It’s not often I rant on this blog. But there are a number of things I feel very strongly about: income inequality for instance, surveillance, online giants who put bookshops out of business – oh and punctuation!
I am not talking about ‘correct’ punctuation or the efficacy of semi-colons or full stops or commas or apostrophes. But there are a few books around at the moment that see no reason to use any, ever. Either that or they bombard you with legions and legions of commas and little else. Lucy Ellman’s book Ducks, Newburyport is an example. ( Galley Beggar Press. )
The fact that this book contains 1020 pages broken down into a mere 8 sentences, the fact that according to the Guardian review you eventually stop noticing the fact that, the fact that may or may not be true, the fact that I never got to the point where I could find out whether that was a fact or not, the fact that the book won awards and was shortlisted for the Booker prize, the fact that it still drives me absolutely bonkers.
My patient and much admired reviewer above said:
“There were a few dark moments while working my way through Ducks, Newburyport, where death seemed positively appealing as I was faced with another page of dense type…”
This I can understand.
Our poor brains derive meaning not just from one word to the next – but range back and forth across paragraphs, pages or chapters, across clauses and sub-clauses because our poor brains need to take a break sometimes, or mine does. Punctuation, like life, is an opportunity to breathe. Punctuation is like the rests in a musical notation or rhthym. Punctuation is the give-me-a-break friend of the sentence, our saviour from massive indigestible and exhausting tons of words piled unceasingly one after the other across 1020 pages.
Yes its true our minds produce things in bits: ideas, dreams, scraps of proposed speech, memories, anger, to-do lists. Our thoughts dart from one thing to another. That was how stream of consciousness started and how Virginia Woolf used it. But not many people can do what Virginia Woolf did. And how interesting are the contents of my mind – or anyone else’s – if there are thousands of reams of stuff put down in no particular order?
Aye but here’s the rub. Because of course in books there is an order so why pretend there is not? For all its technical in-your-face-ery Ducks, Newburyport is still a story about a woman in Ohio looking back across her life. And oh boy can this lady look back.
Ducks’ author Lucy Ellman is the daughter of James Joyce according to my much admired Guardian reviewer, and therefore I do not get into a discussion about what should or should not constitute stream of consciousness because I really do not know. I only know what I find manageably readable. I only know when writerly technique rams itself into your face about an inch away and stays there staring at you with bloodshot eyes going “nah-nah-nah-nah-nah” for 1000 pages it’s time to close the book and your eyes in sheer exhaustion.
From the same publisher comes Toby Litt’s Patience. This is certainly not anything like 1000 pages long nor is it comprised of one sentence. Here – oh joy, one may find such luxuries as full stops and paragraphs although now I look again not very many commas. Hardly any in fact. OK. None.
I worry slightly that this stream of consciousness thing is catching.
Litt’s story concerns itself with a young boy who suffers from cerebral palsy. He lives in an orphanage run by nuns. The date is 1979.
There are many things to love about this book. Not least the poignant way even well meaning human beings treat the disabled. We have access to the narrator Elliott’s interior rebellion which his disability renders impossible to action. But when a new boy Jim comes to the ward, the rebellion is definitely on!
Elliott’s age is not given. He measures his life in Christmas Cards from his family at the beginning of the book which itself a bit of tear jerker and then later on he measures his life in days after Jim’s arrival.
Elliott has been unable to engage with any traditional education but has spent a large amount of time listening to the radio and taught himself, particularly about music. He has very cogent and philosophical thoughts some of which are about the nature of god, guilt and Jesus.
“Creation must be forgiveness or else God is not God but Jehovah Jesus is not Jesus by the Thief and the Holy Spirit is not Holy but Hollow and is not a Spirit but a Sprite full of Spite and full of Holes and thus was I angry that afternoon at the Sisters and especially Sister Britta for making a guiltless boy pray to a guilty God or a God who did not exist making him pray for forgiveness for a sin that never existed except in the guilty head of a Sister.”
If you feel out of breath after reading the above quote, the whole book is like this but at least it feels to be like there is some internal logic to this idea. Elliot cannot speak so the whole book is one long thought. But Litt, unlike his stable mate Ellman, writes sentences that we know will end sometime although in opposition to Ducks, Patience takes out most of the commas, it is at least possible to tune in to a natural rhythm in these sentences.
Elliott befriends Jim, a new boy on the ward. Jim is not pliable. He persists in defiance. Taking up a position by a wooden gate between the ward and the lift, between the ward and the exit and freedom and the normal lived world that is inaccessible to these children. But to stand thus is very much Against the Rules. Jim is not allowed to stand by the wooden gate and he knows this. But he challenges the authority of the nuns by doing so.
I liked the wooden gate. It was a brilliant metaphor for the shut away-ness of lives that are seen as other, as less.