Sentences

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents–except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”

–Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, Paul Clifford (1830)

The Bulwer-Lytton Prize, named for the author of the torrential sentence above,  is just one of those wonderfully equalizing, wide-reaching internet-things enjoyed both by those who watch cute cat videos at work and those who read The Paris Review for fun.

Case in point, the 2007 Winner:

Gerald began—but was interrupted by a piercing whistle which cost him ten percent of his hearing permanently, as it did everyone else in a ten-mile radius of the eruption, not that it mattered much because for them “permanently” meant the next ten minutes or so until they were buried by searing lava or suffocated by choking ash—to pee.

–Jim Gleeson, Madison, Wisconsin

Are you laughing? I am. But why? Why is this sentence funny? Because it’s bad? Why is this type of bad funny? Writing can be considered bad for countless reasons. A run-on sentence, my specialty, is bad. A phony sentence is bad. A sentence with too many commas, or not enough, or one with words that should really be different ones, is bad. A sentence that makes no sense is a bad sentence. Maybe worst of them is the sentence that plainly tells you what its writer was trying to  emulate and how badly it all went astray. But what’s so funny about bad?

In the case of Gleeson’s sentence, it may be that in the span of one whole, real-time second, (between “Gerald began” and “to pee”,) we learn that Gerald begins to pee but does not finish and that he won’t be alive much longer, nor will anyone around him. Also, that they’re all deaf. That’s a lot of absolutely crucial information delivered in the most trivial context possible. Why is that funny, though?

Had the sentence started with “Gerald began to pee, but was interrupted by…” would it still be funny? I think so, yes. Look at it like this:

Gerald began to pee. Suddenly, he was interrupted by a piercing whistle which cost him ten percent of his hearing permanently, as it did everyone else in a ten-mile radius of the eruption, not that it mattered much because for them “permanently” meant the next ten minutes or so until they were buried by searing lava or suffocated by choking ash.

a piercing whistle which cost him ten percent of his hearing

permanently

not that it mattered much

“permanently” meant the next ten minutes

until they were buried by searing lava or suffocated by choking ash

Though not all of them are this funny, bad sentences are the most common thing in the English language. Sentences that have the appearance of bad ones but are, in fact, pure genius, however, are rarer.

Second case in point (the sentence immediately preceding this one doesn’t count):

“By rights, Jack should have headed west when his wife, Alex, left him, but they lived in California so he drove east, folding down the visor each morning against the sun.”

–Amy Hempel, “Sportsman”

Why is this a genius sentence? Because of the visor part, of course. So, in the end, its got little to do with mechanics. Little to do with grammar. To know why the Gleeson sentence is bad and unintentionally funny, all you need is to figure out why the Hempel sentence is good, graphic and funny in that you-can’t-help-but-smile-except-really-your-eyes-are-wet-and-there’s-not-much-you-can-do-about-it kind of way.

And so it goes.

-Aida


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2 Comments

Filed under Bits and Bobs

2 responses to “Sentences

  1. Julie von Zerneck

    Love reading this stuff. You never let me down. I am hooked.

  2. lilly

    I LOVE the Bulwar Lytton contest,, and the Hemingway Contest – read the entries with glee every year. I love bad, bad writing. 😀

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