There’s a song on the radio, and so quickly it burrows in, all the way in, the low notes and high notes. They are strumming along to some innate rhythm in your brain, or maybe your heart, but you don’t mind. You love this song, like a companion, a best friend, murmuring right along with the swish of your blood, the inhale and exhale of your breath. It makes you happier to be singing this song, even though, when you listen to the words, you realize it’s incredibly sad.
This is how I feel reading Melanie Rae Thon’s writing. Her sentences possess the quality of a beloved, great song, with an almost alchemic quality of tunneling in. You carry them around for days and days, happily, because something is happening: you are more open, exposed, feeling the world profoundly.
This September, Thon (pronounced “Tone”) will have a new collection of lyric fictions, Silence & Song, published by FC2.
It’s only column #2 and already I’m breaking my own rule of choosing only one sentence. The first sentence comes from “Vanishings.” Orlando Cadena and his companions are crossing Arizona’s Sonoran Desert.
When their shadows shriveled and shrank, as sun-seared eyes pulled to slats and dark heads jerked like lizards, Orlando fell to his knees, scooping sand into his mouth, swallowing hard, trying to drink it.
At first the sentence soothes you, almost lulls you with the string of its hushing sibilants–“shadow,” “shriveled” and “shrank.” Thon heightens the musicality with the assonance of the short “a” in “shadows,” “as,” “slats,” “Orlando,” and “sand.” But as we move into the second dependent clause, (“as sun-seared eyes…”) the sounds become harsher, with more plosive consonants (d,k,t,p) in the words “slats,” “dark,” “heads,” “jerked.” Thon captures the dire consequences of the lack of water with the simile, comparing the men to lizards. Then we are down on our knees with Orlando, and we stay there with the modifiers—scooping sand into his mouth, swallowing hard, trying to drink it.
“When I’m imagining a story, I try to envision and enter a whole environment, full of living beings—not made of human language,” says Thon. “In fact, making sentences is extremely challenging for me. It’s not how I understand or perceive the world. My primary experience is sensory. I go back to the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky, who talked about inner speech, which is beyond language. We are constantly experiencing a ceaseless stream of impressions and associations and imaginings. Initially, I’m letting everything spark simultaneously.”
Then Thon begins to revise. “I read a sentence again and again, 10, 20, 50 times,” she says, “and the sound of the sentence comes to me in the re-reading. And something else happens, something incredibly potent. I feel the sounds at the visceral level, in my bones vibrating, my stomach contracting. When I get the pacing right, I hear it externally and internally. Yes, I want the image to be exquisitely precise, but I also want the reader to absorb it at the level of the physical body.”
The next sentence is from her short story, “In the Exclusion Zone,” from Silence & Song. It’s about the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of April 1986, when an explosion destroyed the building that housed Reactor 4.
Over the scorched throat of the reactor, above but not-so-far beyond the sarcophagus hiding the hot heart of Chernobyl, home into the primeval oaks of the Forbidden Zone, black storks glide, white bellies exposed, red beaks flashing.
Again, Thon opens with a left branching sentence—the three dependent clauses, which create suspense as we wait to discover what, exactly, is hovering above the nuclear reactor. Here, too, the images are fresh, startling. Thon personifies the damaged nuclear reactor, turning this symbol of death into a live thing with its “scorched throat” and “hot heart.” What is circling above the reactor? The black storks. Interestingly, the sentence does not flow like songbirds soaring in the air, darting and diving, fluttering and spiraling. Instead, she uses hard stresses: “black storks glide, white bellies exposed, red beaks flashing.”
“In any sentence I compose, there is so much information packed into a small space,” says Thon. “I strive to make every sentence as self-contained as a poem.”
“So why aren’t the storks soaring?” I say.
“Because the sarcophagus, which holds and protects the core of the reactor, is cracking,” she says. “Yes, wild creatures—falcons, bison, wolves, beavers—have reclaimed the radioactive area; they thrive without humans! But how long will this last? No one knows when the heart will erupt again.”
I asked Melanie to pick her favorite sentence, and she chose one from the last section of Song & Silence, “Requiem.” It’s a story based on inmates at the California Men’s Colony, who help care for other inmates with dementia.
In a prison in California, a man who killed a woman a hundred times, who stabbed face and throat, heart and belly, who soaked himself in blood and rendered the body beneath his own unrecognizable, now washes another man in the shower, shaves his face, changes his diapers, protects and serves a murderer like himself, riddled by dementia—blood everywhere, her eyes in my hands, she called me sweet heart—knows repentance not as the hour of remorse, but as patience, surrender, a lifetime’s work, the choice, the freedom, now, turning toward love every moment.
“Again, I’ve taken a huge amount of information and distilled it into a small space,” says Thon. “This is an incredibly complicated situation, and it seems miraculous and astonishing to me. All things are possible, even for those of us who have done something others consider reprehensible, beyond redemption. One thing I’ve paid attention to in this piece, and in all my work, is not to turn away from the crime or soften it. Our compassion, our recognition of someone as a human being, has to include our awareness of terrifying transgression.”
So the sentence begins with the man’s crime, but it moves to the present. The crime folds in again, so the reader is holding it in her mind, before the sentence ends on the astonishing possibilities of a life.
And that is what Thon’s sentences do. They are not shy. They don’t turn away. They look and feel and smell, and through sounds and images and rhythm, they capture both the beauty and the horror. At least that’s how her song sounds to me.
– Nina Schuyler’s latest novel, The Translator, was published by Pegasus Books. Her first novel, The Painting, was published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.