“Magical Thinking” (1998), by Bo Bartlett
By Wyatt Mason
Against the Country, by Ben Metcalf. Random House, 2015. 336 pages.
The sentence—a series of words that forms the grammatically complete expression of a thought in writing—doesn’t exist as a concept in English usage until the middle of the fifteenth century. Until then, “sentence,” which originates in the Latin verb sentire (to feel), meant a progression of related things, none of which designates written expression. In 1200, “sentence” means the heart of a thought, its essence, as distinguished from the words used to express that thought. By the end of that century, we see it used as “a judgment,” one pronounced by a church tribunal in, say, a sentence of excommunication (1290); then, it becomes “an opinion,” particularly a judicial pronouncement of the punishment to be inflicted on a convicted criminal, a sentence of incarceration (1340); then, “a saying” of some eminent person, an aphorism or axiom (John Wycliffe uses it this way in 1380); and then, “a conviction,” one uttered by a person on a particular question, typically one on which he is consulted (how Chaucer uses it, in “The Physician’s Tale,” 1386). In all these instances, we see that the early English “sentence” is inseparable from spokenness. It’s synonymous with the idea of a “verdict”—from Latin verus, “true,” and Latin dictum, “saying.” No less than a verdict, a sentence was, by our English forebears, understood as the speaking of truths objective or subjective. A sentence was authoritative. It was authority’s voice.
In 1447, that changes. The Oxford English Dictionary credits a Suffolk friar with first using “sentence” to designate a complete, discrete written thought. The friar, named Osbern Bokenham, is describing a translation he’s executed “Not wurde for wurde … But fro sentence to sentence.” In part, he’s using sentence in the way it was first used: a thought whose wording matters less than what it’s getting at. But in this case, Bokenham is also using it in a new way to indicate, very literally, the sentences that he’s committing to paper. That shift—from sentence as an idea we voice to sentence as a thing on a page; from a thing that is authoritative to a thing that is authored—has everything to do with Bokenham’s historical moment: 1447 is seven years after Gutenberg began to share his ideas about movable metal type, and seven years before the first of his Bibles appears. Bokenham would very likely have had his hands on crudely printed texts by 1447, texts printed from engraved metal plates and blocks of wood that rendered text in low resolution unsuited to reproduction but suggested what was possible, what was about to happen. By 1500, movable type is all across Europe, and text on pages has become, for the first time in human history, ubiquitous. Suddenly, individuals other than kings could own books and possess them in solitude. The sentence, public and objective, was transformed into something private and subjective. What had been an end now became a means. The sentence ceased to be something that, by definition, delivered. Rather, it became a device, one intended to deliver a particular effect. And like all devices, it became something that risked, at any moment, becoming a point not of utility or of authority but of frustration, for anyone who didn’t know what to do with it.
Ben Metcalf, a noted essayist and now a novelist, seems guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of sentences written with intent. Consider one of them, from his first novel, Against the Country:
I could see the yellow beast coming for me a long ways off, as no impediment of trees obtained to the north, only an eerie undulation of pasture that seemed almost in cahoots with the road against it, and when the weather was hot, and the windows were open, the creature’s groan could be heard so far prior to its appearance that I was able to wash and dress and even swallow something before the time came to descend the driveway and be swallowed up myself.
The novel’s nameless narrator, a boy of ten when his parents move him and his brother and sister to rural Goochland, Virginia, sees a “yellow beast” coming for him across a pasture’s “eerie undulation.” As the beast crosses this landscape that the narrator elsewhere calls, forebodingly, “the great root,” he hears “the creature’s groan.” The narrator washes, dresses, and eats a last meal before descending the driveway and, at the bottom of the eighty-six words of his sentence, commits suicide in the mouth of the monster. Metaphorical, absolutely, this beast and its groaning, and only intimated the suicide. But the narrator’s real submission, we will come to understand, as we continue past this first sentence and read into the paragraph and the section it initiates, was suffered every childhood morning:
When it was cold out, and thin panes obscured the sound but got nowhere with the frost, and shiver fits throughout the night had anyway abolished my dreams, I was often enough still in my bed when I heard the muffled bleat from the road below, and I knew then that I would need to run or else be left behind. Neither snack nor toilet would be mine then on those occasions, but I at least had the advantage of being fully clothed and shod inside my sleeping bag, without which foresight I do not think I could have been convinced, or would have been able, to rise at all.
That “muffled bleat” is our first clearer sign of what this yellow beast—transformed here from lion to lamb—actually is: the “bleat,” a horn; the beast, a bus. Taken with the narrator’s “need to run or else be left behind,” the need—to meet his doom—now has at least one animating argument, what with the “shiver fits” that sleeping “fully clothed and shod inside [his] sleeping bag” suggest of the home he’s leaving behind: one that a child would be within his alienable rights to flee. So here we are, footed firmly in a morning ritual that many an American child can’t forget: that of boarding the yellow bus to school.
So one game being played, in these sentences so far, is the game of Make It New, in which The Very Prosaic Moment is given its renovation. “The school bus scene,” I needn’t tell you, is now a trope of American narrative folk-art, the scene in the movie that we have so often endured as to see it, when it cannot be elided, relegated to unroll behind an entertainment’s opening credits (“Get your butt downstairs or you’ll be late!” “Where do you think you’re going? That’s not a clean shirt!” “Don’t forget your lunch, Forrest!”). Common, but not necessarily commonplace, and the narrator would seem to want us to feel anew that shared ritual’s forgotten force—is how one could read the beastly dread with which his version vibrates. At minim, that ride remembered might make us wonder, as it does the narrator:
I wonder: When the great root below us inspired in Thomas Jefferson his idyllic hallucinations, and began to grow its system westward under the Appalachian range (toward the Mississippi snake oil it would require in order to reach and pervert California), did it bestow upon him a vision of the roving metal stomach that would, a mere century after his presidency, gobble up the nation’s schoolchildren by law each morning and vomit them into a freshly graveled parking lot? Did he understand that whereas this process would inflict upon the town child no more than a momentary and perhaps even a healthy terror, it would prove for the rural child a journey so drawn out and confined with the personality flaws of his peers as to allow for the partial birth of those communities his shacks and his farmhouses had tried and failed to form? Was the architect of the American dirt clod aware that these mobile townships would exhibit none of the grace and wholesomeness he had predicted for his agricultural societies, and would in fact be predicated on a hatred of self and surrounds, and would be policed no better than the shacks and the farmhouses (which, after all, stayed in one place, or appeared to)? Did he know, or care, that the introduction of such a predator into the Virginia hills would ensure that I received my first non-familial Virginia whipping, and enough thereafter to make me question my assumption that Virginia homes were to be got away from whenever possible, long before a Virginia schoolhouse had even come into view?
With its yoking in of Jefferson, who, we learn elsewhere, is one of Goochland’s former residents, our attention is drawn out the window of the bus to take in the broader view of our mythic land-seize, characterized here by our narrator not as a Birth of a Nation but a “partial birth” abortion of same. The original, operative metaphor of the yellow beast is maintained (“such a predator”) and mutated (“roving metal stomach”) and sustained (“gobble up the nation’s schoolchildren”) and magnified (“vomit them into a freshly graveled parking lot”). So chock-a-block in emphasis-unto-hyperbole is the paragraph that a reader could be excused for feeling that the narrator, in implicating a founding father in his commutorial distress, insists an insistence too far upon the horrors of his erewhile matutinal. A school bus is not a cattle car, after all. Unless, of course, overstatement has its end:
Almost as soon as I sat down on a Goochland school bus I was beaten into tears and rage by a teenage boy who with wide worried eyes yelled, “This ain’t slavery days no more! This ain’t slavery days no more!” which refrain I recall as clearly as I do my confusion about what the statement meant and what action of mine could possibly have prompted either the rhetoric or the volley of blows. Less violent passengers, saints to my mind, pulled me free of those fists, and up off the dull green vinyl where I had uselessly sought shelter, and shoved me aft, toward the equally amused faces of the children who more closely resembled me. I would make a clever reference to Rosa Parks here, but that would find me guilty of a great anachronism: in 1977, enrolled in what the Virginia Commonwealth loosely called the sixth grade, I had no idea who that woman was, nor could I discern much difference between the bow and stern of a vehicle that seemed to me an insult to everyone on it. I found a place in back near my brother, whose size and potential for violence might have protected me had the shock of life in the countryside not rendered him impassive and largely mute until puberty, at that point still as foreign to him as were the ominous firs he watched file past, from left to right, through the dirty windows of what he had instinctively understood to be no better than a cattle car.
The dreading of a school bus as one would an animal attack or a totalitarian tactic, and the sense on a child’s part that he was going to his death, daily inserting his head in death’s metal jaws, racing away from an icy cold house to do so: here the narrator’s monstrous metaphor collides with the moment that engendered it, the beatings suffered at the hands of his peers. Physical pain, physical fear: they preside over these pages and animate the images that dominate. Words (“This ain’t slavery days no more! This ain’t slavery days no more!”): we hear them land as dumbly as fists. And our narrator, who isn’t above making a joke of it (“I would make a clever reference to Rosa Parks here, but that would find me guilty of a great anachronism”), wants us to know, as he makes his way, at last, to the relative, and brief, safety of the back of the bus, that he won’t avoid a cleverness, in his accounting here, should the moment suit him. But this isn’t the moment. Having given us a taste of the facts that forged these sentences, forced their metaphors upon us and him, he gives us a sentence of another order:
When later I pressed my father for some clues about what had befallen me on the bus, he told me patiently of how the darker people in America had once been slaves to the lighter; of how a great conflagration had been set to free them; of how this effort had been doctrinally successful but not practically so; of how more than a hundred years later the slaves’ descendants remained in social and economic bondage; of how countless men and women had struggled all the while to change this; of how these people had made such a slow progress in their art that as recently as a generation ago, in this part of the country and in many others, it was still possible that a brown boy who said “Hello” to a pink girl, or in any way challenged the illegal and immoral order of things, might be set upon by a band of pink boys who would beat him senseless and maybe even to death; of how this notion of justice never seemed to apply to a pink boy who said “Hello,” or did worse, to a brown girl; of how even a secondhand knowledge of that not wholly bygone era was bound to engender a certain resentment in children whose parents and aunts and uncles had themselves been so victimized; and of how none of this was any excuse for a boy of his to lose a fistfight on the bus.
Here, in the persuasively grim 242 words of a sentence that shelters a happy family of eight dependent clauses, we hear America’s Story As Told to the Narrator by His Father: a pocket history of these United States as brutal nation of brutal justice, a story that in its clear accumulation of semi-coloned austerities suggests a father capable of engendering not only comprehension but compassion. Until we arrive, that is, with a snap of his talk’s whipping end, to its crueler tip: like the country that schooled it, the father’s compassion will have its limits when rounding on his son. Racial injustice notwithstanding, his boy ain’t gonna be no pussy:
I had a follow-up question (Why did we move here?), but it went unanswered and probably unheard. Within a day or two my brother and I found ourselves in front of the house with cheap padded gloves on our hands, our father keen to train us up so that we would not be made fools of in what he apparently mistook for the landscape of his own childhood. I remember that I began to cry, mostly out of anticipation, and set upon my brother with swings of the overhand type, which he casually countered with swings of the underhand type, which shortly left me aware of a great sky before me, and the earth against my back, and an intense nausea centered at the base of my skull. To my right, on the perpendicular, my father jutted out, shocked by one son and no doubt ashamed of the other. At my feet, my brother, whom I knew to be upright but who seemed just then to be lying back against the nothingness behind him, stared out, as he often did, at the nothingness above us all.
Cain slew his brother Abel, goes one story, but no brother will die here, not this day nor any other the narrator will report. Rather, as the yellow beast was harbinger of a hunger that the narrator encountered within the bus, rage emanating from residents of the narrator’s rural nightmare from which he cannot awaken, a people who “seemed drunk at all times on a private and unknowable sadness,” so too is this father’s presiding over the betterment of his sons through a tutelage in reciprocal brutality a token of what animates these pages: violence, directed at children, from a father who loved those children no less than Jefferson loved his country.
If I have quoted above—in sequence and in full—all 1,146 words that constitute “Partial Birth,” the section that opens “Book Two” of Against the Country’s seven such divisions, it is so that—a billion years from now, when our bodies are fossils deep within the earth and our libraries ash upon it and our data clouds long dispersed from the quiet skies above our future pharaohs’ tombs—alien anthropologists, at last arriving to reconnoiter in our waste, upon uncorking those late pyramids and prying open their last mummy-cases, might, after unspooling the bandages from lordly corpses, see, upon those papery strips, sentences set in an attractive serifed font, and puzzle back together these very pages you are reading, whereupon this alien intelligence more acute than our own could find, after decoding our runes, the thing they did not know to seek across a universe of darkness: a complete extant section of an American novel of unique aliveness, one that—reviews to date suggest—might otherwise be left, ankles pierced and bound, out on a hilltop to die.
Which is a way of putting it: the kind of sentence you might write, in rage, if you were trying not so much to sublimate the feeling as to use it, so it might fuel the better expression of the force that engendered it. The risk of such a sentence is that it could be seen, in its pushing of connective bounds beyond what is commonly called reasonable in our syntactical contact sport, as an instance in which performance overwhelms purpose, where the effort it undertakes outpaces the effect it provokes, the end of the enterprise advancing nothing more useful than the raising of suspicion, in a reader, that its writer doesn’t mean what he’s saying if he’s saying it that way, or that he’s not in control of his undertaking, if he insists on doing it that way. His doings? Overdoings. His sentences? Acts that alienate rather than seduce, embitter rather than endear, devices devised to make a reader wary, and weary, but not wise.
This is the kind of misreading Against the Country received when it was published, largely to silence, in January of this year. It drew scant attention from the world we designate “literary,” and none from the marketplace of what we call ideas, and when sounds of its arrival were audible, they amounted to brayings of uncommon asininity. Such a reception would make the fate of Metcalf’s novel common, were its features common too. Yet these uncommon features have yet to be seen by the reading public: prior to publication, no piece or part of the novel appeared in any of the places where such writings can attract benevolent attention—no excerpt, say, in the New Yorker, Harper’s, or the Paris Review, wherein writing of some little moment is often located. As such, few readers will have had the chance to come upon any of it; and those who did happen upon reviews of the novel will not have wanted to read any more of it (“No one I think will read this twice,” offered one of the positive reviews).
Beyond what I hope those passages make clear, full, as they are, with sentences of extraordinary interest and beauty, originality and art, drama and delight, I will say the following. I should confirm, personally, that at least one human reader has read the novel twice and found in it only pleasure, pleasure that was, absolutely, a unique experience of pain. Not the pains suggested by the novel’s blockhead reviewers—“effort” the word they keep naming to indict; “exhaustion” the condition they call in sick with: Metcalf has made them struggle so!—but the pain of a human child’s growing up.
Throughout its history, the novel has catalogued our frailties and torments, those suffered by us at the margins, which is to say those suffered by all of us who are always, sometimes, at the margins. Childhood is one such marginal place and time, and some of us never manage to cross its boundaries without immense struggle. Metcalf’s novel documents that struggle by, in part, making us struggle with his sentences. This is not a popular tact, presently, even if Metcalf’s quarry is as eternal as it is current. That other contemporary struggle with childhood and with an abusive father, My Struggle, Karl Ove Knausgaard’s not—336-page novel in seven “books” but 3,600-page novel in six volumes, is lately much praised for its production of sentences that do not call undue attention to their madeness. In the Knausgaard, the premium, as is lately the fashion (and, like all fashion, you are either attuned to its seasons or blissfully oblivious in your sweatpants), is on an idea of directness, of anti-artifice. As a reading culture, we find ourselves at a historical moment when our suspicion of the sentence is at its height. We know—we concede—that too often a sentence seems designed to sell us something we neither want nor need. As such, we may be said to have adopted, as a matter of self-protection, a mode of self-expression that eschews words like “eschews” and models its mode on our written moments that might be called authentic, our Twitter voice, our text tone, our email manner, shorn of all artifice. Whereas, with the Metcalf, I know no modern novel, and may know no novel, that is more adept with or attuned to or hell bent, than Against the Country, upon the deployment, at every possible turn, of metaphor as a means to its ends. It would take a book to catalogue them all—all these bringings across—so let me say that our school bus, met above, is, sure, just that, but it is also meant to be an entirely different animal, one that will petrify us, and mortify us, and also delight us in an uncomfortable way, the way we feel when, in rubbing the tummy of a favored dog, the shiny, ruddy, pointy tip of what isn’t his tail, extends all too eagerly, at our touch.
A metaphor, that. And one which points us to the problem I think Metcalf’s novel, in its intensity and purity of method, courts and sparks. Though the problem his work is encountering in the culture—the problem of being understood—is not new, it is newly venomous in this iteration. I have heard the problem best explained in my favorite book by J. Mitchell Morse, a late literary critic of great style and value, in his introduction to Prejudice and Literature (1976):
In my first year of teaching English my freshmen wrote one of their themes in response to a story entitled “The Petrified Giant,” which had to do with a large rock formation so named and its psychological effects on the people who lived near it. One girl wrote, “This story doesn’t make sense because a giant is bigger and stronger than anybody so why would he be petrified.” When we went over her paper in my office I asked her, “What does ‘petrified’ mean?” “Scared,” she said. “You know—petrified. Like when you’re petrified.” That was my first experience of a person who knew the metaphorical meaning of a word but not the literal meaning.
I won’t natter on about how degraded our capacity as readers has become, except to insist, once, on that degradation. It is not, that loss, a loss of some elite attitude or some province of the snob who would, with his worldliness, show the rest of us how little we are. It is a loss of authority—the authority to say what a sentence makes us feel after reading a sentence that is meant, only and always, to make us feel.
How do sentences make the narrator of Metcalf’s novel feel? Let us look to the birthday of that nameless narrator for an indication. Metcalf deals him 24 August, which, in the Catholic family of which the narrator is a member, means his feast day is that of Saint Bartholomew. Recall him. One of the twelve apostles, we have three stories of his beatification: in one, he is kidnapped, beaten, and drowned; in another, crucified, as Peter, upside down; and the last, in which he was skinned alive (and then beheaded). His story, like those of so many saints, has been told in painting throughout the past millennium; unlike most, his appears in Michelangelo’s Last Judgment, the saint floating bearded and bald at Christ’s left foot. A knife, the instrument of Bartholomew’s martyrdom, is clasped in his right hand; the skin he lost on earth is held suspended in his left. Michelangelo did not need to place Bartholomew so near, nor include him at all, for not all the apostles are so visible in this monumental piece of Western Art. But there he is, and not arbitrarily, for, historians assure us, the face painted adroop upon the empty skin hanging in the saint’s hand is a portrait of the painter himself, unmissable to any who knew him, that face a signature, a metaphor, a cry. The making of this artwork, that self-portrait suggests, hollowed him out, left him nothing more than a husk. Such a husk is something that Metcalf’s narrator has feelings on:
I had seen from the car window where the rural man’s husk went when there was no more work to be had out of it: to a sad little churchyard cemetery if he was lucky, or to a smaller and still sadder cemetery in the tall grass behind a farmhouse if he was not, there to explore eternity alongside a wife he could no longer touch, and a mother he could no longer do for, and a father he could no longer hope to impress, and in-laws he could no longer hope to avoid, and siblings he could no longer laugh with, and an uncle or two the drink had taken, and the odd aunt no man would marry, and of course all those infants who might have lived longer had they only been born in town.
A future critic—and if we are fortunate a little army of them—will discover, in Metcalf’s first novel, the attempt to tell the story of the sentence as a means to the end of feeling, its tortures and beatitudes. Sentences are the instrument of our narrator’s undoing, and the tool of his remaking. Yes, of the human subjects with which Metcalf’s narrator is certainly consumed, the father is both central figure and main metaphor, in a novel about inheritance, about what each of us means when we are, like a sentence—that other, earlier one—handed down. Metcalf’s novel is about hating a dead father whom you loved and loving a hated father who died and living through a hated childhood that you loved and left and which left you only rage, rage and language that lies on the page and will not make itself felt as the thing itself, life, made you, once—unforgettably, inexpressibly—feel.
Enjoy this story? Subscribe to the Oxford American.