The Formalist Fiction Writer

Trauma and the Achronological Novel, Part Five

This is my fifth and last post on Trauma and the Achronlogical Novel.

To sum up, I’ve looked at three novels that have a trauma at the center: Beloved, The God of Small Things, and The Yellow Birds.

All of them have similarities in the way the stories are told. They are told in fragments, narrative passages of relatively short length, and the fragments are not presented chronologically. Rather, they skip around, from past to present to future, so that readers often know more about the outcome of events than the characters in scene.

I argued that the achronological presentation has real advantages. Among other things, it allows for dramatic irony. The soldiers training to go to Iraq, for instance, are ignorant that one of them will die, whereas readers know that their actions take place under a sign of doom. Thus, readers understand that the promise that one soldier makes to the mother of another soldier that he’ll bring her son home safely is fated to be broken.

I also argued that, for a trauma to be “novel-worthy,” it is best if the trauma somehow brings into play larger social and historical issues. In Beloved, the trauma stems from America’s history of chattel slavery; in The God of Small Things, the trauma stems both from India’s history as a British colony and from India’s caste system; in The Yellow Birds, the trauma stems from America’s invasion of Iraq.

My last point was that, despite the fragmentary and achronological presentation of events, a comprehensible plot will eventually emerge. In the end, when readers have completed the book, a cause and effect chain will be understood. In Beloved, for instance, readers will understand how Schoolteacher’s arrival caused the horror of slavery to become more manifest, which then caused Sethe and the others to try to escape, which then caused Schoolteacher to follow with slave catchers, which then caused Sethe to kill her child rather than see it returned to slavery.

E. M. Forster, in Aspects of the Novel, talks about the readers at the end of a book being like spectators sitting on top of a tall hill. Finally, they can look back at all that went before, and it will make sense. Forster uses a phrase I’d like to emphasize – if the plot is a fine one, he says, the result will be “not of clues or chains, but of something aesthetically compact, something which might have been shown by the novelist straight away, only if he had shown it straight away it would never have become so beautiful.”

“Aesthetically compact”… that’s what I want to emphasize. So a novel of fragments, told out of time, becomes at the end aesthetically compact, a whole, a luminous work of art.

And yet… as I said earlier, echoing both Freud and Carruth, the reason a traumatic event is traumatic is that it cannot be contained in a normal, sense-making story. The trauma resists comprehension. That’s what defines it as a trauma. It is unfinished, and so it continues to intrude in the present life of those who experienced it. The traumatic event cannot be comprehended, but it also cannot be forgotten.

So these writers, wisely, do not allow the conventions of narrative closure to be more powerful than their stories. The novels end, cause and effect chains are evident, an aesthetic whole is created, but they don’t really put the trauma to rest. Recall the end of Beloved, especially. The community has come to the house of Sethe, and in an act that might almost seem akin to exorcism, drives out the resurrected ghost of the murdered child.

But although the ghost is gone, and although they all forget Beloved, Morrison writes that skirts occasionally rustle when they wake, and that sometimes knuckles brush across a sleeping cheek, and that other times photographs shift “and something more familiar than the dear face itself moves there.”

The ending makes it clear that the trauma persists within the community, despite the will to forget. Morrison’s beautifully ambiguous phrase makes this clear: “It was not a story to pass on.” Nobody wants to pass on the story – in other words nobody should remember it. Or else, nobody should take a pass on this story – in other words, nobody should avoid hearing this story and knowing what had taken place.

A novel centered around a traumatic event lends itself very well to a fragmentary, achronological narrative rendering. The jumps back and forth in time recall the way a traumatic event is unfinished and intrudes in present life. And if the novel’s ending makes what went before it make sense, then the plot is, in Forster’s words, a fine one. Yet there may be something that yet escapes the sense-making function of plot, and it may be just that something that makes a novel like Beloved both strange and great.

Trauma and the Achronological Novel, Part Four

The King died, and then the Queen died because of grief.

Most will recognize this as a quote from E. M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, in which he is distinguishing between story and plot. In plot, he claims, the emphasis falls on a chain of cause and effect.

Some would want to refine and extend his point, and claim that plot also requires action with intention and desire, and that only actions undertaken with intention and desire can give rise to consequences that are substantial enough to create a plot. However, let’s leave things simple for this post, and discuss his notion in relation to the kinds of novels I’ve been discussing: Novels that are fragmentary in construction, that do not depict scenes in chronological order, and that have a trauma at their center. Specifically, I’ve been discussing The God of Small Things, Beloved, and The Yellow Birds.

Despite their construction, a cause and effect chain, and hence a comprehensible plot, is evident in each of these novels. It’s true that the plot is not discernible until the novel is read through to the end. It’s also true that, in the experience of reading each book, a reader will read scenes out of order, and hence not immediately understand the cause of each of the events. Yet at the end, in each novel, the cause and effect chain clacks into place. And I believe that novels with a trauma at the center are especially suited to this kind of achronological, fragmentary aesthetic. It’s almost as though the trauma, like a dark center of gravity, keeps the fragments from flying off into incomprehensibility and organizes them into a narrative.

Let me illustrate this with one of the books, The God of Small Things.

GodofsmallthingsArundhati Roy actually invokes the difficulty of stating “when it all began,” and she says that the only real place that the story all began would be where the Love Laws were first laid down which state who could rightly love whom – obviously, a time lost in the distant past. So I will take a page from her book and say, with her, that in a practical world, you have to start somewhere.

The opening situation is this: Chacko is the eldest son of a well-to-do upper caste Indian family, and he is running the family business. Chacko had studied at Oxford University and had, while in England, married Margaret, an English woman, and had a child with her. She then divorced him and married an Englishman. After his return to India, he has always had a longing for his former wife and the child he barely knew.

Ammu is Chacko’s sister. She married as she was supposed to, but her husband was an alcoholic and didn’t care for her. She had twins, Estha and Rahel, but she ends up divorcing her husband after he tries to prostitute her to his boss. She returns home, living with Chacko and her mother, Mammachi, but because of her gender she has no legal standing, no right to any of the family fortune. She is in her early thirties, but she feels that society is telling her that her life is over with.

A third major character, Velutha, is an Untouchable. He is something of a mechanical genius, and is useful at the family business, but his skill takes him a bit beyond his social role.

That is the situation at the beginning of the novel, set but unstable. The incident that sets off the chain of cause and effect is the untimely death of Margaret’s husband, which causes her to decide to come to India with her daughter, Sophie Mol, and see Chacko.

While in the capital to pick up Sophie Mol and Margaret, Estha, one of the twins, is sexually abused by a seller of drinks at a movie house. This causes Estha to want to be able to escape in case his abuser comes seeking him out. He finds a boat and sets up a refuge at an abandoned house across the river from the family compound.

The presence of Sophie Mol and Margaret causes Ammu to reflect on her own life. Sophie Mol, especially, is fawned over and made much of, and Ammu feels that in contrast, her future has been totally foreclosed. The dissatisfaction makes her reckless, and when she sees Velutha at this time, she sees him as a potential lover. The two come to understand each other’s desires, and they begin a passionate affair in the same abandoned house where Estha has set up a refuge.

Velutha’s father, Vellay Paapen, is also an Untouchable, but he is dedicated to the old ways of doing things. When he sees his son crossing the river to be with Ammu, who is upper caste, he tells Ammu’s family.

This causes the family to lock Ammu up until they can invent a story that will save the family honor. Ammu, enraged, rails at her Estha and Rahel through a locked door and calls her children millstones around her neck. Her verbal abuse causes the children to flee in the boat across the river to the abandoned house. Sophie Mol talks them into taking her with them, and on the way across the river, Sophie falls from the boat and drowns.

Baby Kochamma, a poor relative living with the family, decides to go to the police and claim that Velutha has raped Ammu. Velutha, at this point, is waiting at abandoned house in hopes that Ammu will come to him, ignorant of the fact that Estha and Rahel are there as well. The police go in search of Velutha, under the assumption that he is a rapist, and find him at the abandoned house. They beat him savagely, to the point of death, before finding Estha and Rahel in the house as well.

Ammu refuses to go along with the story of being raped, and since no complaint has been sworn, the police are stuck with a man they have beaten who has not been charged with a crime. Baby Kochamma, who would otherwise be accused of making false statements to the police, makes Estha “confess” to being abducted by Velutha.

Veultha dies in custody from his beating. Ammu goes to the police station to try to get him free, but it’s too late.

The whole household is in grief and rage because of the death of Sophie Mol. Baby Kochamma insinuates that the entire tragedy is the fault of Ammu and her two children, and gets Chacko to throw Ammu out.

There is more to the story, and in fact the novel depicts what has happened decades later, when Estha and Rahel are grown. But this summary should suffice to make my point. If the novel were told chronologically, it might begin with Margaret and Sophie Mol in England deciding to come visit Sophie’s biological father. Instead, it shows Sophie Mol’s funeral just a few pages in, and skips into the past and into the future every few pages. And please note, the various sections are not flashbacks, they are not events that come filtered through the consciousness of one of the characters in the book, they are fully dramatized sequences from an omniscient narrator presented out of chronological order.

Yet the cause and effect chain is clear after the book is read. The various events leading up to the trauma of Sophie Mol’s drowning and Velutha’s beating death are caused by Estha and Rahel’s fear, Sophie Mol’s loneliness, Ammu’s frustration, Chacko’s nostalgic love. And the trauma itself has consequences, a clear cause and effect chain leading to Ammu’s banishment and eventual death, the separation of the twins, Estha’s gradual descent into muteness.

Not every book that is fragmentary and achronological can be resolved into this kind of coherent narrative, of course. Ava, by Carole Maso, for instance, consists of the thoughts of a dying woman and only frustrates the attempt to uncover a complete story. And not every novel with a trauma at the center is written achronologically. Eric Puchner’s Model Home, for instance, has a beautiful young man horribly scarred by a gas explosion at its center, and it’s told completely chronologically.

However, I think there is a high level of craft and artistry in the construction of the novels I’ve been considering. The trauma at the center holds the novel together, and finally, all the causes and consequences are illuminated.

I’ll make one more post about Trauma and the Achronological Novel before going on to other topics.

Trauma and the Achronological Novel, Part Three

I’ve been discussing three novels in this thread – Beloved, The God of Small Things, and The Yellow Birds – and each one has a traumatic event at the center. They are each achronological, with narrative segments set in various time periods coming in an order not in accord with calendar time, so that readers are presented with the aftermath and origins of the trauma prior to understanding what the trauma consisted of.

My goal in this post is to contemplate what makes the traumatic event in each of these books novel-worthy. Freud, in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, discusses the ‘traumatic neurosis’ that can occur after a railway disaster or some other accident that threatens life, and he goes on to describe the lasting effects of being at war in ways that coincide with present day notions of PTSD. And Cathy Carruth, in Unclaimed Experience, expands on Freud’s notions by discussing how the accident can become “the exemplary scene of trauma par excellence” because it illustrates how a traumatic event is not grasped and comprehended in the moment but instead “returns to haunt the trauma victim.”

Without disagreeing with either Freud or Carruth, I’d like to suggest that for a traumatic event to be novel-worthy, to be substantial enough to sustain a novel, it must be something more than an accident. There is one very well-known and celebrated short story that has an accident at its very beginning: “The Country Husband,” by John Cheever. The story begins with its main character, Francis Weed, surviving the crash landing of an airplane in a cornfield in Pennsylvania. Ironically, as he is taxied to a train station and eventually makes his way home, he arrives at his Westchester County home about the same time as he normally would have arrived, and he finds that his family is involved in its own dramas and not all that interested in what he has experienced. The plane crash comes back into Francis’s consciousness at times during the story, but more as a stimulus for reflection on the routineness of his life than as something that must be made sense of.

The plane crash in “The Country Husband” is a trauma, no doubt, but it is an accident that happens to Francis Weed. In each of the books I’m considering, the trauma grows out of actions undertaken by characters, actions that reveal something both about the characters and about the larger social and cultural context within which they are living.


In Beloved, the traumatic act at the center is the murder by Sethe of her two-year-old daughter, who never has any name other than Beloved. The novel is so well-known that I probably don’t have to explain the context, but just in case anyone hasn’t read it: Sethe is a recently escaped slave from a brutal plantation in Kentucky, and she has managed to cross the Ohio River and re-join her children near Cincinnati. When slave catchers come to return her and her family to slavery, she kills Beloved and attempts to kill her other children.

This trauma, as must be clear, illustrates Sethe’s unbearable conditions of existence – her role as a mother to her children is in horrible contradiction with her role in the slavery system as a producer of labor and capital. The trauma brings into play both the taboo prohibiting violence of a mother toward her child and the larger context of the system of chattel slavery. Importantly for the novelist, the trauma is the result of Sethe’s actions within that context, not an accident that happens to her.


In The God of Small Things, two traumas happen simultaneously. The novel is complex, but I’ll try to explain briefly. Ammu is the divorced mother of twins, living with her family in Kerala, India. She begins a romantic relationship with Velutha, an Untouchable within the caste system, thus breaking a social taboo. When she is discovered and trapped, she shouts at her two children that they are at fault.

All this happens during the visit of Sophie Mol, the half-English daughter of Chacko, Ammu’s brother. While Sophie Mol is visiting, Ammu’s children feel like they are somehow less loved. After the children are shouted at by their mother and made to feel as if they are truly unloved and unworthy of love, they decide to escape across the river to an abandoned house, and they take Sophie Mol with them. Sophie claims that if they take her, it will make everyone even more desperate to bring them back. Unknown to them, the abandoned house is also the place where Ammu had been meeting her lover, Velutha.

The traumas that occur simultaneously are the death by drowning of Sophie Mol, who falls off the boat in the middle of the river, and the death by police beating of Velutha, who is discovered by authorities determined to uphold and reinforce the social norms.

The traumas here are entangled within the broader social and cultural context. The caste system, the “Love Laws” that determine who can love whom, is implicated in one trauma. And the postcolonial condition, the inability to see one’s self other than through the eyes of the colonial power, the valorization of whiteness, is implicated in the other trauma. There are many players and many actions that lead to the two traumas, too many to simply summarize, but all the actions are rooted in the broader context.


Finally, in The Yellow Birds, the trauma occurs during the Iraq War. Private Bartle and Private Murphy are both sent over to Iraq in 2004, and we learn very early in the book that Murphy will die there. We also discover that Bartle promised Murphy’s mother that he would bring Murphy back alive. However, during the months in Iraq, Murphy becomes more erratic in his behavior and finally wanders off outside the wire and is killed.

Bartle feels incredible guilt at not having been able to keep Murphy safe. He finds Murphy horribly mutilated. Thinking to spare Murphy’s mother grief, he violates military law and, with his sergeant, dumps Murphy’s body into the Tigris River.

The trauma here, as in Beloved and The God of Small Things, brings into play the broader context. The war is the motivation for Bartle’s promise, the cause of Murphy’s death. And Bartle’s action, to hide the desecrated body of Murphy forever, is, I believe, an attempt to symbolically cover up his own guilt and failure. Within the book, the attempt fails, and, as Carruth put it, the trauma “returns to haunt the trauma victim.”

My object in this longish post is to point out certain similarities in the central traumas in these three excellent novels. The traumas do not merely result from accidents; instead, the traumas result from actions by characters. And the traumas are all deeply enmeshed in broader contexts, and make manifest the inherent conflicts and contradictions within those contexts.

Those are the two features that, I believe, make the traumas novel-worthy.

I know that my notions of what is novel-worthy can be contested, and that many fine novels exist that don’t include either broad social context or actions undertaken with intent and desire. So please take my notion of the novel-worthy as applying only to the kind of novel I’m discussing here, the novel organized around a central trauma.

Trauma and the Achronological Novel, Part Two

This is my second post on Trauma and the Achronological Novel.

As I stated in the previous post, Cathy Carruth’s book Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History gives some key insights into the meaning of trauma through her readings of Freud, Marguerite Duras, Jacques Lacan, and others.

Let me make clear what I mean by trauma. I am not referring simply to an awful thing that happens to a person. For instance, the death of a parent in old age may be a terrible event. However, it does not lend itself to being at the center of the kind of narrative I’m discussing. Why? Because it is possible to make sense of it. It’s possible to think of the death of a parent as part of a meaningful narrative. If an event can be made comprehensible within a story, it is not the kind of trauma referred to by Carruth and Freud. If an event can be made comprehensible, it can be consigned to the past.

The kind of event that is truly a trauma, in the terms I’m using, is one that resists comprehension.  It will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Freud’s work that an event that is repressed will inevitably return. And Freud, in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, states that someone who has experienced trauma “is obliged to repeat the repressed material as a contemporary experience instead of, as the physician would prefer to see, remembering it as something belonging to the past.”

If one could make sense of an event, it could simply be remembered as something that happened in the past. The trauma of which I speak is one that does not remain in the past, but rather forces itself into the present life of the person who experienced it. The traumatic event cannot be comprehended, but it also cannot be forgotten. Carruth writes “trauma describes an overwhelming experience of sudden or catastrophic events in which the response to the event occurs in the often delayed, uncontrolled repetitive appearance of hallucinations and other intrusive phenomena.”

The nature of trauma is that it is unfinished, it remains incomprehensible, and therefore it constantly intrudes in the present day life of survivors. This suggests that an achronological, fragmentary narrative is the perfect aesthetic form for a story centered on trauma. Plot is sometimes seen as a sense-making device that links up beginning and ending through cause and effect. Yet a narrative that progresses through comprehensible cause and effect is obviously false to the experience of trauma.

In a fragmentary, achronological narrative, on the other hand, there is no obvious sense-making narrative arc. The past is jumbled with the present, interrupting it and intruding upon it. A fragmentary narrative requires an effort on the part of the reader to piece things together, analogous to the way a victim of trauma may be trying (and failing) to piece together events to make sense of them. It’s possible that a chain of cause and effect may become evident upon completing the novel, but the experience of reading the novel will to some extent mimic the experience of a trauma survivor trying to understand.

In my next post, I’ll look at the traumas at the center of Beloved, The God of Small Things, and Yellow Birds, and I’ll discuss how and why they each sustain novel-length works.

Trauma and the Achronological Novel, Part One

9780316219341_p0_v4_s114x166When Kevin Powers came to visit the campus here at Bowling Green State, he seemed a little tired of discussing his novel The Yellow Birds. The book was a finalist for the National Book Award, made more than twenty “Year’s Best Books” lists, and won the Pen/Hemingway Award. He had probably been on the road constantly and had heard every question possible about the book multiple times. He was actually more enthusiastic about discussing the new book he’s working on.

Yet he was gracious with all our questions, and I’m sure that the students enjoyed talking with him. Some of the questions about The Yellow Birds centered on narrative structure, which led me to think about plot, trauma, and the achronological plot.

If you haven’t read the book, I’ll give a quick summary, though it has some mild spoilers. Two young soldiers, Bartle and Murphy, are sent to the war in Iraq. And before they go, Bartle promises Murphy’s mother that he will bring Murphy safely home. In Iraq, Murphy becomes increasingly unstable, and finally puts himself in a position in which it is impossible for Bartle to save him. And in the aftermath of Murphy’s death, Bartle makes a choice that comes back to haunt him.

The Yellow Birds does not follow a chronological sequence. It has sections that move back and forth in time, from 2004 in Iraq, to 2003 in New Jersey, to 2005 in Germany, to 2009 in Fort Knox, Kentucky. Most significantly, the book reveals very early on that Murphy will die in Iraq. It does not reveal how, but it makes very clear that Murphy will not be coming home. So the chapters that depict Murphy alive, whether in training stateside, or in combat in Iraq, all take place under a sign of doom. Powers wisely gave up surprise for dramatic irony. The scene of Murphy’s mother talking with Bartle gains in power and poignancy because we know more about the characters’ fates than they do.

I asked Kevin whether he had written the book in the order in which it was presented, and he said no. He actually wrote it out chronologically, from the first event to the last, and only afterwards did he reorder it into the final version that was published. Perhaps it wasn’t possible to understand everything that would happen well enough until he had actually written it all down. It might have been impossible to write the 2005 section until he had discovered in the writing process exactly what occurred in 2004, even though in the published work the 2005 section in Germany precedes most of the Iraq sections.

The Yellow Birds reminded me of two other very fine novels, modern classics, that have similar narrative structures: The God of Small Things, and Beloved. All three novels have a central trauma at the center – in The God of Small Things, it’s the drowning of Sophie Mol and the arrest and eventual death of Velutha, and in Beloved it’s the moment when Sethe murders her daughter to prevent her from being returned to slavery.

I’ve recently been reading a book by Cathy Carruth: Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History. I think she gives some insights into why a fragmentary, achronological narrative form is particularly appropriate for novels that have a traumatic event at their center. And I’ll try to go further into that in my next post.

The Style of "All the Light We Cannot See"

Anthony Doerr graduated from Bowling Green State University with his MFA in Creative Writing in 1999, and he has published a long string of exceptional books since his graduation. His first book, The Shell Collector, won both the Barnes and Noble Discover Prize and the New York Public Library Young Lions Award, and his latest book, All the Light We Cannot See, won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction.


Doerr’s work in general, and All the Light We Cannot See in particular, is justly celebrated for its prose style. I’d like to take this blog post to analyze some of the rhetorical figures he uses in his work, and I chose to look at one single chapter, the one that begins on page 12 with the title “Number 4 rue Vauborel.” I chose this chapter out of the many beautifully written chapters for the somewhat arbitrary reason that it was read aloud on the Diane Rehm show.

As readers of this occasional blog on the techniques of fiction know, I have benefited greatly from Arthur Quinn’s book Figures of Speech, and I’ll be using his definitions and examples to analyze All the Light We Cannot See. I hope you’ll find this useful for writing your own fiction. However, I don’t mean to suggest that simply knowing and using figures is the same as writing graceful prose and creating a compelling narrative with great characters, as Anthony Doerr has done. Knowing and understanding techniques will only take you part of the way there.

Anaphora – Repetition of beginnings

In this brief chapter, scarcely a page and a half in length, Doerr uses anaphora three times.

Every second the airplanes drew closer; every second is a second lost.

Where she has lived for four years. Where she kneels on the sixth floor alone, as a dozen American bombers roar toward her.

She should be rushing downstairs. She should be making for the corner of the kitchen where a little trapdoor opens into a cellar full of dust and mouse-chewed rugs and ancient trunks long unopened.

There is dramatic irony in this chapter. The reader is aware of the danger over Marie’s head even though she does not, and the repetition highlights that dramatic irony and emphasizes the danger that the young Marie finds herself in.

Here’s another example of anaphora, for comparison, from Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim.

They streamed aboard over three gangways, they streamed in urged by faith and the hope of paradise, they streamed in with a continuous tramp and shuffle of bare feet without a word, a murmur or a look back.

Polysyndeton — Choosing to repeat conjunctions

Polysyndeton is a favorite rhetorical figure of mine. The repetition of the word ‘and’ can lend gravity to what would otherwise be a banal list.

She should be making for the corner of the kitchen where a little trapdoor opens into a cellar full of dust and mouse-chewed rugs and ancient trunks long unopened.

In this example, the dust and the rugs and the trunks seem like they are all present and heaped up. If the sentence were conventionally written, with an Oxford comma, it would seem like an exhaustive list of the things that are in the basement.

Here’s another example, for comparison, from Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat.”

The horizon narrowed and widened, and dipped and rose, and at all times its edge was jagged with waves that seemed thrust up in points like rocks.


A repetition of the same word or root in different grammatical functions or forms.

While creative writing textbooks tend to advise writers to avoid repetition, if words are repeated with intention the result can be hypnotic. Doerr’s sentence here uses both Anaphora and Polyopton – the word ‘second’ is repeated three times in a single sentence, and in the latter half, the word serves two different grammatical functions.

Every second the airplanes drew closer; every second is a second lost.

Here’s another example, for comparison, from Cormac McCarthy. Note how thin and rag and dark are repeated in the famous opening of Blood Meridian.

See the child. He is pale and thin, he wears a thin and ragged linen shirt. He stokes the scullery fire. Outside lie dark turned fields with rags of snow and darker woods beyond that harbor yet a few last wolves.


Repetition of grammatical forms.

While it’s frequently good to vary grammatical forms to avoid monotony in your prose, if you repeat the same sentence structure with intention, the result can be striking.

The windowpanes rattle in their housings. The anti-air guns unleash another volley. The earth rotates just a bit further.

In this example, a three-sentence paragraph, Doerr seems to emphasize the danger that is approaching Marie through sentences that sound like a metronome. Each sentence is like a tick of the clock, and the last sentence implies that as the earth rotates, the danger is closing in.

For this blogpost, I limited myself to one short chapter. But striking uses of language are present throughout this wonderfully written novel.

Copyediting and Asyndeton

I continue in praise of Figures of Speech, by Arthur Quinn.


He describes the classic rhetorical figures, as Richard Lanham does, but with a light and engaging manner. And you can use these in contemporary fiction, as do some of the finest writers, like Marilynne Robinson and Cormac McCarthy.

I wrote last time about going over the copyedited version of The Goodbye House and discovering that the copyeditor saw both asyndeton and polysyndeton as grammatical errors to be corrected.

If polysyndeton is the addition of conjunctions, asyndeton is the opposite, leaving out conjunctions where they might normally occur. Arthur Quinn uses one of my favorites as an example, from The Gettysburg Address:

That government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

By leaving out the conjunction, Lincoln avoided any sort of hierarchy within the three clauses and rhetorically supported the notion that all three are inter-dependent and equally important.

Quinn points out that asyndeton is used not only for a series of clauses but also for a series of nouns.

For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lasciviousness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness: All these evil things come from within, and defile the man.

Mark 7:21

Note how asyndeton makes this seem less like a simple laundry list of human failings and more like a jeremiad.

Asyndeton is used not only in classic texts but also in contemporary fiction. Consider this example:

He would live to look upon the western sea and he was equal to whatever might follow for he was complete at every hour. Whether his history should run concomitant with men and nations, whether it should cease.

Blood Meridian

Cormac McCarthy

I used asyndeton in The Goodbye House as well, when I didn’t want to have a sense of hierarchy between the items listed.

Here’s my version of a sentence:

He spent time at an outplacement firm, posting résumés to Monster, Career Builder, Hot Jobs, and also checking his investments.

My copyeditor wanted it changed into a more standard grammatical construction:

He spent time at an outplacement firm, posting résumés to Monster, Career Builder, and Hot Jobs, and also checking his investments.

In copyeditor’s version, the sentence seems to be a simple and exhaustive list. In my version, the websites mentioned seem more like a character’s desperate stabs at finding a job while seeing his bad stock picks spiral downward.

Here’s another sentence my copyeditor wanted changed:

Sales orders had been booked on products still in development, defective products were returned and the returns never recorded, phony invoices were created by sending orders between fax machines in the same office.

She changed it to this:

Sales orders had been booked on products still in development, defective products were returned and the returns never recorded, and phony invoices were created by sending orders between fax machines in the same office.

The “and” my copyeditor added gave the sense that things happened in a certain order. I wanted the frenzied sense that everything at this company was going wrong at once.

I have no doubt I’ll blog about other key figures described by Arthur Quinn in Figures of Speech. Anthimeria, Periprhasis, Repetitio, Epezeuxis, Pleonasm – one fascinating thing is how frequently the use of these figures contradicts the standard advice about prose fiction that is heard.

Copyediting and Polysyndeton

Copyediting and polysyndeton

As I continue blogging about the techniques of literary fiction, I will sometimes highlight books that have been important to me. And one book I certainly want to mention is Figures of Speech, by Arthur Quinn.


Quinn’s book describes the classic rhetorical figures with a light touch, and illustrates them with quotations from Shakespeare, and the King James version of the Bible, and other writers like Augustine, Montaigne, Bacon, Cicero, and Dickens. He sometimes ventures into the twentieth century with quotations from Joseph Conrad or T. S. Eliot, but most of his examples come from the more distant past.

I love Quinn’s book for many reasons. It helped me analyze and understand the prose of some of our finest writers, among them Cormac McCarthy and Marilynne Robinson. And it also helped me develop my own prose, especially in The Master of Monterey.

I’m writing about this now because I have just finished going over the copyedited version of The Goodbye House, scheduled for publication this fall. And some of the “corrections” the copyeditor made had to be changed back because she clearly was unfamiliar with the rhetorical figures of asyndeton and polysyndeton and saw them as grammatical errors to be corrected.

Let me state that copyeditors should be esteemed and valued. Every writer who publishes a book benefits from a careful copyeditor, and the manuscript I’m working on had some mistakes that my copyeditor caught. For instance, a street in my book was at times called “Prospector Street” and at other times called “Prospector Road.” My copyeditor, quite logically, asked me to pick one or the other.

But copyeditors also work according to style sheets that detail the standard uses of punctuation, and if a copyeditor doesn’t work much in fiction, that can lead them to make some changes that simply don’t accord with a writer’s intentions.

Polysyndeton, briefly defined, is the addition of conjunctions, far beyond what is necessary. One of Arthur Quinn’s examples is from Genesis.

And they came to the place which God had told him of; and Abraham built an altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar upon the wood. And Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son. And the angel of the LORD called unto him out of heaven, and said, Abraham, Abraham: and he said, Here am I.

I believe that the repetition of the word ‘and’ gives this series of actions more gravity. Rather than simply being actions related in time, one after another, they build on each other toward the climactic act.

Polysyndeton is used not only in classic texts but also in contemporary fiction. Consider these three examples.

Set apart from the drifts and tides and lucifactions of the open water, the surface of the bay seemed almost viscous, membranous, and her things massed and accumulated, as they do in cobwebs or in the eaves and unswept corners of a house.


                                                            Marilynne Robinson

The animal screeched, and open-mouthed it lunged at him as he twisted the blade sharply and hot blood flushed from its neck and down his arm and it made no other sound again.

                                                           Coal Black Horse

                                                            Robert Olmstead

He’d long forsworn all weighing of consequences and allowing as he did that men’s destinies are given yet he usurped to contain with him all that he would ever be in the world and all that the world would be to him and be his charter written in the urstone itself he claimed agency and said so and he’d drive the remorseless sun on to its final endarkenment as if he’d ordered it all ages since, before there were paths anywhere, before there were men or suns to go upon them.

                                                           Blood Meridian

                                                           Cormac McCarthy

In the Robinson quote, the use of polysyndeton makes if feel as though the “drifts and tides and lucifactions” are all present simultaneously, rather than seeming like a banal list of qualities of the water. In the quote from Olmstead’s Coal Black Horse, the effect is similar to the description of Abraham in Genesis – the actions build on each other to a climax rather than seeming a simple series of actions.

In the section of Blood Meridian, in which Glanton’s Ahab-like sense of himself is declared, the effect is also one of building. This differs from Olmstead in that it is not a series of actions building to a climax, but rather a series of ever more megalomaniacal declarations of his own power.

My own use of polysyndeton in The Goodbye House is not so grand, but still significant.

Here’s my version of the sentences:

The letters described the sunsets over the Indian Ocean, and how bright the stars were at night, and the sound of the ship’s wake as it spread out from the stern.

The last record had dropped and played, and the tone arm had returned to its place, and a silence ticked through the house.

My copyeditor wanted them corrected into a more standard grammatical construction:

The letters described the sunsets over the Indian Ocean, how bright the stars were at night, and the sound of the ship’s wake as it spread out from the stern.

The last record had dropped and played, the tone arm had returned to its place, and a silence ticked through the house.

In each of the copyeditor’s versions, the sentences seems to end with perfect dullness. Here’s a list of what was in each letter that a merchant seaman wrote.

With the use of polysyndeton, each element of the sentence stands equal to the others, and the repeated conjunction slows the sentence down and lends it a certain dignity.

I’ll discuss asyndeton in my next post. In the meantime, I recommend anyone interested in developing their prose style find a copy of Arthur Quinn’s Figures of Speech. I used to walk by Professor Quinn’s office at Cal, and I very much regret never having knocked on his door and introduced myself.

About Lawrence

Lawrence Coates is the author of five books, most recently The Goodbye House. His work has been recognized with the Western States Book Award in Fiction, the Donald Barthelme Prize in Short Prose, the Miami University Press Novella Prize, and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Fiction. He currently teaches in the MFA program at Bowling Green State University.

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