Really? Why clutter the path with two redundant nuns? Surely Atwater’s ailment needs no separation from its fatal outcome, but these decisions hinge on the tenet of lending each detail its equal moment.
As Norris writes, commas mark the “thoughtful subordination of information”. In The New Yorker’s case, the bias favours a close style of punctuation, erring on the meticulous side. Ambiguity is anathema. Occasionally, this, inspires, lampoons, from, humourists. Even the inhouse editorial team can chuckle at itself, the office shelves boasting a cardboard canister marked Comma Shaker.
Speaking of shakers, let’s meet James Salter, the deeper reason that Simpson Desert stumper left me chasing mirages. Salter is considered a writer’s writer, a coded way of saying a writer who deserves more readers. Salter, born James Horowitz, in 1925, (damn you, New Yorker), flew combat missions in Korea before piloting sentences for a quid, producing a modest stack of seven novels, but by God, they haunt me.
Page by page they contort grammar. Break it. Flirt with tense shifts. Defy logic. Such as this: “No one is there – a single man reading the newspaper.” No way. You can’t say that, but the paradox strikes a chord. Thanks to Salter’s tampered grammar, the paper-reader is affirmed as incidental, marginalised for missing the narrator’s initial census.
Two indefinite articles for the price of one. It’s anarchy.
Elsewhere in Salter-ville, another character’s anguish is underscored: “Suddenly he felt a terrible, a bursting pain.” See what I mean? Two indefinite articles for the price of one. It’s anarchy. Yet the pain feels sharper for the author’s breach.
If you read one story in Salter’s prize-winning collection – Dusk (Modern Library, 1988) – then make it Twenty Minutes. The title refers to the diminishing time left to Jane Vare, a fallen equestrian, lying alone and wounded in a field. The prose mirrors Jane’s delirium with grammatical contempt, including “She knew there was a God, she hoped it.” Or the exquisite memory of a distant party: “She was filled with warmth and a little drunk, was he?”.
Norris, as you’d imagine, was equally plagued by Salter. She once wrote to query his renegade ways. Salter’s reply proved the scofflaw’s premeditation: “Punctuation can contribute to the music and rhythm of the sentences. You don’t get permission for this, of course; you take the liberty.”
Hence my straits when Catherine Economos dropped a line, inducing a comma-coma of sorts, leaving me to steer a skittish horse across the Simpson, dinking two nuns, with Norris in one ear, Salter the other, doomed.