Alissa Nutting and the Simple Singing Sentence
I recently had occasion to reread Alissa Nutting’s great short story, “Dinner,” from her first collection, Unclean Jobs for Women & Girls. The story is a precise, diamond cut example of marrying the absurd with emotional resonance, of mastery of physical peril as an engine to scene, and, I was happy to rediscover, of the power of the short, surgical sentence.
“I am boiling inside a kettle with five other people.” Here the story begins. And it’s no metaphor. Our narrator is there, in the steamy mess of slowly loosening flesh with five guys (an Elvis lookalike, an oldie, a potential lover…). It begins in a rather cheerful manner, considering.
But here is the power of simple sentence, masterfully deployed. That Elvis lookalike? The resemblance is on account of his black hairdo, “vaguely pubic.” Silly, dismissive, but then the turn: “It may be from the humidity.” Right. Because they are all boiling in a kettle together. Steam, reddening their skin as it rises from the heat source to break the water’s surface and frizz out Elvis’s ‘do, is boiling them alive.
To say so in so many words, however, would overdo it. There’s no real panache to putting a character in mortal danger and then reminding the reader in explicit terms at every opportunity. The deftness in Nutting’s touch comes from directing the narrator’s (and the reader’s) attention to the dynamics that hover above the roiling surface of the water, while glancing sideways at the danger beneath. We, as readers, always remember that the danger exists—the peril keeps fueling the story—but our attention is diverted in such a manner that the reminders, when they do come, puncture rather than pound.
Look here: “Across the kettle, a man is trying to cry, but his tears keep evaporating before they can roll down his cheeks. For a moment, I have the romantic thought that maybe we are actually boiling in tears, hundreds of thousands of them, the sweetest-true tears of infants and children, instead of a yellow, chickenish broth.” A funny moment, but with the hint that even human emotional response is robbed as they are treated like meat. And the “yellowy, chickenish broth”—just as we slip into melancholy imaginings, we’re grounded again in the color, the smell, and the greasy feel of the characters’ lethal reality.
That Nutting’s work, the work highlighted above, is done at the sentence level is not to be ignored. Not every word on the page should dapple or undulate. Easily visualized words conveying resonant ideas can be relied upon to bring real crackle to a story. For the writer looking to punch the reader in the gut, short simple sentences have the heft and thrust of brass knuckles.
Craft your own simple singing sentences in Erin Kate's summer class at the Loft, "Sentence by Sentence" which starts July 14!
Erin Kate Ryan has published fiction in many literary reviews. Her fellowships and grants include a 2016 Minnesota Artist's Initiative grant, as well as a Bread Loaf Writers' Conference scholarship. She holds an MFA in Fiction, and a JD.