Veronica by Mary Gaitskill c. 2005 (227 pages—Random House, 2005)

Allison, the narrator, a former model who is now dying of Hepatitis C recalls her friendship with Veronica, a women who died of AIDS many years earlier. Beauty, wealth, identity, mortality and the decentered or postmodern perception of reality seem to be salient themes in the novel.

Sentences Worth Studying

  • “This happens sometimes when I walk along here; my focus slips and goes funny. I think it’s something to do with walking at a slow pace against the speeding traffic, and today the rain blurs everything even more. It’s like I get sucked out of normal life into a place where the order of things is changed: it’s still my life and I recognize it, but the people and places in it are sliding around indiscriminately” (9).
  • “But eventually those feelings got attached to other songs, and those singers didn’t work as signals anymore . . . He didn’t realize that his signals could not be heard, that the men were looking at him strangely. Or maybe he did realize but didn’t know what else to do but keep signaling. Eventually, he gave up, and there were few visitors. He was just by himself, trying to keep his secret and tender feelings alive through these same old songs” (16).
  • “The months in San Francisco were folded up into a bright, tiny box and put down somewhere amid the notices and piles of coupons. I was blended into the electrical comfort of home, where our emotions ran together and were carried by music and TV images” (49).
  • “I used to watch these shows with my family. The black-and-white people were so full of memory and feeling that there were like pieces of ourselves, stopped in a moment and repeating it again and again, until it became an electronic shadow of a fleshy place” (52).
  • “Riding still, out of the roaring night into a pallid day of sidewalks and beggars with the past rinsing through their eyes. Shadows of night sound solemnly glimmer in rain puddles; inverted worlds of rippling silver glide past with lumps of mud and green weeds poking through. The past coming through the present; it happens” (63).
  • “The more withered the reality, the more gigantic and tyrannical the dream” (71).
  • “I bend and kiss her forehead. Ten years from now, I will be a kiss in a great field of faceless kisses, a sweet patch of forgotten territory in her inner country . . . Nice to think that in her dreams Trisha might run through that field and love it without knowing why” (86).
  • “I think of an interview I heard with a religious person who had two kinds of cancer. The radio host asked her if she’d prayed for God to heal her. She said that she had and that it hadn’t worked. When she realized that she was going to die, she asked God why He hadn’t healed her, and He answered. She actually heard His voice. He said, “But I am.” / I am not religious, but when I heard that I said yes inside. I say it now. I don’t know why. There’s a reason, but it’s outside my vision” (108).
  • “His opinions were frivolous, fierce, and exact” (127).
  • “We are a tangle of roots, a young branch, a flower, a moldy spore. You want to say, This is me; this is who I am. But you don’t even know what it is, or what it’s for. Time parts its shabby curtain: There is my father, listening to his music hard enough to break his own heart. Trying to borrow shapes for his emotions so that he may hold them out to the world and the world might say, Yes, we see. We feel. We understand” (128).
  • “When we got back, the house was warm and dark except for the Christmas tree, its burning light making glowing caves in its branches, jeweled with soft colors and the lit intensity of tiny needles” (140).
  • “She talked in and out of the movie, as if its enlarged characters were fragments escaped from her head and willfully acting out on their own, assuming the perfect narrative forms they were denied in life. It was like somebody in church repeating and affirming the minister’s sermon . . .” (146).
  • “The following months were an oscillating loop of dreams—brilliant and blurred, like a carnival ride at night, lighting up and going dark as its cars toss and churn. From a distance, it is beautiful, even peaceful. From inside, it rattles and roars and roughly yanks you by the neck” (153).
  • “I went back to New York just before Christmas. This piss-elegant city wore salt-stained winter clothes and soiled jewels, its colors stunned and mute in the cold” (198).
  • “I drank and bit the rim of my plastic cup and lost myself in the music on the sound system. I had succeeded. I had become like this music. My face had been a note in a piece of continuous music that rolled over people while they talked and drank and married and made babies. No one remembers a particular note. No one remembers a piece of grass. But it does its part. I had done my part” (209).
  • “I imagine Veronica drawing away from everything she had become on earth, withdrawing the spirit blood from what had been her self, allowing its limbs to blacken and fall off. I imagine Veronica’s spirit stripped to its skeleton, then stripped of all but its shocked, staring eyes, yet clinging to life in a fierce, contracted posture that came from intense, habitual pain. I imagine the desiccated spirit as a tiny ash in enormous darkness. I imagine the dark penetrated by something Veronica at first could not see but could sense, something substantive and complete beyond any human definition of those words. In my mind’s eye, it unfurled itself before Veronica. Without words it said, I am Love” (217).
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*blog posts: a quick explanation*

As a reader and writer of literary fiction, I find it worthwhile to study sentences. I love the layers and textures present in carefully crafted syntax, the way a single sentence can tilt the axis of the Earth and light the world anew. This blog contains some sentences that have—in structure and content—struck me. Please scroll down for the complete collection of posts.

Note: This blog is protected by “Fair Use” copyright laws. The purpose is educational, and the posts include quotations from a very small portion of the larger artistic work. All quotations are clearly attributed. 

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The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel c. 2016 (332 pages—Spiegel & Grau)

A novel composed of three distinctive stories, all of which come together in the end. In the first part, Tomas the narrator—after losing his son, wife, and father—sets out on quest to find a religious statue referred to in a journal. Eusebio the protagonist in the second part is a pathologist that mourns the death of his wife. Peter, also mourning the loss of his wife, is a retired politician and the narrator of the third part. Grief and loss are explored, while androcentrism is questioned in this work of magical realism.

Sentences Worth Studying

  • “What his uncle does not understand is that in walking backwards, his back to the world, his back to God, he is not grieving. He is objecting. Because when everything cherished by you in life has been taken away, what else is there to do but object?” (12).
  • “When the final moment came, signaled to him by the dramatic stoppage of her loud, rasping breath (whereas their son had departed so quietly, like the petals of flowers falling off), he felt like a sheet of ice being rushed along a river” (18).
  • “Love is a house with many rooms, this room to feed the love, this one to entertain it, this one to clean it, this one to dress it, this one to allow it to rest, and each of these rooms can also just as well be the room for laughing or the room for listening or the room for sulking or the room for apologizing or the room for intimate togetherness, and, of course, there are the rooms for the new members of the household. Love is a house in which plumbing brings bubbly new emotions every morning, and sewers flush out disputes, and bright windows open up to admit the fresh air of renewed goodwill. Love is a house with an unshakable foundation and an indestructible roof. He had a house like that once, until it was demolished” (24).
  • “What are we without the ones we love? Would he ever get over the loss? When he looks in his eyes in the mirror when he shaves, he sees empty rooms. And when he goes about his days, he is a ghost who haunts his own life” (48).
  • “I said not a word. My tongue was stilled of any priestly cant. I am transformed. I saw. I have seen. I see. That short gaze made me see a wretchedness that until then had never echoed in my heart. I entered that cell thinking I was a Christian man. I walked out knowing I was a Roman soldier. We are no better than animals” (109).
  • “Every man and woman he encounters—he doesn’t see any children—smells of time and radiates solitude” (118).
  • “He churns with horror. Then a hand seizes that horror and stuffs it in a box and closes the lid. If he leaves quickly enough, it will not have happened. For a moment this accident is in himself only, a private mark, a notch carved nowhere but upon his sensibility. Outside him, nothing cares. Look for yourself: The wind blows, time flows” (122).
  • “‘We loved our son like the sea loves an island, always surrounding him with our arms, always touching him and crashing upon his shore with our care and concern” (200).
  • “And then he has nothing to do. After three weeks—or is it lifetime?—of ceaseless activity, he has nothing to do. A very long sentence, anchored in solid nouns, with countless subordinate clauses, scores of adjectives and adverbs, and bold conjunctions that launched the sentence in a new direction—besides unexpected interludes—has finally, with a surprisingly quiet full stop, come to an end. For an hour or so, sitting outside on the landing atop the stairs, nursing a coffee, tired, a little relieved, a little worried, he contemplates that full stop. What will the next sentence bring?” (273).
  • “That Odo learned to make porridge, that he enjoys going through a magazine, that he responds appropriately to something that Peter says only confirms a well-known trope of the entertainment industry, that apes can ape—to our superficial amusement. No, what’s come as a surprise is his movement down to Odo’s so-called lower status. Because that’s what has happened. While Odo has mastered the simple human trick of making porridge, Peter has learned the difficult animal skill of doing nothing” (300).
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The Vegetarian by Han Kang c. 2007 (trans. Deborah Smith 2015) (188 pages—Hogarth)

A haunting story of passion, abuse, and illness set in South Korea and told in three parts, from the perspectives of three people, all of whom have strong reactions to Yeong-hye, “the vegetarian.” The first part is told from the perspective of the vegetarian’s soon-to-be ex-husband; the second part from the perspective Yeong-hye sister’s husband, and the final part is from Yeong-hey’s sister (In-hye).

Sentences Worth Studying

  • [NOTE: italics in original to mark Yeong-hye’s dream] “But the fear. My clothes still wet with blood. Hide, hide behind the trees. Crouch down, don’t let anybody see. My bloody hands. My bloody mouth. In that barn, what had I done? Pushed that red raw mass into my mouth, felt it squish against my gums, the roof of my mouth, slick with crimson blood” (20).
  • “Blood ribboned out of her wrist. The shock of red splashed over white china. As her knees buckled and she crumpled to the floor, the knife was wrested from her by In-hye’s husband, who until then had sat through the whole thing as an idle spectator” (48).
  • “After a while, the train went past the apartment complex where he lived. He’d never had any intention of getting off there. He stuffed the program into his backpack, rammed both fists into the pockets of his sweater, and studied the interior of the carriage as it was reflected in the window. He had to force himself to accept that the middle-aged man, who had a baseball cap concealing his receding hairline and a baggy sweater at least attempting to do the same for his paunch, was himself” (65).
  • “But how could he have known this energy would coalesce into such a preposterous image? For one thing, up until then his work had always tended toward realism. And so, for someone who had previously worked on 3D graphics of people worn down by the vicissitudes of the late capitalist society, to be screened as factual documentaries, the carnality, the pure sensuality of this image, was nothing short of monstrous” (67).
  • “Only then did he realize what it was that had shocked him when he’d first seen her lying prone on the sheet. This was the body of a beautiful young woman, conventionally an object of desire, and yet it was a body from which all desire had been eliminated. But this was nothing so crass as carnal desire, not for her—rather, or so it seemed, what she had renounced was the very life that her body represented. The sunlight that came splintering through the wide window, dissolving into grains of sand, and the beauty of that body that, though this was not visible to the eye, was also ceaselessly splintering . . . the overwhelming inexpressibility of the scene beat against him like a wave breaking on the rocks, alleviating those terrifyingly unknowable compulsions that had caused him such pain over the past year” (92-93).
  • “She thrust her glittering golden breasts over the veranda railing. Her legs were covered with scattered orange petals, and she spread them wide as though she wanted to make love to the sunlight, to the wind. He heard the sounds of the approaching ambulance siren, of screams, sighs, the yells of children, all the commotion of the alleyway down below. The sound of feet hurrying up the stairs, coming closer” (125).
  • “There was no way for her to judge the accuracy of the scene she saw then in her mind’s eye but had never seen in reality. She’d held a wet flannel to her snuffling son’s forehead all night, slipping occasionally into a sleep that was more like a fainting, and saw a tree flickering in the rain like the spirit of some dead person. Black rain, black woods, the pale patient’s uniform soaked through. Wet hair. Black mountain slope. Yeong-hye, an inchoate mass formed of darkness and water, standing tall like a ghost. Eventually the day dawned, and when she placed the palm of her hand on her son’s forehead she was relieved by the coolness she felt there. She got up, went out of the bedroom and stared blankly at the bluish half-light leaching in from the living room veranda” (133).
  • “His silence had the heavy mass of rock and the tenacious resistance of rubber, particularly when his art wasn’t going well” (137).
  • “Time was a wave, almost cruel in its relentlessness as it whisked her life downstream, a life she had to constantly strain to keep from breaking apart” (145).
  • “Her life was no more than a ghostly pageant of exhausted endurance, no more real than a television drama. Death who now stood by her side, was as familiar to her as a family member, missing for a long time but now returned” (170).
  • “What other dimension might Yeong-hye’s soul have passed into, having shrugged off flesh like a snake shedding its skin? In-hye recalled how Yeong-hye had looked when she’d been standing on her hands. Had Yeong-hye mistaken the hospital’s concrete floor for the soft earth of the woods? Had her body metamorphosed into a sturdy trunk, with white roots sprouting from her hands and clutching the black soil? Had her legs stretched high up into the air while her arms extended all the way down to the earth’s very core, her back stretched taut to support this two-pronged spurt of growth? As the sun’s rays soaked down through Yeong-hye’s body, had the water that was saturating the soil been drawn up through her cells, eventually to bloom from her crotch as flowers? When Yeong-hye had balanced upside down and stretched out every fiber in her body, had these things been awakened in her soul?” (175).
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The Last Days of California by Mary Miller c. 2014 (233 pages—Liveright Publishing)

A first-person story (from the perspective of Jessica, the youngest daughter) about a family’s road trip from Alabama to California. Jess’s father, an unemployed conservative who parrots many irrational viewpoints, hopes his family will arrive in California in time for the Rapture. During this trip, Jess’s older sister, Elise, conceals a pregnancy from her parents, while Jess wrestles with her own sexuality and faith.

Sentences Worth Studying

  • “We had just seen a man die. A man who had been alive only moments before, thinking about nothing or nearly nothing—wondering whether it was too early to have a drink, or if he might go for a swim this evening—things that were so inconsequential they were an insult to life. He hadn’t had a moment to prepare, would take all of his secrets with him” (29).
  • “‘I hate traveling,’ [Elise] said. ‘People think it’s so fun to be uncomfortable but it’s not fun. I’m not feeling challenged. I’m not learning’ / ‘Who thinks it’s fun to be uncomfortable?’ / ‘Oh you know, traveler types.’” (97).
  • “As the trip had been over a month away, I agreed easily. It was easy to agree to things when nothing was required of me at the moment, or in the very near future. I regretted it later, of course, when getting out of the thing I had agreed to was much more difficult than not having agreed to it in the first place . . .” (107).
  • “They [Elise and her boyfriend] spent the next half-hour texting. I wanted to text someone but no one was expecting to hear from me. I had friends, but they were mostly school or church friends. We didn’t play with each other’s hair or tell each other our deepest secrets. It wasn’t at all what I’d thought junior high friends would be like—I thought we’d be sleeping in the same bed, shopping for clothes. I thought we’d tell each other everything. I knew it was my own fault. When someone lightly touched my arm or my leg while we were talking, I flinched. I didn’t know how I could want things so badly while making it impossible to ever get them” (109).
  • “I picked up an empty popcorn bag and stuffed candy and gum wrappers into it, passed it up. My mother took it and held it. It would be no fun being a mother, everybody handing you their garbage and wanting things all the time, nobody to tell your problems to. She could never say anything bad about our family. She could only talk about people’s problems as a way of talking about her own” (162).
  • Jess to her sister: “‘How do you know everything?’ / ‘I make stuff up a lot,’ she said. ‘People don’t question it if you act like you know what you’re talking about.’” (207).
  • “Observing peoples’ weaknesses and flaws—their big thighs and crooked teeth and acne, their lack of confidence, their fear. I would always think the worst about people and it would keep me from them because I couldn’t accept myself” (213).
  • Jess after losing her virginity: “She [Elise] didn’t say anything. I sat there for a moment, looking at her, and then took off my clothes and got in, waited for the water to fill up around me. I ducked my head under and held my breath, my ring scraping the porcelain—God was supposed to be my husband. I was supposed to be married to God. I imagined slicing my wrists open, red against white. It would be so bright, so beautiful. I could hear my heartbeat and remembered that it only had so many. It seemed cruel, putting a little bomb inside us like this, something that we had to always find new ways to ignore” (215).
  • “I looked at my mother, smiling at her phone. I wanted to go to her, curl up in her arms. I missed her and wanted to tell her I missed her. At home, we shared bowls of popcorn, sat close to each other on the couch to watch movies. When we finished eating, we’d scratch each other’s backs. I want to put you in my pocket, she’d say, so I can pull you out whenever I want. I would imagine myself small, pocket-sized, nestled against the warmth of her leg. I was afraid she would die without knowing how much I loved her, and it made me want to tell her things, let her get to know me, but I didn’t think she’d be able to love me if she knew me” (225).
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Blackass by A. Ignori Barrett c. 2015 (262 pages–Graywolf Press)

The main character, Furo, a black man, wakes up to discover he’s white. The story, set in Lagos (Nigeria), is a relevant reimagining of Kafka’s Metamorphosis that resonates with modern readers.

Sentences Worth Studying

  • “Furo Wariboko awoke this morning to find that dreams can lose their way and turn up on the wrong side of sleep. He was lying nude in bed, and when he raised his head a fraction he could see his alabaster belly, and his pale legs beyond, covered with fuzz that glinted bronze in the cold daylight pouring in through the open window” (3).
  • “I greeted her in Kalabari before offering to buy her ice cream. Calculation always trumps sincerity on social media” (89-90).
  • “No one asks to be born, to be black or white or any colour in between, and yet the identity a person is born into becomes the hardest to explain to the world. Furo’s dilemma was this: he was born black, and had lived in that skin for thirty-odd years, only to be born again on Monday morning as white, and while he was still toddling the curves of his new existence, he realised he had been mistaken in assuming his new identity had overthrown the old” (111).
  • “The conversation among the ladies turned to past boyfriends. In the zeal to one-up each other, their affected accents skidded and crashed, and from this wreck of grammar the mangled sense was rescued by a reversion to pidgin — the shortest distance between two thoughts. The straight-talking bluntness of the vernacular caused their mingled voices to beat the air like wings of released doves” (138).
  • “He had forgotten. His mother was dead, his father had abandoned him, and his sister was someone he had never met. He lived with a woman who fed and fucked him. He was white” (142).
  • “White skin, green eyes, red hair — black ass. Mere descriptions for what people saw, what others saw in him, and not who he was. He had to find out who he was” (156).
  • “Frank felt right—easy to pronounce, easy to remember, and the same first letter as Furo. Good rule to apply to Wariboko. He needed a surname that would keep his initials” (158).
  • “I was whoever I wanted me to be” (166).
  • “He was tempted to dip into all these messages addressed to someone he no longer was, but he realised the cruel folly of that action, as already he could feel his resolve crumbling under the weight of the subject line of his mother’s email, sent on 22 June, which read: ‘MY SON WHERE ARE YOU???’ Furo’s struggle with himself was rife with sighs, and in the end, by the simple trick of averting his eyes from the screaming caps, the hook-like question marks, the words fatted on desperation, he succeeded in withstanding the Pandora pull of his mailbox” (182).
  • “For a man accustomed to getting his way, a woman’s refusal is a flapping flag on the ramparts of a besieged fortress” (250).
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