For a few hours, I fidgeted a bit, uncomfortably bookless but unwilling to replace Dickens with anything else in my imagination. Then I remembered Tom Rayfiel's new novel, In Pinelight, which arrived in last week's mail. Tom and I have met maybe twice, but we have been sporadic epistolary acquaintances for several years. I think our reading patterns are an interesting intersection. He reads poetry but doesn't write it. I read novels but don't write them. We overlap in our predilection for writing unfashionable personal essays about unfashionable literary figures.
I already knew that Tom is a masterful manager of the sentence. But having been so accustomed to the elegant syntax of, say, his essay on Ivy Compton-Burnett, I was completely unprepared for the way in which this novel reconfigures the idea of a sentence. The entire book is narrated through the voice of an elderly man responding to questions that the reader never hears. Here's how it opens:
Mean as ever that's what he used to say about her but who are you? You say I know you well I know a lot of people or did. They're all gone now most of them. You must have been a kid when I saw you last I guess you're all grown up now but grown up from what from who I mean? Where's Rebecca? Rebecca my? No she's not here she left years ago how do you know about? Yes when Mother died he expected her Father he expected Rebecca to take her place to run the household. Five years older than me but Mother dying made her practically a grown-up in his eyes. That's what she objected to all the drudgery. Of course at the time I didn't realize anything no not consciously. I just remember the fights. Once she even threw a plate. He hit her I remember that it stops the conversation that sound. There's this rise of voices back and forth faster and faster you try turning away from it under the covers that's where I was under the covers we shared a bed he and I after Mother died I was too old to be in the same room with Rebecca anymore they go back and forth the voices when it's a fight it's like they intertwine finish each other's sentence but not the way the other one wants the sentence finished. Then there was this meaty sound and. I pretended to be asleep.When I first read this passage, I was overwhelmed by the power of the punctuation. Look at that sentence "There was this meaty sound and." The period is like a kick in the gut. But now that I've copied out these sentences, I'm equally overwhelmed by the plot control. Time, for instance--follow the time leaps in this passage. I'm switched back and forth, back and forth, trapped like a rattling pebble inside a man's selective memories. Moreover, I already suspect he's not only doddery but purposefully unreliable. Something significant is going on, something dramatic, something hidden but relished, something terrible. And Tom makes all of this happen on page 1, simply by carefully managing sentence style and syntax. Simply, I say. What I really mean is that there's nothing simple about it.
As I said, I'm not very far into the book yet, only up to page 16, but I can tell you that the suspense just gets more intense. It's a melodrama, I think, manipulated entirely within this single speaker's voice. Maybe I'll turn out to be wrong about the melodrama part. Maybe my recent session with Dickens has made everything seem big and arm-waving. I hope not, though, because I'd love to find out that a contemporary writer can reinvent that glorious, rouged, boot-stomping stage presence without resorting to hack romance or simple-minded spy thriller. This book reminds me, in a way, of Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier, another disguised melodrama. I'm very excited to be reading it.
P.S. Frost Place teachers: Wouldn't it be fun to use this passage in a dictation exercise? Your students would be beside themselves.