Punctuated Prose: A Thousand Questions and a Never-Ending Sentence

This morning's journey rushes to an abrupt end, then starts again. Or it presses on, urgently. Punctuation is both character and device in two unlikely if amazing novels I am in a mild fever to celebrate just now. These are reads for the adventurous, the curious, the frisky, the uneasily amused. Potential gifts to impress the hard-core reader, stimulate conversation but, best of all, fun and satisfying to read in spite of (because of!) their odd construction around, respectively, questions and never-ending declarative sentences. Call them experimental, avant-garde, but don't call them gimmicky or only provocative (although they are) for the sake of only provoking.     

Since publication of his quietly brilliant 2009 novel The Interrogative Mood: A Novel?, Padgett Powell seems to have created a fan club, and justifiably so. Admirers, if this matters to you, include Richard Ford (Canada) and Jonathan Lethem (Chronic City). This novel turns out to be a best-kept secret of a book, for perhaps too-easy and obvious reasons, not the least of which is its conceit. Each sentence in the short 164-page "novel" is indeed a question, mostly short and sometimes testing the definition of same. This is not the Socratic method variety of rhetorical questions, not debate, not argument. Each interrogative feels at once complete, an imponderable pondering, but the excitement of the book (start anywhere you like) is what's next, what follows. This is a long paragraph, a long short story, a novella. Or is it? I am not smart (or brave or foolish) enough to fully or accurately explain except that the book is less experimental than experiential. Some clever copy writer offers on a recent paperback reprint that the book "leaves the reader feeling more alive."  Exactly.  

Powell's most well-known of the four novels he has authored is Edisto, which I have read
 twice. The Interrogative Mood is a latish discovery by this until now inattentive fan, but it has stayed, gratifyingly in my imagination for months since I read it. I keep going back to the book for something like inspiration, a kind of quick, yet sustaining jolt of juice from the curiosity and delight machine that it is.  In fact, reading a page or two before sleep seems to both calm me and prime the journey of imagination that one wishes for in a dream.  Here's the opening:

Are your emotions pure? Are your nerves adjustable? How do you stand in relation to the potato? Should it still be Constantinople? Does a nameless horse make you more nervous or less nervous than a named horse? In your view, do children smell good? If before you now, would you eat animal crackers? Could you lie down and take a rest on a sidewalk? Did you love your mother and father, and do Psalms do it for you? If you are relegated to last place in every category, are you bothered enough to struggle up? Does your doorbell ever ring? Is there sand in your craw: Could Mendeleyev place you correctly in a square on a chart of periodic identities, or would you resonate all over the board? How many push-ups can you do?

Associative, if not free associating. It all makes sense, with something less a through-line than a line of inquiry as a thoughtful walk, like the kind I am told actors take while memorizing their lines for a play.  Locomotion toward learning.  A "to do" list of existential and practical possibilities. Hypothetical questions, jokes, come-ons, one-uppers, non sequiturs, overheard conversation, trivia questions, all of it is here in the accomplishment of an enviable result, if result is exactly the wrong word for a long story which is potentially, happily endless:  whimsy and, simultaneously, ethical and humane self-interrogation. Of the reader, the author, of society. Do I love this novel?  

The Americas is an already impressive and long-running series from Texas Tech: "Contemporary fiction and nonfiction, cultivating cultural and intellectual explorations across borders and historical divides." Past titles it has published seem mostly from so-called "Latino" writers, including the recent Breathing, In Dust by San Joaquin Valley-raised poet, novelist and painter Tim Z. Hernandez.  Its impressive advisory board suggests to this reader a commitment to not just filling in a socio-political worldview but providing a place for challenging art.  So I was not surprised, if still pleased, to receive a copy of this terrific outfit's latest project, from a writer whose work I have printed in Santa Monica Review, which doesn't mean a whole lot because Texan Peter LaSalle is much published and has won every kind of award. His Tell Borges If You See Him won the Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction. Still, he is maybe not quite a household name (well, depends on your house, I guess) and has earned a reputation for eclectic and indeed challenging writing. Luckily, his short novel Mariposa's Song has found just the right home in this series, which also includes Nicaraguan poet Ernesto Cardinal and Moacyr Scliar, the late Brazilian writer and physician. In an arguably familiar story about a young Honduran woman in the US without papers who is exploited and betrayed in every way you will imagine, LaSalle reintroduces and makes nearly operatic the tragedy of displacement and exploitation, and beautiful and lyrical too. Our heroine is a B-girl in a crappy East Austin bar, with a back story and a grim future. The political and socio-economic realities are kaleidoscopic and scary. But all of this is made dazzlingly, painfully, irresistibly engaging - beyond the description and characterization and plot - by its singular device. The book is entirely composed as, yes, a single book-length sentence, with only ellipses and "and" in between chapters, all of it musical and hypnotic. 

At first, you might not even notice the device, so urgent is the story, but how could you not, and focus on and root for it, and read carefully, perhaps out loud?  Kind of impossible to excerpt, but here goes, from halfway through a chapter halfway through the story:

...she was something imagined just like so much else in Club El Pajaro Verde was all something imagined for Mariposa, the dream of it, and tonight the girl wore a skirt that wasn't only short but almost wasn't a skirt whatsoever, it was merely a black horizontal stripe that started somewhere well below her navel and did what it had to do for a few tentative inches to cover the tops of her slim teenager's thighs, nothing more, so that any man seeing her would stare at what pretended to be a skirt, skimpy like that, and from behind you could see below it, peeking out, the crescents of her bottom, and from the front you were almost sure you could see a little satiny red triangular patch of thong panties, X-marks-the-spot for the men, even if you couldn't see that and even if her panties weren't red thong panties, that's what a man night picture, or definitely would picture, she had long mahogany hair and very high cheekbones and very full lips, her complexion was flawless, she wore gold strappy high heels that might have been from Payless but on her looked anything but that...

Both books are possible to read in a sitting, but then sitting is not perhaps the right position or posture. They are short, and both are so perfect in their ambition and promise that they seem to occupy the mind as so much more. They are audacious and impossible, which makes their creation by these two writers such a celebration.

The Interrogative Mood: A Novel?, Padgett Powell, Ecco, 192 pgs., $13.99

Mariposa's Song, Peter LaSalle, Texas Tech University Press, 146 pgs., $24.95

Andrew Tonkovich hosts the Wednesday night literary arts program Bibliocracy Radio on KPFK 90.7 FM in Southern California.

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