An Artist’s Sense of Sentence

In the world of contemporary lit in prose there are writers and there are artists. Of all things as an editor I am perhaps most drawn to the language, and that language’s expression in tight, controlled—but brimming-over-into-uncontrolled—prose. I love the poetic, and the breaking down of boundaries between prose and verse.

Suffice it to say that I love a novel like Moby-Dick, which I’ll maintain is more of a novel-length prose poem than it is a traditional novel. Anyway, point is, the well-crafted sentence is a rarity—of course hardly evident at all in most prosaic forums, such as on websites (and certainly not in the comments), in much contemporary journalism, and, alas, in the majority of fiction published today.

But there are strange and wondrous creatures lurking about the literary ecosystem. These are the endangered prose stylists. They are an elusive species, publishing slowly and sporadically. They rarely lift their heads into the media spotlight. They cloister behind closed doors, crafting the sentences they so cherish. Once in a great while the gift of a brief glimpse into their brilliance comes our way in the form of a short story or essay, as a collection or a novel. Immediately thereafter these writers again retreat into their dens, behind their notepads, or computer screens or—even—their typewriters. It may be many years before the prose stylist rears his or her head again to the metaphorical light.

When one encounters a prose stylist in person, the casual observer might remain ignorant of the species-specific markers, much like I did when I met Laura van den Berg at the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference in 2006. Bread Loaf, great as it is, is not the prose stylist’s natural habitat. When thrust into such a writerly congregation, the prose stylist, true to form, often remains elusive. Hence, I spent a little time talking to Laura atop the mountain, but it was a very little, little time. I didn’t know that she was the kind of writer she is until I read the stories in her collection, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us. In the sentences that make up the stories of this collection one finds an elegance and precision that most archaeologists of fine prose must excavate from the sludge and drudgery that abounds in the everyday.

Here are a few gems, a sampling of the deliciousness you’ll indulge in upon reading her writing:

“I try to think of a way to explain everything, but I can’t explain Bigfoot or Jimmy or why the reddish color of the water here makes me think of the fear that swallowed our childhood the way a snake swallows mice.”

“Every week I fill the jar with potatoes and yams, but lately there has been less food at the market; some of the farmers have joined the rebels and others are frightened to be near the forest, where their crops grow.”

“I pressed my hand against the window and thought about how I used to dream of me and Liam leaving the Hospital together and boarding a bus just like the one I was sitting in and watching the landscape pass.”
What makes these sentences so great? Read them. Read them again. Yes, read them out of context. They convey so much about characters’ motivations, and scene and sense, and do so all with rhythm and precision, and with richness of sound. Listen to the simile of a childhood swallowed like a snake’s meal. Notice the repetition of S sounds that mimic a snake’s hisses. Notice that the lack of food—mere potatoes and yams—and the lack of farmer-soldiers lost to rebellion tells the reader so much without showing them anything. See how the spirit of wanderlust pervades the last sentence, showing the reader the character’s motivations for the whole story while at the same time telling us her backstory, her family life. Present, past, and future meld.

This is what’s called genius: native, natural, ability.

Now we’re lucky enough to offer a glimpse into this fabulous writer’s upcoming work, as she’s graced Atticus Review with an excerpt from her novel-in-progress, Find Me. We also gift you a reprint of “Goodbye My Loveds,” originally published in American Short Fiction, and collected in What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us. We present you with these sentences, that make up these stories, this exquisite work from Laura van den Berg.