Creaky Little Hinge

Brian Dillon, Suppose a Sentence

Fitzcarraldo Editions, 200pp, £10.99, ISBN 9781913097011

reviewed by Rod Moody-Corbett

‘Now feebly commence a sentence,’ with a lark or a plunge, with a little doff of the syntactical hat to Donald Barthelme, whose single-sentence seven-page story ‘Sentence’ begins ‘Or a long sentence moving at a certain pace down the page aiming for the bottom — if not the bottom of this page then of some other page — where it can rest, or stop for a moment to think about the questions raised by its own (temporary) existence,’ the opening sentence of Brian Dillon’s Suppose a Sentence, ‘Or maybe a short sentence after all, a fragment in fact, a simple cry,’ following on Essayism’s delighted second sentence (we open on Woolf and come tumbling to a halt, ‘somewhere on the road between Manchester and Glasgow,’ by way of De Quincey ‘in the second or [got to love that or] third summer after Waterloo’), proceeds not at all feebly, the parcelled clauses and commas and wrested dashes gathering and bunching like Saturnian rings (‘It is one of the things I admire in [Claire-Louise] Bennett, her ability to forgo commas when it suits her, and this in a prose that is generally so comma-ridden, built out of clauses, many of them very small, both hierarchical and – what is the word – not serial but somehow seasonal’), and this perhaps is as it should be, ‘a mysterious paratactic excursion’ or else an untidy (or all too tidy) uncoiling of forms, ‘analytic but entranced,’ a sentence whose meditation prefigures its shape (unless I’ve got that backwards, and — per Didion: ‘The picture dictates the arrangement’ — it’s the shape that announces, curling or balked, lending the sentence its ‘faceted, crystalline quality it will always ever after possess, whether it wants to talk about sickness and health, about the sunlight outside Rome, a New York afternoon, a white boy who wants to be black’); so, a speaking in sentences of sentences (‘Repetition. But also. Interruption’) of 27 sentences, whose variety, verbless or verbed (‘The drug wrought’; ‘Paper storage, fragments of delirium eaten away by dust’), swollen or brusque, internal oddities (‘Other elements that appeal: the twinned comma-dashes where now we would use plain dashes’; ‘Never mind the comma instead of a colon. Though I have always liked the habit — now mostly American — of a capital letter after a colon, as if a whole new sentence were starting up, and I would quite like to linger on what it does and what it means’; ‘But wait, it’s all much more complicated. Because even before we get to the semicolon — more on that creaky little hinge in a while’), and assembly (chronological: Bard through Boyer) prosecutes no broader armature – ‘my book is not a how to. Still less a how not to’ — save that, okay, ‘a remarkable number [of sentences] seem to be about death and disappearance,’ which thematic wickerwork pervades — no, not pervades (‘"Pervades" is an awful word: something of Beckett’s pomposity is catching.’) — but recurs (uglier still) throughout Suppose a Sentence (and in much else of Dillon’s besides, thinking of Essayism, Ruins, In the Dark Room, and Hypochondriacs: Nine Tormented Lives), an intimate, almost stubborn intensification of inquiry and interest (‘We commit a cruelty against existence if we do not interpret it to death,’ writes Wayne Koestenbaum, in a sentence which might serve as a third epigraph), which recalls the Roland Barthes (‘patron saint of my sentences, the writer whose habits while inside the sentence, as well as ideas about the sentence, are always on my mind’) of Camera Lucida, who, speaking of pictures, defines a photograph’s punctum as ‘that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me)’ and whose inscribed thinking (‘So, not a treasury, then — something closer, I hope, to a kind of commonplace book, product of haphazard notation, ad hoc noticing’) Dillon — ‘I was attracted to [Barthes’s] image of reading as cutting, as if the critic’s eye were akin to the collagist’s scalpel. I began to think of this book as having something in common with photomontage, an art of excision and juxtaposition’ — echoes and enhances, in sentences of sentences, beating (his words) the bounds of their invisible domains.

Rod Moody-Corbett ’s work has appeared in Canadian Notes and Queries and on the Paris Review Daily. He teaches at the University of Calgary.