Saturday, January 10, 2009

The sentence as a one act play (Books - The Witches of Eastwick by John Updike)

I'm going to post on just one sentence today. You can do that with John Updike. Such rich and resonant writing. He writes sentences that are like one act plays.

They all heard her car, a pale gray Corvair convertible with front-wheel drive and her ex-husband's vanity plate ROUGE still on the back, start up and spin out and crackle away down the drive.
Four characters comprise the dramatis personae - three people hearing the car and one driving it (I guess there are five characters if you count the ex-husband). There is not just a car - but a specific model - filling out our understanding of our driver's class, her taste, her self-image. They all hear her car. They do this together, as if it stops whatever action they were engaged in. And not only can they hear it, we can hear it too because Updike chooses such specific verbs. He doesn't tell us that the car merely drove away, or drove quickly, or that it tore down the driveway (somewhat cliched). The gray Corvair convertible starts up, spins out and crackles down the drive. I don't want to spout such nonsense as "great writing is all in the verbs," but precise verbs go a long word towards placing the reader somewhere specific. Three sounds occur because of our driver's circumstances, of which we know something if we have read the preceeding sentences, but even without doing so one can form a specific impression - mine is one of haste, and possibly daredevil carelessness but there could be some anger in there too. The reader too hears three sounds. Driving away can sound like hundreds of things but the crackling of a sports car's wheels on a driveway is much more precise, it permits the reader to hear something close to what the writer imagines, rather than to simply guess at the sounds or interpolate their own generic car driving away noise. With the additional knowledge of the car, its driver, and her audience of listeners one sentence becomes a mini-drama complete with actions, relationships, scenery, props, and sound effects.

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