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by Brian Dillon

Pub Date: Sept. 22nd, 2020
ISBN: 978-1-68137-524-3
Publisher: New York Review Books

Dillon follows up on his last book about essays with one on the briefer, “slippery sentence.”

These chronologically arranged picks from the 17th century to today are the “few that shine more brightly and for the moment compose a pattern.” The author plumbs biography, autobiography, and history to add context and background, with particular attention to each author’s literary style. Dillon follows a road taken earlier by the French critic Roland Barthes, the “patron saint of my sentences,” explicating the pleasure of writing about writing and close reading, puzzling over the “Two colons, two sets of parentheses?” in Barthes’ sentence. The title of the book is inspired by a sentence in Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons that uses the word “suppose” nine times. Dillon’s intriguing inquiry begins with the briefest of sentences, from Hamlet, as the prince dies: “O, o, o, o.”—“nothing more or less than the vocal expression, precisely, of silence.” Most of them are much longer. Dillon also includes Charlotte Brontë’s “The drug wrought,” from Villette. Taken from a sermon shortly before his death, John Donne’s sentence is a “paratactic heap of language” while Thomas de Quincey’s “demands patience; it is like waiting for a photograph to develop.” Elizabeth Bowen’s employs a “style by turns exact, easeful and bristling.” James Baldwin’s sentence, by way of Norman Mailer, has Dillon pondering over Baldwin’s use of “ofay.” Annie Dillard’s sentence about an eclipse, “with its central colon, feels balanced but loose, centrifugal and strange.” In Korean American artist and writer Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s sentence, Dillon hears echoes of Samuel Beckett, and an imperfect translation of Swiss author Fleur Jaeggy’s sentence gives Dillon fits. Near the end, Dillon writes about how he tried to take notes on Anne Carson’s sentence but only came up with an “ambiguous doodle.”

A learned, spirited foray into what makes a sentence tick.