You, dear reader, sit down to enjoy your book and, as patriarch or mistress of the dog and cat that you are, open the intended object of your delight, or you power it up on your e-reader device of choice that your beloved (not the loyal dog or the fickle cat) purchased for you not on one of the twelve federal holidays, but on one of those personal days: an anniversary, Valentine’s Day, or your special day, your birthday; and, as you get comfortable for the cat so she can sleep and drool on you, the dog, on account of canine get-along to go-along, accepts your stare and practices urinary retention exercises, but will, I promise you, lose sphincter control when you bolt upright with your WTF as you reach for your other device to tweet the ugly realization that your beloved book (and author) has betrayed you, committed an act of infidelity against your attention span by doing the unpardonable: writing the longest opening sentence.
The above sentence is 166 words.
There are a few contenders out there for the longest sentence in English (and American) literature. The two usual suspects are Faulkner and Joyce: the former dished out a 1,287 word wonder on page 361 of the MLA edition of Absalom, Absalom! (so says The Guinness Book of World Records) while the latter uncoiled a 4,391-word snake in Ulysses; but Joyce being Joyce would also pen a 36-page sentence out of Molly Bloom’s mouth as Leopold is trying to get her out of her drawers. Unfortunately, Joyce’s foreplay in the verbal arts falls short because Molly’s speech is actually two sentences. Editors missed her period seventeen pages in. Sorry, Jimmy. Since you and Bill are dead, I have to cite other modern exemplars of the long, winding green mile that ends with the axe of syntax: the punctus, the period, the one Faulkner saw as a pinhead upon which he could convey his gothic worlds.
True, there have been other practicing wordsmiths. Had Hugo described Gettysburg instead of a Napoleonic battle, Lincoln would have written a shorter speech, the war would have ended sooner because both sides would have fallen on their swords, quoting Poe’s Raven, “Nevermore.” Proust’s longest sentence was 944 words; it would have broken the back of Brokeback Mountain (1997) because it peeks out of the pages just as — gasp — the love that is not the pastry Madeleine but homosexuality makes itself known…well, sort of, as only Marcel can imply it. Then there is poor William James, the frustrated playwright, the closeted interior decorator, who loved to describe parental cruelty and the parlors of the well-to-do or wannabes, until Hemingway came along, whacked him upside the head with a blunt subject-verb and object without any adjectives or adverbs and rolled the blueblood in an area rug and tossed him in a dumpster somewhere behind Washington Square. Forensics would identify Henry from his signature colon and semicolons.
There are modern artists of the long con. It is a contentious line-up. Gabriel García Márquez is upset because he says he should be counted because Spanish is America’s second language. His Autumn of the Patriarch (1975) concludes with a doozy of a sentence. Sorry, Gabo: ¿Habla Inglés? But, if it is any consolation I have eliminated novels of the one long sentence. Yes, such freaks exist in the Academy. The locked exhibit in the bowels of the Smithsonian is rumored to have a picture of the book, with a bust of the author’s head that, I’m promised, will be plasticized upon the author’s demise. Márquez should take solace, however, that Mathias Énard’s Zone (2008), a 517-page one sentence, is not counted because it was translated from French. Sorry, Mathias. French diplomacy does not trump Spanish practicality in America. Eh, vous to you, too. Go read Perec’s Void (1969) that manages to coast along in French and in translation without ever using the letter ‘e,’ accented or not. S’il vous plait?
So who has made the Fugitive List of the runaway run-on? There is Laird Hunt’s Ray of the Star (2009) where each chapter is one long, LONG sentence; but hey, the paperback costs less than $6 – that is Costco savings on word count. The novel is about a man with RLS, Restless Leg Syndrome. The protagonist was, like your dog, waiting to pee. Just kidding. Ed Park, the author of Personal Days (2008), unleashes a Joycean of an ender with a sentence of over 16,000 words. Nigel Tomm’s The Blah Story (2007), clocked in with a brimstone of a choker to roll uphill: it’s another one-sentence novel, 469,375 words; but Tomm was disqualified for a lack of subject and verb coordination and for being a one-sentence novel. Tomm, you should be happy to know that Papa Hemingway in eternity was on your side, mate; he thinks the sobriety tests are way too tough, so the lack of coordination is understandable. So who is the modern Dillinger, the literary outlaw of the longest verbal assault of a sentence ever to come out of a literary cortex?
Jonathan Coe’s The Rotter’s Club (2001). It has a sentence that gasped and collapsed short of the next hundred-yard marker at 13,955 words. Jonathan, what happened? 45 words is a mere sprint. Had you held your breath for five more seconds, you would have made the wall at the far end of the pool.
The question that remains, the one that I cannot answer, concerns Motivation. Capital ‘M’ for Motivation, not Murder, although, as Czech novelist Bohumil Hrabal’s narrator in Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age (1964) remarked: “No book worth its salt is meant to put you to sleep, it’s meant to make you jump out of your bed in your underwear and run and beat the author’s brains out.”
Do readers read or want to read long sentences? Is the writer really writing these sentences because he has to, or is it just showing off? For a novel to start out with a ponderous plank of a sentence sets a dangerous tone – is your writing so good that it will lull a reader in, lure him or her in and make that reader forget about the cat’s claws kneading the lap, ever so close to the good parts, forget about Fido who is ready to burst but will endure it all because he is a dog, loyal in a stupid kind of way, and easy to buy off with a bacon snack, or is your leviathan of a sentence a necessary construction? The Titanic was also a marvel of maritime construction. I have also wondered about the attention span of readers. No agent will read it between inhaling a sandwich and fixing his or her Bluetooth headset.
Then there is the changing of the aesthetic guard. It is hard to read Henry James after Hemingway. The novel is a dying breed and we live in a literary landscape where the short story has gotten shorter and flash fiction is dangerously close to the maximum 140-character limit of that modern bird, the Tweet.
But I’m a guy who likes the sound of language, although I do not hear well. My thought is this: when do you take in air and breathe? Homer – not Simpson – the poet had a long day, but he breathed. When I think of these long sentences in the modern penal colony of writing I hope the story behind the window is worth the dressing. I hope peeling through the layers is worth it. Otherwise, I imagine myself locked in the greenhouse among the orchids with old man Sternwood from The Big Sleep (1939), where I hope to God that after a tepid glass of brandy a rogue vine of wisteria rises up, curls on up the final chair, and strangles me because each comma prolongs my suffering, the end-stop period not in sight.
Disclosure: I penned a 111-word sentence for Zouch’s Lit Bits Contest. I won. They sent me a clock. End of story.