other’s minds or reach a worthwhile compromise. Psychological research has shown that humans often fail to process facts that conflict with our preexisting worldviews. The stakes are simply too high: our self-worth and identity are entangled with our beliefs — and with those who share them. The weakness of logic as a tool of persuasion, combined with the urgency of the political moment, can be paralyzing.

Yet we know that people do change their minds. We are constantly molded by our environment and our culture, by the events of the world, by the gossip we hear and the books we read. In the essays that follow, seven writers explore the ways that persuasion operates in our lives, from the intimate to the far-reaching. Some consider the ethics and mechanics of persuasion itself — in religion, politics, and foreign policy — and others turn their attention to the channels through which it acts, such as music, protest, and technology. How, they ask, can we persuade others to join our cause or see things the way we do? And when it comes to our own openness to change, how do we decide when to compromise and when to resist?

Illustration (detail) by Lincoln Agnew
Article
Within Reach·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On a balmy day last spring, Connor Chase sat on a red couch in the waiting room of a medical clinic in Columbus, Ohio, and watched the traffic on the street. His bleached-blond hair fell into his eyes as he scrolled through his phone to distract himself. Waiting to see Mimi Rivard, a nurse practitioner, was making Chase nervous: it would be the first time he would tell a medical professional that he was transgender.

By the time he arrived at the Equitas Health clinic, Chase was eighteen, and had long since come to dread doctors and hospitals. As a child, he’d had asthma, migraines, two surgeries for a tumor that had caused deafness in one ear, and gangrene from an infected bug bite. Doctors had always assumed he was a girl. After puberty, Chase said, he avoided looking in the mirror because his chest and hips “didn’t feel like my body.” He liked it when strangers saw him as male, but his voice was high-pitched, so he rarely spoke in public. Then, when Chase was fourteen, he watched a video on YouTube in which a twentysomething trans man described taking testosterone to lower his voice and appear more masculine. Suddenly, Chase had an explanation for how he felt — and what he wanted.

Illustration by Taylor Callery
Article
Before the Deluge·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In the summer of 2016, when Congress installed a financial control board to address Puerto Rico’s crippling debt, I traveled to San Juan, the capital. The island owed some $120 billion, and Wall Street was demanding action. On the news, President Obama announced his appointments to the Junta de Supervisión y Administración Financiera. “The task ahead for Puerto Rico is not an easy one,” he said. “But I am confident Puerto Rico is up to the challenge of stabilizing the fiscal situation, restoring growth, and building a better future for all Puerto Ricans.” Among locals, however, the control board was widely viewed as a transparent effort to satisfy mainland creditors — just the latest tool of colonialist plundering that went back generations.

Photograph from Puerto Rico by Christopher Gregory
Article
Monumental Error·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In 1899, the art critic Layton Crippen complained in the New York Times that private donors and committees had been permitted to run amok, erecting all across the city a large number of “painfully ugly monuments.” The very worst statues had been dumped in Central Park. “The sculptures go as far toward spoiling the Park as it is possible to spoil it,” he wrote. Even worse, he lamented, no organization had “power of removal” to correct the damage that was being done.

Illustration by Steve Brodner
Post
CamperForce·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

After losing their savings in the stock market crash of 2008, seniors Barb and Chuck find seasonal employment at Amazon fulfillment centers.

Chance that a Silicon Valley technology company started since 1995 was founded by Indian or Chinese immigrants:

1 in 3

A gay penguin couple in China’s Polar Land zoo were ostracized by other penguins and then placed in a separate enclosure after they made repeated attempts to steal the eggs of straight penguin couples and replace them with stones.

Trump’s former chief strategist, whom Trump said had “lost his mind,” issued a statement saying that Trump’s son did not commit treason; the US ambassador to the United Nations announced that “no one questions” Trump’s mental stability; and the director of the CIA said that Trump, who requested “killer graphics” in his intelligence briefings, is able to read.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Report — From the June 2013 issue

How to Make Your Own AR-15

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

"Gun owners have long been the hypochondriacs of American politics. Over the past twenty years, the gun-rights movement has won just about every battle it has fought; states have passed at least a hundred laws loosening gun restrictions since President Obama took office. Yet the National Rifle Association has continued to insist that government confiscation of privately owned firearms is nigh. The NRA’s alarmism helped maintain an active membership, but the strategy was risky: sooner or later, gun guys might have realized that they’d been had. Then came the shootings at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, and at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, followed swiftly by the nightmare the NRA had been promising for decades: a dedicated push at every level of government for new gun laws. The gun-rights movement was now that most insufferable of species: a hypochondriac taken suddenly, seriously ill."

Subscribe Today