Anne Tyler’s Excellent Paragraph(s)


I know, I know. I’ve bogged down in two treacherous subjects. Politics (boring) and economics (more so).  This political-economic obsession can only lead to dystopia, which is a particularly virulent strain of paranoia. Dystopia-paranoia flu is spreading quickly. Scientists worry about a pandemic.

There’s no known cure, but a good novel about human beings and their foibles couldn’t hurt. (You might also try a bowl of chicken soup.) If it’s foibles you want, Anne Tyler is the leading specialist. As Exhibit A, I submit the following paragraph from her latest book, The Beginner’s Goodbye.

“I was genuinely glad for them, I swear. And yet, after they had taken their leave, when I turned in my seat to watch them through the front window, I felt stabbed to the heart by the sight of their two figures walking side by side toward Gil’s pickup. They were almost touching but not quite; there was perhaps an inch or two of empty space between them, and  you could tell somehow that both of them were very conscious of this space–acutely conscious, electrically conscious. I thought of a moment early in my acquaintance with Dorothy, when she had offered to show me around her workplace. She stood up and went to her office door, and I jumped to my feet to follow, reaching past her and over her head to pull the door farther open. I guess it must have confused her. She stepped back. For an instant she was standing under the shelter of my arm, and although there was not one single point of contact between us, I felt I was surrounding her with an invisible layer of warmth and protection.”

Followed immediately by Exhibit B:

“Even that early, I loved her.”

That first paragraph, the “genuinely glad” graf, is an amazement that calls for statistical analysis.

It starts innocently enough, a simple eight-word declarative sentence with one comma.

Followed by a rush of 41 words, constrained by three commas.

Then 38 words requiring two commas, a semicolon, and a dash to maintain order. Plus one well-chosen word in italic type.

OK, a sentence of 21 words and one comma.

Thirty runaway words with only two commas.

A deceptively simple sentence of seven words. Then three words!

Finally, one more rambling sentence, 38 words and three commas.

Whew. If you read it aloud, it will leave you panting. The words and punctuation create a cadence. Sort of like a Foxtrot. Slow, Slooow, Quick-quick. Except the beat in these sentences is irregular, more slows than quicks.

Only one stretch gives the reader any trouble — that long, winding, “She stood up . . . office door . . . I jumped to my feet . . . reaching past . . . over her head . . . pull . . . farther open.”  What?

“I guess it must have confused her.”  I guess so! Confused me. But that was the point, don’t you think?

One last, wordy sentence applies the brakes, and not a second too soon. The long pileup tumbles to a stop in a puzzling fog of “warmth and protection.”

Now, the master stroke of contrast! Ms. Tyler brings order out of chaos. After the eight-sentence, 183-word extravaganza (plus 21 punctuation marks, if you count the periods), six simple words bring closure and clarity.

“Even that early, I loved her.”

One last point about Ms. Tyler’s long and short paragraphs, the Mutt and Jeff of artful writing. Not one obscure or pretentious word. The longest word is “acquaintance.” Nothing here to stump the vocabulary of a sixth-grader! Most of the words contain three, four or five letters, maybe six. Not a single excess or unnecessary word.

For extra points, what is the banned word in Ms. Tyler’s excellent paragraphs? (The word that most writing teachers and most copy editors would reject.) Write your answer in the comments section below.

In case you’re wondering, The Beginner’s Goodbye  is a story about marriage and the grief that follows death. Two subjects Ms. Tyler has examined before. It’s a good story, with a happy ending.

— John Hayden

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