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The Art of the Sentence: William Faulkner
– William Faulkner, “As I Lay Dying”
Few single lines have haunted me more than this one, first read during a snow storm when I was twenty years old and living in Buffalo. I remember lying on my dorm room bed and the exact position of my body. Great sentences do this to a person – they stop time and freeze everything around you. The blanket on my bed was green. My roommate was playing a baseball game on the computer.
The sentence occurs early in the novel—page 8 in the Vintage paperback edition. It’s the first glimpse we get of Addie, the Bundren family’s mother, whose dead body the family will soon transport across the Mississippi landscape, each character taking turns to narrate the story. Not much happens in the opening chapter—narrated by Darl, one of my all-time favorite characters—besides some basic setting up of tone and style. The following chapter from Cora is mainly concerned with baking cakes, which makes that striking sentence all the more odd and devastating, suddenly setting a new tone for things to come.
What makes As I Lay Dying such a powerful book isn’t the structure and voice that many put front and center when discussing the novel, but the song-like electricity and agile brilliance of each sentence. And Faulkner twists and surprises not just from page to page or sentence to sentence, but inside each sentence. The way he moves from possible cliché—Her eyes are like two candles—to placing “you,” the reader, into the sentence with when you watch them. Then he follows with the two word power-combo gutter down before finishing it all off with a fluent motion: into the sockets of iron candle-sticks. It makes my brain buzz. My fingers are currently hesitating to type a modern day rap comparison.
A lazy Faulkner could have written the line “Her eyes are like two melted candles.” That sentence would have gotten the job done. But instead, we get magic Faulkner.
It’s hard to say how many times I think about this sentence in a given year, but it’s probably in the hundreds. Sometimes, I forget the exact wording, but when the question “what’s a really good fucking sentence?” pops up in my head, I immediately think “the candle line from Faulkner.”
Shane Jones’s new novel Daniel Fights a Hurricane is out now from Penguin. His other books include Light Boxes, The Failure Six, and A Cake Appeared. He lives in upstate New York. For more, visit www.danielfightsahurricane.com.