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Post-Breakup Fiction; Comma Stutterers

January 27, 2012 | by

I recently got out of serious relationship. Since then I have not been able to read, though I usually love sad, sappy love stories. Can you recommend some books that have zero romance or love in them? Some good post-breakup fiction?

Readers of this column know my high opinion of the Jeeves books and Life on the Mississippi. They cheer me up, and are rigorously free of mushy scenes. Sam Lipsyte’s Home Land is a post-breakup book, I mean the hero has been dumped by his wife, but really that's the least of his problems—and the one time they get back together (for about two and a half minutes) it’s enough to cure you of the whole idea of coupledom for at least the rest of the day.

Also: How do you feel about dogs? It’s not fiction, and it is full of love, but something tells me J. R. Ackerley’s 1965 memoir, My Dog Tulip—about the unlikely romance between a crusty, middle-aged English bachelor and his German shepherd—might make a welcome distraction.

Dear Lorin,

I was talking to another writer-friend recently about the use of commas. I tend to err on the safe side, slipping too many of them, perhaps, around phrases I think are supposed to be identified. But is this precious or old-fashioned or out of style?

In this Paris Review interview with Mary Karr, she claims to have had a comma stutter in The Liars’ Club. Do you think there’s such a thing as a comma stutter, or is it more like a sentence stutter, reflecting hesitation, or something, from the writer? I’d like to smooth out, and I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Yours,
Comma Stutterer in Manhattan

A good comma stutter never goes out of style. Where would Henry James be without his commas—or that real-life stutterer Charles Lamb? Here is Lamb on his gruff but cowardly friend John Tipp: “With all this there was about him a sort of timidity—(his few enemies used to give it a worse name)—something which, in reverence to the dead, we will place, if you please, a little on this side of the heroic.”

You can, of course, write in comma stutters then simply take out the punctuation. That is what Henry Green liked to do, for example when he describes what it was like to be unpopular at Eton:

These were the days when to be alone was to feel one had escaped for the moment not from any overt bullying but from what appeared to be the threat. There was a strain in trying to keep up with new friendships which probably did not exist. There was the dread of going into a friend's room to find one was not wanted, to be abandoned by the two leaders now that they were too busy to bother and worst of all the self questioning as to why this should be, the fear it might be a peer or one of the school’s racquet players and of what this meant if true. The best was to get away in those few hours we had on our own, to chance being seen lonely in the effort to forget.

Green teaches the reader to hear his pauses, to anticipate his hesitations, and, thus, to think like a man of his class and sensibility. Such is the magic. When women say of a good dancer that he knows how to lead, this must be what they mean.

Then of course there is Gertrude Stein, who so loved the comma stutter that she would abolish the punctuation altogether. This is the typographical equivalent of burning the village to save it:

A long complicated sentence should force itself upon you, make you know yourself knowing it and the comma, well at the most a comma is a poor period that lets you stop and take a breath but if you want to take a breath you ought to know yourself that you want to take a breath. It is not like stopping altogether has something to do with going on, but taking a breath well you are always taking a breath and why emphasize one breath rather than another breath. Anyway that is the way I felt about it and I felt that about it very very strongly. And so I almost never used a comma. The longer, the more complicated the sentence the greater the number of the same kinds of words I had following one after another, the more the very more I had of them the more I felt the passionate need of their taking care of themselves by themselves and not helping them, and thereby enfeebling them by putting in a comma.

The point is, if your sentences are guided by your feelings, you can race or hesitate as the spirit moves you. Your reader will understand.

What should I read if I want to learn more about how cities grow?

If you have a whole weekend to yourself and a really comfortable chair, I recommend Gotham: A History of New York, by Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace. You may not get through all 1,424 pages in one sitting, but however much you read you will enjoy, and you will feel yourself getting the gist. If you are interested in smaller cities—specifically, in the growth of a company town—try Richard Powers’s novel Gain. You can skip the parts about individual people (Powers is never especially good at human beings). The company is the hero of the book. If you want to know what happened to the cities of the Eastern seaboard, start with Jane Jacobs’s classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities. And if you want a quick introduction to the rest of the landscape, check out Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream.

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11 COMMENTS

7 Comments

  1. Barry Harbaugh | January 27, 2012 at 4:31 pm

    But Henry James had a real-life stutter, too!

  2. Caitlin | January 29, 2012 at 2:39 pm

    Can anyone tell me what book the Henry Green passage comes from? I’d like to read it.

  3. Lorin Stein | January 29, 2012 at 3:03 pm

    Caitlin, the Henry Green passage is from PACK MY BAG, one of my all-time favorite memoirs — with one of my favorite first paragraphs, containing one of my favorite missing commas:

    “I was born a mouthbreather with a silver spoon in 1905, three years after one war and nine before another, too late for both. But not too late for the war which seems to be coming upon us now and that is a reason to put down what comes to mind before one is killed, and surely it would be asking much to pretend one had a chance to live.”

    Green wrote those words in 1938 (he lived until 1974). Don’t you love the slightly hysterical, breathless “and that is a reason to put down what comes to mind”? Only an Englishman would require such a crazy excuse.

  4. Caitlin | January 29, 2012 at 7:03 pm

    Thank you, Lorin! Now I’ll have to see if I can hunt down a copy…

  5. Caitlin | January 29, 2012 at 7:14 pm

    And thank you for introducing me to the term “comma stutterer,” by the way. I’ve long been a comma stutterer, but I never had a word for it before now!

  6. Hanna | January 31, 2012 at 3:36 pm

    A comma stutterer! What a fabulous phrase.

    I tend to put in commas where I would usually put a break if I were reading the sentence out loud, regardless of whether or not it should be there…

  7. DavidB | February 6, 2012 at 11:19 am

    re: how cities grow – check out Nature’s Metropolis by William Cronon – it’s a thorough analysis of how Chicago industrialized during the 19th Century. In some ways it provides a modern echo of Fernand Braudel’s Civilization and Capitalism books.

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