STUNNING SENTENCES: Are You Questioning?

For my eleventh birthday, my father gave me Pablo Neruda’s The Book of Questions. The book is composed of 316 unanswerable questions, a mix of comic, surreal, poignant, and Orphic. “What color is the scent of the blue weeping of violets?” writes Neruda. “If I have died and don’t know it of whom do I ask the time?” “In what language does rain fall over tormented cities?”

Later, in my twenties, when I worked as a journalist, my job, essentially, was to ask questions. Perhaps those years as a newspaper reporter fine-tuned my ear for questions in fiction, because whenever I come across one, something shifts inside. The distance collapses between the protagonist and me, and I find myself standing alongside the character, pondering whatever question has been posed. It’s almost as if the character and I are in limbo, a point in which we are lost, either having risen to a hilltop of false promise or descended into existential despair. It’s a wonderful point in a story, because now it feels like the narrative could head an entirely new direction.

In Chad B. Anderson’s short story “Maidencane,” in the 2017 Best American Short Stories, the narrator remembers when as a boy, he went fishing with his older brother and they stole a girl’s tacklebox. The memory haunts the protagonist, because in his child mind, he’s associated the theft with the break-up of the family. Going fishing with his brother was the last thing they did together, before the older brother and his mother moved away, leaving the narrator with his father. In his child mind, the rupture in his family was punishment for stealing the tackle box.

Prior to the passage cited below, the girl on the dock is mentioned nine times. When we come to the tenth time, unlike the previous occasions, the protagonist begins to ask questions.

Your father moved on, remaining in Florida but going farther south where he married another Cuban woman who is not your mother. And you don’t remember the name of the girl on the dock and you’re not in touch with anyone from those days who might know her. And if you could remember how to get to her house and climb those blue-painted steps and cross beneath the hanging ferns to her family’s front door, which you’ve never seen but only imagined, what would you say? What would you find?

With this iteration of the girl on the dock, the protagonist comes closest to taking action to halt the haunting memory. Anderson builds to the questions at the end of this passage by using the coordinate conjunction “and,” which begins two of his sentences. Another three ands are embedded in the sentences (polysyndeton), creating a clinging quality— one thought leaps to the next, almost as if the punctuation doesn’t exist and the sentence could go on and on. Having imagined himself walking up the blue-painted steps, hunching beneath the hanging ferns, having come this close to confronting what has bothered him for more than a dozen years, what would he say?

Anderson said he used questions because he wanted to introduce doubt, insecurity, and inertia. “Until this point, the protagonist has been relatively confident in his life and in his recollection of the girl on the dock,” he said. “I wanted to start to answer why, after all this psychological energy has been spent remembering this girl, the protagonist hasn’t sought her out. There’s this disconnect the protagonist’s interior and exterior life.”

I asked Anderson about the abundant use of “and.”

“When we doubt, there’s an onslaught of questions,” he said. “A lot of ‘what ifs.’ One layer of doubt piling on another. The ‘and’ for me signaled that accumulation of uncertainty.”

Few stories and novels are written in the second person, “you,” because it can be jarring and polarizing; the reader resisting such a direct engagement in the story. But it works here, because it captures the protagonist’s mental state. “It started by accident, because the story began as a stream-of-consciousness exercise, and I had been writing a lot of journal entries at that time that used ‘you’ as a way of distancing myself from a situation and as a way of addressing the self,” said Anderson. “But the second person drifted into my creative work and stuck. I meant to change it later, but once I was done, it kind of fit because this character is detached from a lot in his life. And the character has no mentioned name or gender. A reader could experience the feeling of being addressed and pulled into a story.”

When Anderson writes a sentence, he wants to do more than provide information. He’s attempting to create tone and mood. He’s listening for musicality. “Maybe this is obvious, but I think of it the same way one might think about lyrics and music,” he said. “How the lyrics are sung and the music behind them can certainly shift how an audience engages with the words.”

Anderson also works as an editor, which he says is a blessing and a curse. “Everyone says turn off your inner editor when writing a first draft,” he said. “But that can be so difficult to do. So sometimes I spend more time on a sentence than I should in early drafts, which slows down the creative process. But my inner editor is a blessing, too, because I can take a step back and ask the same questions I ask my clients about idea clarity and organization and about recurring mistakes or writing tics that could make reading the story challenging.”

Anderson picked two favorite sentences from this story.

The river is green and appears desolate—no motorboats, no fishermen, no teenagers cannonballing, no herons stretching, no feral cats pawing the muck for crayfish, frogs, or mice—which only sharpens the sounds: the orchestra of insects, the whistles of birds, the girl’s fading echoes, your steady breath.

The past and the present spring together like a clap.

“I chose these two because they reflect my dual nature as a writer and an editor,” says Anderson. “The first, longer sentence was writer Chad enjoying language and creating a breathless and arguably self-indulgent sentence. When I’ve re-read it since, my inner editor wants to trim it down, break it up somehow. But my editor self also saw what that sentence accomplishes in creating the story’s setting and its tone, and I enjoyed working to make that dense, long, somewhat oddly punctuated sentence work. It felt like one long brushstroke or like a long tracking shot in a film.”

For me, the sentence, with its five ‘no’s,’ swept aside all the sound—a nearly perfect silence. That made the sounds that remained—the insects, birds, the girl’s fading, and the boy’s breath—even more pronounced.

Anderson chose the second sentence because it’s succinct and it surprised him. “I didn’t think much about it; it flowed out, and I don’t think I tweaked it at all,” he said. “It’s those kinds of moments—the moments that surprise me—that can be most rewarding for me as a writer.”

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.

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