Thursday, February 15, 2007

Heavy Lifting

Last night, as the rest of the world watched Simon, Paula & Randy break young hopeful's hearts on American Idol, I cozied up on my couch with 448 pages of Gay Talese: A Writer's Life. It's the closest thing to aerobic reading I've ever experienced.

Talese, a longtime writer for the New York Times and the author of several gigantic works of nonfiction (not to mention the husband of power editor Nan Talese) seemed like a good bet for a little inspiration, and his book does not disappoint. Never in my life have I seen so many words - conveying such a wide breadth of information - crammed onto a single page. Two hours into this journey, my right foot was sound asleep and my eyes were wide with awe. I'd covered a mere 78 pages in that time, wherein Mr. Talese led me, like a kindly but adventurous grandfather, across three continents, four decades, two home offices, fifteen restaurants, and at least three generations without missing a beat. I've never read anything like it - I got up to go to the bathroom at one point and thought, "Wait a minute - how are we talking about his parents waltzing in the living room after dinner in the 1940s when two paragraphs ago we were wondering about the fate of a Chinese soccer player who missed a penalty kick in 1999?" I felt like a little kid again, having no idea where we were headed or what decade or industry we'd wander through next.

I was encouraged (and slightly amazed) by Talese's description of his writing process: he writes long-hand on a legal pad, in pencil. He writes a sentence, ponders it, changes it, erases it, starts over, wrestles with it until it's perfect. Then he starts a new sentence. When he's accumulated a full page of these perfected gems, he moves over to his typewriter and commits them to typeface (at which point he thinks of things that should be added or changed, which sends him back to his legal pad...) At this rate, he managed - over the course of a decade - to create 52 pages of usable prose. His finished books come in at 400-500 pages, making this man the perfectionist triathlete of the literary world. I say give him his preferential seating at Elaine's - he's earned it.

My FAVORITE part of the book so far, though, is on page 71. Explaining his tendency to drift off and eavesdrop while dining in New York's fine restaurants, Talese lets fly with a FOUR HUNDRED AND FORTY ONE word sentence. That's right - 441 words/one period. It's both horrifying and fabulous - I've never seen anything like it. Clearly, Talese ascribes to Stephen King's maxim that the road to Hell is paved with adverbs, as his 441 word creation (which, by the way, is really just a toss-off sentence where he ponders the fish someone is eating at a nearby table, speculating as to what sort of confusing day the fish must have had) contains only three.

My favorite part of the sentence (it's so long, it almost has chapters) is where he imagines the "bearded, brandy-breathed, scrawny, wife-abusing French-Canadian fisherman" who might have pulled up the net that captured the fish. Honestly, I don't use that many adjectives to describe ALL the people in my book, let alone one fictitious fisherman. Inspiring. (Although I suspect that to get this kind of monster by an editor you need to have reached a point in your career where people like David Halberstam call you "The most important nonfiction writer of his generation." I'm not quite there yet).

I'm going to type out this sentence - it may take me the next week or so - and frame it.


Stacy said...

I've never read a 441 word sentence before. I did read a highly confusing 30-line sentence in my literary theory textbook as a college senior, but I didn't count the words. I'm sure that the 441 word sentence could beat up that 30-line sentence. It'd be like a millipede in the boxing ring with centipede.

Beck said...

My husband, for the record, calls him "Real Man Woman Sexer" Talese.
That books sounds WONDERFUL. I am so short on books right now!

LEstes65 said...

Holy guaca-freakin'-mole! That sounds way beyond the simplicity my 238 brain cells can handle. But it does sound facinating. Glad you're finding something to inspire you.

Amanda Brice said...

Wow...441 words is crazy!

Alyssa Goodnight said...

If I wrote like that, I'd need to buy erasers and legal pads by the truckload and get garbage pickup daily.

Sounds like a must read!

sarakastic said...

My english teachers were always exasparted by my reluctance to start a new sentence. I knew I was right.