From the Archives: Splice Girl

Because the conventions for their use are so variable, commas can provide a quick sense of a writer’s personal style. Or a publication’s: As I wrote in April, part of The New Yorker‘s distinctive voice is the way, whenever standard punctuation rules allow for a comma or not, it always votes “yes.”

Things really get interesting when artful writers choose to flout those rules. Take the comma splice—the bane of composition teachers everywhere, especially now that however seems to have turned into a conjunction in sentences like, “The United States is a democracy, however voting rates are comparatively low.” But there are comma splices and there are comma splices. How would you mark this up if it appeared in your assignment inbox?

… it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Some of you will recognize that passage—which, before the dash, is all comma splice, all the time. If you don’t, here’s what precedes the ellipses: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, … ”

Dickens’s style was protean, unified only by its resourcefulness and verve. The writer who went all-in with the comma splice was Samuel Beckett. One of his most famous quotes is the multipage last sentence of The Unnameable, which concludes,  “I don’t know, I’ll never know, in the silence you don’t know, you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” A gentleman named Colin Greenlaw has actually taken the trouble to punctuate the sentence. Sadly, when you search on the Internet for the quote, it is often Greenlaw’s version, rather than Beckett’s, that pops up.

But you can find plenty of other audacious Beckett comma splices, as in the opening of a one-sentence piece called “fizzle 4“:

I gave up before birth, it is not possible otherwise, but birth there had to be, it was he, I was inside, that’s how I see it, it was he who wailed, he who saw the light, I didn’t wail, I didn’t see the light, it’s impossible I should have a voice, impossible I should have thoughts, and I speak and think, I do the impossible, it is not possible otherwise, …

As with all great stylists, for Beckett, style wasn’t mere ornamentation or variation. Rather, he spliced independent clauses with commas, rather than periods (or, God forbid, semicolons), because the resulting must-go-on-can’t-go-on quality reflected and artfully expressed his view of the world. In Michael Herr’s classic of reportage,Dispatches, commas splices evoke the desperation shared by almost everyone he met in Vietnam. In this and many other of Herr’s sentences, a period or semicolons would give a false sense of propriety and order: “All the grunts were whistling, and no two were whistling the same tune, it sounded like a locker room before a game that nobody wanted to play.”

The comma-splice-smitten writer I’ve most recently encountered is Kate Atkinson, whose Life After Life is my favorite novel over the last year. She’s not as showy as Dickens, Beckett, or even Herr, so it took me a while to realize what she was up to. But then I got locked into her style, which deftly tracks the thoughts of her characters—thoughts being notoriously not subject to punctuation. Even when they don’t contain commas splices, Atkinson’s long sentences have lots of commas; that  jibes with her sense of life as contingent and exploratory. In the early days of World War II, a woman who’s English-born, but living in Germany, decides to go to the British Embassy with her young daughter to try to get out: “They were German citizens but she would throw herself on the mercy of the embassy staff, surely they would be able to do something, she was still an Englishwoman after all.”

In Transatlantic, another good novel I read this year (though not as good as Life After Life), Colum McCann goes the opposite way, favoring the sentence fragment, as in this reflection by one of his characters:

What was a life anyway? An accumulation of small shelves of incident. Stacked at odd angles to each other. The long blades of an ice saw cutting sparks into a block of cold. Sharpening the blades, seating them, slotting them into handles. Leaning down to make the cut. A brief leap of ember in the air.

Good stuff, that, especially as we realize that McCann views the novel itself as just such a stacking of incident. But eventually it started to feel a bit much, especially when another character (in a first-person section of the novel) speaks exactly like the unseen narrator of the rest of it. She observes of her son at university, “He grew quieter as the days went on. Put his head in his maths books.”

This is the Hemingway fallacy (one of them, anyway). A strong style is great for fiction writers, but when all their characters talk that way, too, style has jumped the shark.

Read the original article at Lingua Franca