The Varieties of Travel Experience   /   Summer 2024   /    Essays

I Sing the Electric Body

On Syntax

Brian Patrick Eha

“Stately, plump Buck Mulligan” (detail), illustration for James Joyce’s Ulysses, 1948, by Richard Hamilton (1922–2011); © Estate of Richard Hamilton/British Museum.

The third page of Amit Chaudhuri’s wafer-thin 2022 novel Sojourn finds the protagonist—an Anglo-Indian writer, like Chaudhuri himself—having breakfast: “The next morning I had a dark bread I’d never had before with coffee.” He is in Berlin, a stranger in a strange land, hence the unfamiliar bread. Had the author wanted clarity, though, the sentence should have read, “The next morning I had with coffee a dark bread I’d never had before”—unless he meant to suggest that the writer had indeed eaten this sort of bread before, but never, until now, with coffee. Alternatively, he might have told us, “The next morning, with coffee, I had a dark bread I’d never had before.” Substitute a word or two—say, “over coffee,” instead of “with coffee”—and the possibilities ramify still further. The whole tone might shift.

If a change of style is a change of subject, as Wallace Stevens averred, then a change of syntax is a change of meaning. Word order is, if not all, then nine tenths. I exaggerate, but I do so advisedly, as a corrective to the overemphasis on word choice, the unjust rule of the mot juste (recall here the old saying about the difference between lightning and a lightning bug) that dominates, to the detriment of other concerns, contemporary literature and creative writing. At times, this passion for the right—or the unusual—word reaps dividends; at others, it merely produces an uncalled-for flood of verbed nouns, portmanteaus, adjectives wrenched out of joint.

So in verse or prose you might find a sentence like “The jackdaw raises its head from the feeder, slipstreams away”—where that unusual verb, divorced from its usual meaning, is used in novel fashion to suggest fluidity of movement, speed. Or take the opening of “Pulse,” a short story recently published in The New Yorker: “He footed off his shoes, the logs balanced on an arm, and tugged the door shut.” Novelty is fine (so long as it’s not mistaken for originality), but it is hardly the only way to catch the reader’s eye, or, hold her attention. Word order all by itself can make a sentence new.

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