Today we’ll examine Philip Roth. Roth is one of my favorite prose stylists, and I’m not sure it will be possible to convey why by analyzing a brief section of writing. This is because my favorite part of his style is how he drops profound sentences in the middle of ordinary paragraphs, but the deepness of meaning only comes about if you understand the broader context of the what is being discussed.
Back here I wrote about American Pastoral, so we’ll use that again. Roth is much more of a stylist than the people we’ve recently looked at. He tends to come up with inventive ways of turning a sentence, and the sentences tend to be much longer than the clean, pared-down style modern editors advocate for.
I opened to the middle of the novel and picked a passage at random. The main character’s daughter, Merry, bombed a post office in the middle of the night to protest the war. She accidentally killed a person and has run away to escape serving a sentence for this crime. She has been gone for some time, and the main character’s wife wants to move out of the house.
Understanding all too well why she wanted to sell the old house, he acceded to her wish without even trying to make her understand that the reason she wanted to go—because Merry was still there, in every room, Merry at age one, five, ten—was the reason he wanted to stay, a reason no less important than hers. But as she might not survive their staying—and he, it still seemed, could endure anything, however brutally it flew in the face of his own inclinations—he agreed to abandon the house he loved, not least for the memories it held of his fugitive child.
Before diving into this, we should take some time to parse it. There’s only two sentences there. Before the first comma is a subordinate clause. The next clause is the main one. Then there is a clarifying clause between a pair of em dashes which breaks the main clause. The final comma sets of further clarification. This cycling of tangents that continue to clarify the thought is almost Proustian. It can be dangerous if done poorly but works exceedingly well here.
Let’s first talk about the em dash usage. These can be confusing to a someone who never uses them. Clarifying phrases can just as easily be set off with commas, but here the case for the dash is strong. There’s already so many commas in the sentence, including the part between the em dashes, that the use of dashes makes it crystal clear where the clarifying starts and ends. To use commas instead would muddy the beginning and end of that phrase.
Often it is hard to understand why someone would use such a long sentence. A trick to figure this out is to rewrite it following the infamous writing rules and see how it changes the meaning and feel.
He understood why she wanted to sell the house. He wanted to stay for the same reason; Merry was still in every room. He acceded to her wish anyway.
Obviously I left some parts out, but the result wouldn’t change much. What I get from the exercise is that the long flowing form of the sentence has a plodding sadness to it. The choppiness of the shorter sentences feels to clean for the messy situation and not like thoughts at all.
The dash interruption somehow conjures so much in so little space. It calls to mind all these remnants of a child growing up in a house. The fact that it is placed in such an intrusive manner mimics how intrusive the memories are in the line of reasoning.
There is also a back and forth established: one the one hand, blah, on the other hand blah. The opening subordinate clause contributes to this feel, because “he acceded to her wish” makes you recall back to it to know that the wish is to sell the house. This makes the reader mentally perform the same back and forth the main character is going through in making the decision to sell the house.
The next sentence begins with a conjunction forcing the reader to continue the flow of thoughts as if the first sentence never ended. It starts with a subordinate clause again. This transitions to another phrase set off by a pair of em dashes, but it is different this time. Instead of clarifying, the clause is a contrast to the parts around it. Again, it would probably be more standard to offset with commas, but because the interior part is riddled with commas, the dashes clarify the starting and stopping points. It moves to the main clause and again has a comma before the final extra phrase.
Formally the two sentences are very similar. I think this is on purpose. The two sentences must be taken together, so he used a parallel construction to make the tie stronger. The second sentence contains almost the same exact content as the first with altered wording. This is because the first is so long and wandering that cycling through the same content doesn’t feel repetitive. In fact, this helps the reader to grasp it all on a first reading.
This also allows important new information to come into the fold. In the first sentence, we understand that the main character will leave the house he loves, but it focuses on feeling bad that the mother had to endure staying there as long as she did. The second sentence evokes just how painful it will be for him to move. The sentence are parallel but opposite in focus.
Lastly, consider how powerful the choice of language is: “however brutally it flew in the face of his own inclinations,” “abandon the house,” and “fugitive child.” These all call to mind such vivid images with strong emotional content underneath. These are the types of Roth-isms I referred to at the start.