Defying grammar: three authors that break rules

While the menagerie of polyglots churning out page after page of beautiful copy at Supertext is bound by the provisions of the grammar police, today’s post focuses on a contingent of writers that reverses, exploits and destroys grammar conventions for literary effect. Of course, I’m not suggesting we’ll be adopting these techniques for press releases about Swiss asset management companies any time soon. Or am I?

David Foster Wallace

Why not start with a genius? And specifically the encyclopaedic monolith written by said genius? Infinite Jest is the most complex, rewarding and slightly frustrating novel that I’ve never finished (still working on it). David Foster Wallace seems to employ every literary technique in the book (LOL) without seeming gauche – footnotes, a kind of slangy patois, lack of punctuation, huge, impenetrable sentences that coil around themselves like a sleeping anaconda, an aversion to paragraph breaks. Here’s one passage that shows how he plays with grammar primarily for the purpose of comedy:

Jim, I know, you know, we’ve been through this before, leave the book alone, boy, it’s not going anywhere, so the silver cap leaves the flask’s mouth’s warm grooved lips with just a snick, hear that? that faintest snick? not a rasp or a grinding sound or harsh, not a harsh brutal Brando-esque rasp of attempted domination but a snick a … nuance, there, ah, oh, like the once you’ve heard it never mistakable ponk of a true-hit ball, Jim, well pick it up then if you’re afraid of a little dust, Jim, pick the book up if it’s going to make you all goggle-eyed and chinless honestly Jesus why do I try I try and try just wanted to introduce you to the broiler’s garage and let you drive, maybe, feeling the Montclair’s body, taking my time to let you pull up to the courts with the Montclair’s shift in a neutral glide and the eight cylinders thrumming and snicking like a healthy heart and the wheels all perfectly flush with the curb and bring out my good old trusty laundry

Here, Wallace follows a one-sided conversation between the protagonist’s grandfather and father. It’s written in a stream-of-consciousness style, lacking any breaks as the speaker switches from a rapt description of his whiskey flask to pronounced disappointment at his son’s lack of attention to an almost sensuous account of what it feels like to drive a Mercury Montclair. By alternating so rapidly between emotions (much as we do in real life) and dispensing with full stops altogether, Wallace amplifies the humour of the scene – though to begin with the reader may simply struggle to keep up rather than enjoy the technique for what it creates. Moreover, the unbroken manner of the text perhaps even taps into deep-rooted childhood memories of being chastised by a parent, being unable to respond in the face of overwhelming authority. It’s an effective approach, and it’s just one of a thousand that he uses through the book.

Hubert Selby, Jr

The other day I bought Last Exit to Brooklyn. I’ve wanted to read something by Selby for a while now, as he is considered by some to be part of the Beat Generation (his writing style bears similarities to Jack Kerouac’s spontaneous prose and his subjects are the same coterie of lowlifes studied by William Burroughs in his early novels). Immediately noticeable in Brooklyn is the almost total lack of breaks to demarcate descriptive passages from conversation. Another is the colloquial style, the way the words have seemingly been ripped from the characters’ mouths whether they’re ready to come out or not. Like the following:

Hey, did yadig that sharp silver-blue sharkskin suit in the window? Yeah yeah. The onebutton single-breasted job with the big lapels – and whats to do on a night like this. Just a few drops of gas in the tank and no loot to fill it up. And anyway, wheres to go – but yagotta have a onebutton lounge. Ya wardrobe aint complete without one. Yeah, but I dig that new shawl job.

It gives the individual chapters a sense of immediacy and authenticity missing from conventional narratives, making the reader feel as if they’re flying at breakneck speed alongside the characters as they navigate the obstacles that Selby throws before them. It’s a challenge being thrown down, a defiant question: who cares about spelling and commas and indents and quotation marks when you could spend more time telling a story? It’s not as though real life waits to be punctuated accordingly.

Charles Bukowski

One of the cool things about Bukowski is that he published his first novel (Post Office) when he was 50 years old. So I’m still hopeful. Another thing is that he was a prolific maniac, writing thousands of poems, short stories and columns – alongside six novels – throughout his life. This machine-like endurance can be seen in his prose, which barrels along with few pauses, pummelling the reader into submission and ultimately acceptance. He often forgoes the use of capital letters at the beginning of sentences and, like Selby, interweaves dialogue with the rest of the text rather than using quotation marks. As in this passage:

the eyes whirled to the rear of my head and the chain was off the door and one hand with suitcase and one hand with stolen typewriter I charged into machinegun fire, the mourning morning sunrise, cracked-wheat crinkles, the end of all.
HEY! WHERE YOU GO?
the little monkey began to raise one knee, he raised the hammer, and that’s all I needed

These techniques blur the boundaries between reality and fiction, as though you’re actually listening to a guy in a bar reciting stories straight to your face. The prose is unvarnished and raw, giving it all a sense of authenticity – you are walking out of the room with the protagonist himself, feeling the typewriter, hearing the chain slide off the door. It makes you want to read on and on, which is why I usually finish his novels in a couple of hours. It’s also why I’ve never bought one – value for money, Bukowski. Alright?

Titelbild: © Grant Price


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