Literary Fiction

On Long Sentences

Derek Attig

Staff Writer

Derek works in graduate student career development and is (believe it or not) one of the world's foremost experts on the history of bookmobiles. Follow Derek on Twitter @bookmobility and on Instagram @bookmobility.

I love long sentences; ever since I moved beyond the Berenstain Bears, I’ve adored a sentence bristling with commas and speckled with semicolons, piling words on words, embedded with asides (whether girdled with parenthesis or with—em, of course—dashes), and barreling down the page.

Long sentences have, obviously, been around for quite a while. (What would Dickens or Joyce—or, for that matter, German—be without them?) But I’ve noticed a flourishing of the form lately in the books I’ve been reading, a harnessing of the long sentence to gorgeous and glorious ends. My favorite long sentences have always tended to pile clause on clause, building descriptions by slow but unrelenting accretion. And that, to my delight, is what I’ve been seeing of late.

To illustrate, I thought I’d look at examples from three books I’ve read over the past year or so—two very recent, one less so; two Booker Prize-winning, one not; two monstrously long, one just extremely so; all three brilliant in their use of the sentence.

First, from Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, a 141-word excursion through the world of London’s gargoyles:

And looking down on them, the other Londoners, those monsters who live in the air, the city’s uncounted population of stone men and women and beasts, and things that are neither human nor beasts, fanged rabbits and flying hares, flour-legged birds and pinioned snakes, imps with bulging eyes and ducks’ bills, men who are wreathed in leaves or have the heads of goats or rams; creatures with knotted coils and leather wings, with hairy ears and cloven feet, horned and roaring, feathered and scaled, some laughing, some singing, some pulling back their lips to show their teeth; lions and friars, donkeys and geese, devils with children crammed into their maws, all chewed up except for their helpless paddling feet; limestone or leaden, metaled or marbled, shrieking and sniggering above the populace, hooting and gurning and dry-heaving from buttresses, walls and roofs.

It’s like a madman’s tour of London, a zoomed-in (on stone creatures), zoomed out (to encompass the city) Viewfinder of stone and speech. It’s choppy and languorous at the same time, repetition and alliteration (“some laughing, some singing;” “metaled or marbled, shrieking and sniggering”) alongside aurally or thematically stark juxtapositions (“fanged rabbits;” “donkeys and geese”). Mantel stacks the sentence with objects until it almost rises up from the page, a city in itself, charged with potential instability—it might topple, Jenga-like, under the weight of so many things—but anchored deep in a tactile, material world.

Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch has a similar obsession with stuff, with the ebbs and flows of objects through lives and spaces. Its sentences aren’t quite so epic, when you sit down to count the words, but they are baroquely gutting in a way that warrants their inclusion here. Take this one:

But sometimes, unexpectedly, grief pounded over me in waves that left me gasping; and when the waves washed back, I found myself looking out over a brackish wreck which was illuminated in a light so lucid, so heartsick and empty, that I could hardly remember that the world had ever been anything but dead.

Like some of the best sentences, this one enacts—in its pounding clauses, its hollow but piercing observation, in the abrupt finality of its end—exactly that which its language works to describe.

Or there’s this one, which manages a similar feat:

What mattered more was the feeling, a rich sweet undertow so commanding that in class, on the school bus, lying in bed, trying to think of something safe or pleasant, some environment or configuration where my chest wasn’t tight with anxiety, all I had to do was sink into the blood-warm current and let myself spin away to the secret place where everything was all right.

Shooting from place to place to place before sinking into sensation (“blood-warm current”), the sentence spins, as the narrator hopes to, ending as he does, if only for the briefest respite before grief pounds him again to pieces.

The last example I want to look at, and the best I think, is an early moment from Eleanor Catton’s Booker Prize-winning, 800-page behemoth of a novel, The Luminaries:

From the variety of their comportment and dress—frock coats, tailcoats, Norfolk jackets with buttons of horn, yellow moleskin, cambric, and twill—they might have been twelve strangers on a railway car, each bound for a separate quarter of a city that possessed fog and tides enough to divide them; indeed, the studied isolation of each man as he pored over his paper, or leaned forward to tap his ashes into the grate, or placed the splay of his hand upon the baize to take his shot at billiards, conspired to form the very type of bodily silence that occurs, late in the evening, on a public railway—deadened here not by the slur and clunk of the coaches, but by the fat clatter of the rain.

It’s a marvelous sentence, capturing a moment both sharply and obliquely, marking out its contours with clauses worth of details—fabrics, gestures, objects—and capturing a particular mood so well you can feel it. The sentence builds, builds, builds to the grandly ordinary, perfectly apt, assonantly consonant closing phrase: “the fat clatter of the rain.” It’s the best sentence I read last year capped off by the best phrase.

There are longer sentences, certainly. The proprietors of the Billy Pilgrim Traveling Library, for example, point to pages-long sentences in Infinite Jest (of course), and Rachel Cordasco reports a 12-pager in Telegraph Avenue. But these sentences, from Mantel and Tartt and Catton, are special, I think. They aren’t long for the sake of length, aren’t trophies hung on a wall, monuments to experimental verbosity. No. They’re small enough to hold in your mind, just barely, taut even as they expand, and wrought with a startling, physical grace. Like Catton’s does best of all, they build almost to the point of disintegration then pull back, slow down, and arrive at a moment of baleful beauty that keeps the whole thing from falling apart.

There’s a rhythm there—a concert of language and emotion, words and things. And it’s magnificent.


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