All your walkmans fizz in tune

Adam Mars-Jones

  • BuyA Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride
    Galley Beggar, 203 pp, £11.00, June 2013, ISBN 978 0 9571853 2 6

To go on a starvation diet in terms of the comma (including the inverted ones that designate speech), as Eimear McBride does in her remarkable, harshly satisfying first novel, may not seem a particularly drastic discipline, set beside such feats as eliminating the letter ‘e’ (Perec’s La Disparition, Englished by Gilbert Adair as A Void) or telling Ophelia’s side of the story using only the words Shakespeare allots her (Paul Griffiths’s Let Me Tell You). McBride compensates by scattering full stops with a liberal, raisin-loaf-making hand, but her avoidance of commas is enough to shake up other conventions.

Commas bred freely in the favourable conditions of proto and early modernism. The priority for many writers seemed to be to defer grammatical closure for as long as possible, subjecting direct statement to parentheses and qualifications of every kind, and keeping the maximum number of plates spinning with flicks of punctuation. It would do Henry James’s vision more violence to translate his books into an English deprived of intermediate stops than to render them in a comma-rich Esperanto. The novels of Proust and Mann would lose much of their intellectual flavour if commas were rationed. Céline took away the sting of finality from the full stop itself with his obsessive use of the ellipsis, making it a sort of super-comma – the equivalent of Tristram Shandy’s dashes. A reluctance to abide by the arbitrary curfew of the sentence-end or paragraph-end is strong in Broch, Bernhard, Bolaño.

There were short sentences before Hemingway, but it was Hemingway who made the short sentence part of both a literary and a moral agenda, a matter of looking at the world frontally and without distracting elaboration, of seeing things as they are, as if words could ever do that, and giving precedence to described actions over spelled-out feelings. Hard-bitten understatement became a way of being in the world without illusions. Short sentences in this tradition have an impersonality that codes itself as male (odd that you can disown personality while continuing to insist on gender).

Hemingway’s style, with its anti-aestheticising aesthetic, is still influential. Cormac McCarthy dispenses with the apostrophe in shortened forms like ‘doesnt’ and ‘wouldnt’, though the need for clarity requires him to keep it in ‘can’t’, with the result that the impression of imperative sparseness suffers, chafing so inconsistently against typographical convention. (James Kelman has the same parsimonious way with an apostrophe.) If the short sentence can be characterised as masculine, that doesn’t mean that the long sentence is any less so, symbolically, even if Joyce, in the final section of Ulysses, proposed Molly Bloom’s endless unpunctuated flow as an archetype of femininity, a visionary notion at the time even if it has come to seem rather quaint.

Reversing the formal procedure of Molly Bloom’s monologue, chopping up its continuousness with frequent full stops, putting the emphasis on sentence fragments, would give some sense of the impact of McBride’s A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing:

It’s only the first time. After that it’s just. The ordinary. Do it. And think no more about it why can’t you? Kiss a man. Without going and marrying him. First. You sometimes love to. Wildly. When you feel that way. So nice. All. Over. You. You can’t help yourself. I wish some man. Or other. Would take me sometime. When he’s there. And kiss me in his arms. There’s nothing like a kiss. Long. And hot. Down. To your soul. Almost. Paralyses you.

Even with this drastic syncopation Molly is more at peace with her emotions than McBride’s unnamed narrator, who often shoots out sentences that are as blocked in their rhythm as they are molten in feeling.

In the earlier, day-lit episodes of Ulysses, Joyce used sentence fragments to cue transitions from narration to interior monologue. A passage like this of McBride’s is recognisably of that lineage: ‘That water. Smells like onions. Growing in the hot tap. Flake of scale there. Mine. Rough skin. Scalp. Hard water soap doesn’t lather and shampoo going down the drain. Gully lets the cold in like an open door.’ The difference is that McBride’s book is all interior monologue, with only incidental description of any outside world, and fragmentary sentences outnumber full ones. Speech is faithfully notated, and sometimes also the not-speech that Joyce treated with hardly less respect, in the case of sea sounds or a cat’s voracious miaowing. ‘Thoo pthoo’, for example, mimics the dental and plosive sounds made when someone spits out stray strands of tobacco while smoking a roll-up.

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