Slice and dice: a stylistic fad?

800px-Old_carving_knife_and_forksAn irritating feature of a few contemporary Australian novels is their fondness for repeatedly chopping up sentences into separate fragments. It’s as if the authors (or editors) think that readers generally have such a severe Attention Deficit Disorder that prose must be doled out in very small pieces.

A recent post of mine about books set in the World War 2 period gave one example. Although Steven Carroll’s A World of Other People is impressive in some respects, I remarked that “in paragraph after paragraph nearly all the sentences are so short that the result can look like a kind of stylistic stammer, awkward and unproductive, yet with a portentous air.” I quoted a passage to illustrate this.

Since then I’ve read Mark Henshaw’s The Snow Kimono, in which many pages are full of staccato phrases. Here’s a random sample – the opening paragraphs of one chapter:

In those four months: the village census complete. The families’ names on each house. In white paint. The number of occupants. Here, what’s this? Your identity papers. Keep them on you. Then the random late-night checks. Come with me. No, not you – you. Take the youngest son. Next day, show the father what’s in the lattice-covered ditch. Trussed, bent over. Returned to him the following evening. The curfew unbreakable. The cost too great. A sheep. Two. From someone else. It helped them think.

The schoolhouse built. Attendance compulsory. Ages six to twelve. Including girls. The notices distributed. For each class, a morning roll. No exemptions Every school day. Otherwise they risked a soldier’s heavy rap. A lesser fine. But still too much Where’s Fatima? She’s sick. Let me see.

And so. It goes. On… Presumably the aim is to create suspense, but the continual slicing and dicing can seem gratuitous and tedious.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with an occasional use of stand-alone short phrases when they plainly serve a narrative or descriptive function and are handled with restraint. Stephen Daisley’s Coming Rain interrupts or curtails the ordinary structure of sentences from time to time  in order to convey hesitant movement within a tense build-up towards action – as on the first page of the novel, where a dingo is stalking a mob of roos:

The last of the day’s sun and the first of the four moons rising above the bloodwoods. The grey kangaroo, upwind of her, grazing quietly across a long, flat valley fringed with desert oak. They were deliberate, selecting and nibbling the beardy grasses. Their slow, graceful feeding in the twilight. They moved through saltbush and into a grove of long-leaf paperbarks.

That kind of writing may sometimes risk seeming mannered, but in the quoted paragraph it has an imagistic quality, purposeful and skilful.

Similarly Rohan Wilson’s writing in To Name Those Lost, a story of 19th-century rural Tasmania, makes selective use of abrupt impressionistic phrasing to vary the rhythms of his prose. For instance, this is Thomas Toosey, tied up in a barn during the night, watching for the first light of dawn and trying to devise some way of escaping:

In the quiet the cows called and Toosey waited to where the light shot through the wall like sheets of silk, to where he could see by it. Bailed hay mouldering in the stall. Articles strung on nails. Piled by the wall were tools for working the soil and tools for working wood. He stood awkwardly by snaking up the post and shuffling his feet closer. Once he was upright he could circle around the post in his tethers. His eyes jumped about for something of use. He would not be kept here. His boy needed him.

And again in the midst of the following passage from Wilson’s novel there’s a simple truncated phrase, which is all the more striking because it stands on its own in contrast to the longer descriptive sentences that precede and follow it:

They descended out of gum forest, Flynn and his daughter, and followed the rails across the flatlands west of Longford. In the late dark the stars hung like points of ice, looking singularly cold and distant. The whole moon steam-white. They walked and Fitheal Flynn sang along a few bars of a taverner’s ballad he knew from the old country, tapping his stick to keep time.

If, as in these examples from Wilson’s and Daisley’s novels, the departure from standard syntax occurs within a context of stylistic variation, the effect can be powerful. If it’s unduly obtrusive and repetitive, as in parts of Henshaw’s and Carroll’s novels, I find it tiresome.

Are only male writers drawn to this practice? And is it just a recent thing in Australian prose, or does it stem from the experimental style of Patrick White? He used disruptive syntax in a judicious way, I think, and can hardly be held responsible for any excesses of latter-day practitioners.

2 thoughts on “Slice and dice: a stylistic fad?

  1. I agree that Patrick White did it well, but did not overdo how often he used truncated sentences. “To say.” This sentence sticks in my mind as a very effective piece of communication that made a big impression on me more than 35 years ago.

  2. Hi Paula – Good to hear from you, and I’m glad you agree about White’s judicious use of this technique. Like you, I remember the impact of his prose on me when I first encountered it.

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