In our eight-part series Life Sentence, the literary critic Jeff Dolven takes apart and puts back together one beloved or bedeviling sentence. The artist Tom Toro illustrates each sentence Dolven chooses.
The first thing I want to do is give you the sentence, so here it is. I typed it, and now you read it, in that order:
And the first thing I wanted to do, but I did not do it, was pray.
The sentence is the last line from an essay by Kristin Dombek, “Letter from Williamsburg,” which appeared four years ago in The Paris Review. If you haven’t read it, now is a good time, right in the middle of this column, or in a few minutes, after you’re done. In case you wait till later, I’ll say now that it’s about sex and the loss of faith, the two of them connected in ways that the essay itself can best explain. The sentence I quote comes after Dombek recalls her discovery of the world without God in it. The first thing she wanted to do was pray, but she did not.
Like many good sentences, maybe all of them, the power of this one has to do with the other sentences it might have been but is not. Reading is an incessantly predictive business. We make constant guesses as we go about where a sentence is headed, and when it’s over, the guesses linger as a background against which the writer’s choices are made visible. For example, the sentence is not, “I wanted to pray, but I did not.” That would have been the simplest way to say it, simplest because it hews to the subject-verb-predicate order most basic to English. “I wanted to pray.” What story could be simpler? More a structure than a story, perhaps, but one that shores up some assumptions about the order of things: first there is an “I,” an agent; then the agent does something; and then something comes of it. There’s comfort in that basic arrangement. It secures our grammatical place as authors of our deeds, up in front of them and calling the shots.
This sentence does not become a story till its second part, “but I did not.” The not-doing after the wanting is what carries it into the terrain of narrative. There are now two events, the second a transformation of the first. That transformation is the minimal condition for narrative; two things happen, one because of the other. But still we are a long way from what Dombek’s sentence does. Let me try out another she didn’t write: “The first thing I wanted to do was pray, but I did not.” This one has her compound subject, which pushes the first “I” a little ways into the interior. (The compound subject is the noun phrase “the first thing I wanted to do.”) This version of the sentence still tells its minimal story, wanting then not doing, and tells it in order. What it misses is the way Dombek’s “but” interrupts the main clause, pushed a couple words into the interior from the far side. There is no real grammatical consequence to the change, but rhetorically it makes all the difference—rhetorically and narratively.
Narrative is what I want most to think about here, even though it is usually taken to operate on a much larger scale, that of paragraphs and chapters. Narrative theorists distinguish between a story’s fabula and its sujet: between the sequence of events and the sequence of their presentation. (The terms are those of the early twentieth-century Russian formalists.) Dombek’s sentence plays the two off against each other. For isn’t the story, the fabula, that she wanted to pray first but then she did not? And yet as Dombek writes it, “but I did not” intercepts the object of the want, slips in before the praying, as though she were afraid that if she said it she would already be doing it, already praying. And so the order of events gets confused. You could almost say that the interruption is an event itself, something that suddenly happens in the middle of the sentence, something we had not been expecting.
Which is to say that a sentence can not only tell a story but a sentence can be a story. Its organization is shaped not only by grammatical rule and rhetorical purpose but by narrative principles of suspense, reversal, revelation—a kind of plot whose characters are phrases and clauses that arrive early or late, in key or at cross-purposes. The story of Dombek’s sentence, the one she actually wrote, gets a couple of additional twists. It begins with an “and,” as though this moment of revelation, or antirevelation, might have been (at least at the beginning of the story) just another thing happening in the quotidian parataxis of ordinary life. Then there is the “do it” she adds to “but I did not.” It is a stab of desperate emphasis. It also makes a distinction that we might have missed but that Dombek needs: it is not the wanting that she did not do, but the praying, whether she stopped wanting or not.
So what is the plot of this sentence? What is the story? Something like wanting, then stopping before you can even say, before you let yourself say what you want, or wanted; and that still leaves “was pray” at the end. Subjects precede verbs the way wanting precedes doing, isn’t that right? But what if the wanting keeps going after, and what if the doing comes along before you know what you want? Action itself has a grammar: subject, verb, object; wanting, doing, and the consequences. That is the truth ordinary sentences preach every time we use them. But Dombek’s sentence, arranging its events to defy its grammar, tells a different story, about how quitting comes right in the middle of wanting, a sentence-story telling its own truth against the grammar we expect. Grammar is good for talking about life, even about God and sex—we could hardly do without it—but that does not make it a reliable model of how we live.
Jeff Dolven’s poems first appeared in The Paris Review in 2000. He teaches at Princeton University, and his new book, Senses of Style, which looks at the work and lives of Thomas Wyatt and Frank O’Hara, will publish in January.
Tom Toro is an American cartoonist whose work appears regularly in The New Yorker, Playboy, The American Bystander, and elsewhere. His book of Trump cartoons, Tiny Hands, is available now through Dock Street Press.
Read earlier installments of Life Sentence here.