So there’s a great sentence in a story called “Helpful,” from Brian Evenson’s new collection Fugue State, and I’d like to draw attention to it.
The story starts like this.
It was a freak accident, a wire snapping off the load and whipping back to slash across his face, breaking his nose, tearing open both his eyes. They took him jouncing in the back of a pickup truck to the hospital, where a doctor packed the nose with cotton and straightened it while another doctor removed first the right eye, then the left. Two days later, his wife came to get him and helped him out to the car, and drove him home.
The man begins to recover at home, and then we get this.
After a week, he climbed out of bed. His room, reduced only to touch, had gone strange around him; a dresser that he would have guessed was four steps from the bed was in fact two. When he was certain he was at the door leading out of the room, he was in fact at the closet door, so that as he passed into what he thought was the hall, he found himself suddenly muffled on both sides by what it took him a moment to figure out were coats.
All of this is good stuff, but it’s the last sentence in particular that struck me. Here it is again.
When he was certain he was at the door leading out of the room, he was in fact at the closet door, so that as he passed into what he thought was the hall, he found himself suddenly muffled on both sides by what it took him a moment to figure out were coats.
The sentence invites the reader to experience things precisely as the character does, even as the narrator makes us more and more suspicious of what’s going to happen in the end. In the first “half” of the sentence, we hear about the character’s certainty of being in a particular place, and then we learn that he’s wrong. The second “half” of the sentence repeats this format (of showing what the character believes, only to have it revoked by the narrator), but since we already know the character is off his mark, we know he’s going to be surprised by where he ends up. There’s a recurring theme of clauses that gradually diminish our faith in the character’s ability to assess his situation (“…that he would have guessed…” “…what he thought…” “…what it took him a moment to figure out…”). We come to realize that despite being privy to the character’s understanding of his whereabouts, we don’t know what’s going to happen to him. We’re kind of afraid for him. And the resolution takes its time in arriving. We go from a lot of open ah sounds (at, fact, hall, pass) to some truly “muffled” m and f sounds (“found himself… muffled… moment to figure”), and the sentence ends with the surprising—and yet terribly mundane—revelation that he’s standing in a coat closet. There’s dramatic tension in this sentence, and it’s rendered in very subtle, lucid prose.
This sentence also serves as evidence for one of my favorite arguments: that you can achieve things in a verbal story that you simply can’t achieve in other mediums. The sentence easily conjures two parallel and mutually exclusive states of being. In one state, the character is walking out of the room. In the other state, he’s walking into a coat closet. The first state is only true in the character’s mind, while the second state is true in physical reality. But in the sentence they are equals, existing side by side, and we can vacillate between them, understanding both states at once. You can’t do that in a movie. You can’t do that in a graphic novel. Or at least, you can’t do it as quickly and evocatively as Brian Evenson does it. He uses only 54 words.