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Reading Like A Writer: A Drunk Sentence and Chelsea Girls

Posted on Thu, Aug 25 2016 9:00 am by Allison Wyss

I've been looking for a good drunk sentence—one that illuminates the experience, makes me feel the wobble, the high, and the stupidity of intoxication, and yet still can be read. I found an example in Eileen Myles's Chelsea Girls, which is a novel that is also a lot like nonfiction. It's about sex, drugs, art, and the life of a poet.

"The girl god, or the dog god, or the dead drunken daddy god, all the gods that protect me in my living did not spur me to reach for the one thing I saw as I flew to his big blue cop shoulders. The gun!"

First, the sounds themselves create the feel of intoxication, but not in the way I'd expect. Drunks slur, right? I'd probably try to write a sentence with an abundance of s's and r's—slippery sounds. I'd fill it with roly-poly fricatives and anything oily.

Myles's sentence does the opposite. She repeats the sounds that catch. D's and hard g's are rough in your mouth, in your throat. They're like bumps in a sentence.

It's not a sentence that I could imagine saying while plastered. Perhaps I couldn't.

Even pronouncing it sober is difficult—and that's the brilliance. When god dog wants to go backwards and be dog god or doggone and the hard consonants start tripping over each other, I feel the struggle to enunciate. The sentence is not about the sound of inebriation but the sensation of it.

I'm also interested in the alliteration because it pulls the separate words into a single unit, one that takes time to read or speak or process. It creates the sense that time is stretching. It's somewhat like sailing through the air—even though the g's and d's make for a bumpy ride.

And, of course, the narrator is sailing through the air. The preceding sentences give more context and intensify the experience:

"Like a famous tackle I performed on a boy in sixth grade, the last tomboy gesture of pre-adolescence, I do not remember getting off the ground, I only remember sailing through the air, leaping on the cop's back, getting my arms around his neck to choke him, or flip him, or something. On my float toward him I saw something. The girl god, or the dog god, or the dead drunken daddy god, all the gods that protect me in my living did not spur me to reach for the one thing I saw as I flew to his big blue cop shoulders. The gun!"

These sentences mimic a drunken hurling of self at—at what? They feel launched rather than planned. There's no sense of a landing and we don't know where we'll end up until we get there.

That first sentence is a great example of this no-landing style, with its extended dependent clause, "like a famous tackle…" We go quite a while without knowing what is like that tackle.

I should say I often dislike sentences like this. They make me anxious.  But in this case, not knowing is the point. And I'm not talking about the disorientation of an altered mental state.

We're vaulted over the meaning of the sentence in a long, extended clause. As we picture the tackle, we don't know why we're picturing it. It's like a blind leap—especially when you hurl yourself at a person. Will I stick? Will he catch me or dodge me or swat me down? The experience of the sentence mimics the action described.

However, even when we get there, it doesn't quite line up with our expectations. The tackle is not about the leap, but about not remembering. The mismatch of expectation and meaning seems to put a sort of ghost leap into play—one we imagine but then have no use for. But of course we do have use for it.

The middle sentence does the same thing but in a slightly different way. First, "I saw something" is perhaps the most frustrating phrase ever to be printed. If you're going to bother to say something was there, WHY NOT TELL WHAT IT IS? It's a false suspense, a contrivance that drives me crazy.

But here I admit it's useful. The narrator sees the gun but it's likely that she can't quite comprehend it, at least not in her state, not in that first glimpse. So we're made to see "something" that is not yet the gun in our understanding. It's weighted. It's important. But just like the narrator's brain hasn't quite processed the meaning of the gun, our brain isn't allowed to process it either.

The "girl god" sentence does a similar thing, not revealing the thing that she's not reaching for in the sentence at all. We have to wait until the next sentence—the two-word surprise that feels like the thud of a landing. And so, again, we're hurled over the point of the sentence. It's like flying and it's especially like drunk flying.

"The girl god, or the dog god, or the dead drunken daddy god, all the gods that protect me in my living did not spur me to reach for the one thing I saw as I flew to his big blue cop shoulders. The gun!"

That "not"—that she did not reach for the gun—is crucial. But it's also easy to overlook, which is why it's haunting. We might miss the "not" but then revise our reading, or we might read correctly but with the knowledge that we almost missed it. Both versions are in our brains at the same time.

But even if we read the sentence precisely and confidently, with the "not" ringing out against the gun, can we really be sure she didn't grab it? The previous sentences toy with the meaning of "not." She says "I do not remember getting off the ground"—but she must have left the ground. When we read the words, "did not spur me," it's tempting to believe that they must have actually spurred her, or perhaps that she was not spurred but did it anyway.

So again we're in this place of uncertainty. It's not a vague place. There are exactly two possibilities—that she did not grab the gun and that she did. The fact of the gun being there and her not grabbing it is every bit as specific as her grabbing it.

The rest of the story makes clear that she didn't actually grab the gun, but it's also haunted by the idea that she might have, that it's only luck or that girl god or dog god that protected her from making the night into something deadly. Making us doubt, briefly, what actually happened—not through vagueness, but by planting a specific alternative in our minds—makes us fear it in a profound way.

Therefore this drunk sentence is not just about recreating a woozy feeling, but about planting a specific ambiguity. It haunts the story and the reader with a frightening half memory that did not happen, but certainly might have. 

Allison Wyss is teaching two classes at the Loft this fall: How'd They Do That: A Craft Based Book Club for Writers and Beneath the Surface: Exploring Subtext. Her stories have appeared in [PANK] MagazineThe Southeast ReviewThe Golden KeyMetazenMadHat (Mad Hatters’ Review)The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review, and Juked. She has an MFA from the University of Maryland. She tweets, mostly about writing, as @AllisonWyss.