God Talk

In the Wall Street Journal, Meghan O’Rourke discusses the virtues of cadences in prose writing. “The American literary tradition is filled with writers who have understood that the power of writing springs not only from the precision of sentences but from the feeling evoked by their rhythm,” she writes. As one of her chief examples she cites Moby-Dick, which right from the first sentence evokes a “tragic Old Testament resonance.”

O’Rourke doesn’t discuss it in her piece, but that Old Testament resonance has a long history in American literature. In his 2010 book, Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible, Robert Alter discusses how those old rhythms have played out in the works of a handful of writers. Melville is Alter’s Exhibit A: Moby-Dick, Alter writes, exemplifies Melville’s skill at blending the authoritativeness of the King James Bible and American colloquial speech. Among the tools Melville uses to pull of that balancing act (aside from heaping helpings from the book of Job), is parataxis—telescoped, run-on sentences that make liberal use of the word “and.” One example from the book: “Lank Bildad, as pilot, headed the first watch, and ever and anon, as the old craft dived deep in the green seas, and send the shivering frost all over her, and the winds howled, and the cordage rang, his steady notes were heard,—”

“This is not a kind of syntax that is at home in early modern or modern English, or, at any rate, it was not at home until the appearance of the King James Version,” Alter writes. Alter’s study of parataxis extends to Faulkner, Hemingway (“It was a forest of cork oaks, and the sun came through the trees in patches, and there were cattle grazing in the trees”), Cormac McCarthy and Marilynne Robinson (“Well, see and see but do not perceive, hear and hear but do not understand”). As I’ve noted before, Alter’s not always convincing: His attempts to find the Old Testament in Seize the Day feel strained. But he’s never totally off-track, and with the King James Bible turning 400 this year it may be the right time for a retrospective look.

Alter concedes that the connection between American fiction and the King James Bible is fraying, especially since it isn’t the standard text in most congregations now. Yet “something of the old dynamic stubbornly persists,” Alter writes. Reviewing Pen of Iron in the New Republic, Adam Kirsch notes America’s dwindling biblical literacy and asks, “It would be interesting to try to read more recent American fiction through Alter’s lens: can you hear the Bible in David Foster Wallace’s prose, or Lydia Davis’s?” Well, we can give it a shot.

This week’s New Yorker includes “Backbone,” an excerpt from David Foster Wallace‘s forthcoming posthumous novel, The Pale King. Structured and styled much like a medical case study, the story depicts a few years in the life of a preadolescent boy whose “goal was to be able to press his lips to every square inch of his own body.” Wallace mostly looks at the boy from a clinical distance, and anatomical jargon quickly piles up: “the interior thigh’s dense and intransigent gracilis, pectineus, and adductor longus, which fuse below Scarpa’s triangle…” And so on. It’s ugly, unliterary language—perhaps all the better to match the obscure, awkward behavior it describes.

But if those clots of Latin will only fuel the exasperation of people who are easily exasperated by Wallace, it’s worth noting where his language loosens up. There’s a bit of that parataxis when the boy is relaxing in his room, depicted as one with nature:

Light from the sun came through the tree at different angles and intensities at different times of day and illuminated different parts of the boy as he stood, sat, inclined, or lay on the room’s carpet, stretching and holding positions.

We get a similar but more extended glimpse of the boy’s environment a bit later:

Past the southern exposure’s tree were the foreshortened roofs of neighborhood homes and the fire hydrant and street sign of the cross street and the forty-eight identical roofs of a low-income housing development beyond the cross street, and, past the development, just at the horizon, the edges of the verdant cornfields that began at the city limits.

There are a few other examples of Wallace stretching out the sentences like taffy, usually moments when he wants to set cold omniscience aside for a moment and zoom in on a character’s nature. (My favorite ends with “a sort of dutiful tedium of energy and time and the will to forge on in the face of despair.”) None of which proves that Wallace had a strong stylistic interest in the King James Bible—run-on sentences can also just be a way for a writer to work up a head of steam. But “Backbone” is unquestionably a God-concerned story: The case study references religious mystics who performed various acts of bodily abuses on themselves as a way of acting out God’s will, and one of the questions “Backbone” opens is whether this sort of extreme action is a clinical or a spiritual act.

The narrator says “the boy had no conscious wish to ‘transcend’ anything,” but he’s not denying that the action has had a spiritual impulse. The story needs those crazed mystics to give a flesh-and-blood counterbalance the dry bones of his medical condition. And while nobody gets Jesus in the story, Wallace understands how old-fashioned Biblical syntax can be a source of uplift. The boy’s father keeps a list of inspirational lines taped to the bathroom mirror, including: “The coward flees even when no man pursueth.—The Bible” That’s slightly off from the King James Version’s translation of Proverbs 28:1 (“The wicked flee when no man pursueth”). But considering how far the KJV has had to travel through naturalism and realism and modernism and postmodernism and all the rest, it’s close enough.

One thought on “God Talk

  1. You know what book surprised me with its very Old Testament styled cadences? “The Wizard of Oz.” Very “And then Dorothy scaled the wall, and it was hard. But lo she perched at its peak and scouted the kingdom before her, and it was good.” Or “The lion cowered in the corner, shaking with fear, then summoned his courage and smote his enemy.” Stuff like that. Very not dramatic, which perhaps makes some sense for a series stretched out over 3000 books (OK, 13 or whatever).

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