Mar 17, 2011

A few things I like about the first sentence of The Pale King, the book David Foster Wallace was working on when he killed himself and which is going to be published next month

"Past the flannel plains and blacktop graphs and skylines of canted rust, and past the tobacco-​brown river overhung with weeping trees and coins of sunlight through them on the water downriver, to the place beyond the windbreak, where untilled fields simmer shrilly in the a.m. heat: shattercane, lamb’s‑quarter, cutgrass, sawbrier, nutgrass, jimsonweed, wild mint, dandelion, foxtail, muscadine, spinecabbage, goldenrod, creeping charlie, butter-​print, nightshade, ragweed, wild oat, vetch, butcher grass, invaginate volunteer beans, all heads gently nodding in a morning breeze like a mother’s soft hand on your cheek."


1) The list: It's hey-whoa Walt Whitman. Specific names invoked as if being called upon and made alive in invocation. As if the names carried their reality in them.

2) The grammar: No subject. No verb. An incredible sense of movement in the procession of images and names and the use of the preposition "past," and a sense that the reader is the subject, the one doing the moving in the sentence.

3) The vocabulary: Elevated, but not overwrought. Invaginate = enclosed, sheathed, "folded in so that an outer becomes an inner surface." Canted = at an angle, tilted obliquely.

4) The DFWness: He owns "in the a.m. heat." Though there are appeals, here, to Faulkner and Whitman and others, this could only be him.

5) The turns of phrase: "Flannel plains" in particular. It's familiar, but not overused. That first dependent clause has a great rhythm, too, with a three-syllable image followed by a three-syllable image followed by a five-syllable image. To "simmer shrilly" -- which is alliterative but not a tongue twister ("shimmer shrilly" would have sucked to say) -- is also an interesting use of literary synesthesia.

6) That the sentence submerges me, takes me under, and want to stay there and know more, and that this starts a paragraph that will end with the words, "We are all of us brothers," and I want to know why (an allusion to Elanor Roosevelt?) and want to keep reading.