The Sentence Queers Modernism: What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell

The review in The New Yorker of Garth Greenwell’s first novel What Belongs To You argues the whole novel reads like a single sentence and calls the text Woolfian.[1] To consider this prescription on its own terms, the present essay (1) thinks through what the Modernist sentence was, (2) asks whether Greenwell’s novel develops a/the neo-modernist sentence, and (3) finally, posits how the narrative’s thematic queerness might interact with its syntactical experimentation.

The Modernist Sentence

While the Russian Formalists may have disdained the mimetic function of art[2], the totem of literary criticism on the Modernist movement has remained Erich Auerbach’s final chapter in Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. Called “The Brown Stocking” after a passage from Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, the chapter articulates a sort-of checklist of the Modernist fictional form in its relation to depicting reality. For Auerbach,

The essential characteristic of the technique represented by Virginia Woolf is that we are given not merely one person whose [consciousness] (that is, the impressions it receives) is rendered, but many persons, with frequent shifts from one to the other…The multiplicity of persons suggests that we are here after all confronted with an endeavor to investigate an objective reality, that is, specifically, the “real” Mrs. Ramsay. She is… as it were encircled by the content of all the various consciousnesses directed upon her (including her own); there is an attempt to approach her from many sides as closely as human possibilities of perception and expression can succeed in doing. The design of a close approach to objective reality by means of numerous subjective impressions received by various individuals (and at various times) is important in the modern technique which we are here examining.[3]

Auerbach is theorizing the unique way the Modernist depicts personal consciousness: through the interpolation of multiple subjective perspectives. This may relate to David Hume’s notion of the “bundle or collection of different perceptions”[4] that make up the self — Auerbach does not make it clear from which philosophical tract he is pulling these prescriptions beyond Woolf’s text itself. Nonetheless, according to Auerbach, the wholeness of the subject in Modernist form is articulated through the multiple perspectives that align around that subject.

This, of course, is not a prescriptive of the syntax of Modernist sentences. However, Auerbach does mention the “dreamlike wealth of a process of consciousness which traverses a whole subjective universe”[5] not long after the above passage in relation to the Woolfian sentence. In that passage, he is referring to the way the surface action is interrupted by thoughts about a subject that may go on longer than what the reader would guess is the end-time of the surface action. For example: looking up at someone does not take much time, Auerbach notes. Yet, in the Woolf text, this action is imbued with thoughts that go on far beyond the elapse of time needed to look up. This is often called ‘stream-of-consciousness’—though I am less tempted to use this phrase because, as a former professor once noted, it is not entirely accurate for all Modernist authors, especially American Modernists. A better phrase might be the ‘formal articulation of thought.’ Regardless what one may call it, this articulation presents itself through the sentence, often very long sentences with multiple ‘excurses’ (Auerbach’s term for the interjection of subjective thought into surface action). The presentation, then, is the long sentence that delves into layers upon layers of interjections. For Auerbach, the purpose is to attempt holistic representation of various subjects in order that we get the sense of objectivity.

The syntactical experiments, which they ought to be so called as they occur as part of the sentence and are indeed manipulating the sentence in order to perform something (consciousness), provide complexification of the scene, character, and form. As Auerbach notes, the interjections within the sentences provide a “polyphonic treatment of the image which releases it,” which is to say that it can provide a fuller view of the image, especially if that image is a character’s complex relationship with another. The interjections, as we will see in Greenwell’s novel, may simply be a fleeting opinion of the setting, character, or image. This, however, does not undermine its power to complexify since ultimately this provides another layer or quality to that setting, character or image. This affinity for complexification has resulted in some referring to Modernist narrative as wordy and boring, the sentences too long and ultimately leading into even more cryptic details. However, this detraction might actually prove the experimental quality of the Woolfian form in the sense that ‘the takeaway’ of the text is not its thematic narrative but its formal quality.

That the Modernist sentence is experimental first and narrative second surely relates to the Russian Formalist premise that art’s constructedness is what makes it art. While Jakobson’s immigration to the U.S. was decades after, the Modernist and Russian Formalist movements occurred nearly simultaneously. The Modernist critique model of New Criticism was king in the U.S. but its relation to Russian Formalist technique cannot be denied. Both recognize the text as the master of its own devices, denied cultural or psychological readings, and claimed objective or scientific ability. Since the nature of Russian Formalist movements is rather heterogenous and its supposed doctrine is more epistemological, one might correlate Russian Formalism as the umbrella term for which New Criticism creates one (of many) specific methodologies (figure 1).

Figure 1

image description: chart featuring Russian Formalism as being the umbrella under which new criticism, systemic formalism, and linguistic formalism arise

This notwithstanding, both Russian Formalist and the Modernist sentence foreground the constructedness rather than the narrative’s function. This is to say that the narrative takes a backseat to the form of the sentence presenting consciousness. Auerbach says as much in his final words on Woolf:

The momentary present which the author directly reports and which appears as established fact…is nothing but an occasion…The stress is placed entirely on what the occasion releases, things which are not seen directly but by reflection, which are not tied to the present of the framing occurrence which releases them.[6]

The stress is on the experiment. The point is not to imbue the measuring of a sock with large narrative importance but rather to use it as an entrance into the consciousness and memory of the subject, as an occasion for complexification. Moreover, that this experiment (the articulation of thought) is performed through the sentence specifically is important and distinct since the sentence is but one of many forms the text may take.

Memory, of course, plays a crucial part in the subjective experience and thus will play a crucial part in the Modernist sentence. After Woolf, Auerbach turns to Proust, whose narrative ‘occasions’ are not irrelevant to the complexification they release in the same way as in Woolf’s text. According to Auerbach, Proust will use the solitary perspective ‘I’ and, in order to achieve objective representation of that perspective, uses subjective memory (rather than multi-personal perspectives). One occasion opens up a memory in Proust’s text so that the present self is articulated as the sum of the present experience and all past experiences.[7] This break in the temporal action, which Auerbach calls the use of “reflected consciousness and time strata,”[8] is something Modernists do well. And more importantly for this paper, it is something they often do within a single sentence.

Greenwell and other similar experimental authors adopt many of these methods: namely, the use of multiple perspectives, temporal interruption by memory, and long syntactical articulations of thought. This begs the question, of course, whether the Modernist movement is revived. Entire monographs have been written on the upsurge of Modernist technique in the contemporary moment. The subject of this paper is not the use of the technique in a general sense but in the performance of this technique using the sentence. The sentence is important because it is the medium through which the relationship between narrative and reader is articulated. The alteration or manipulation of the sentence, especially when the narrative takes a backseat to this experimentation with the sentence, changes this relationship. Auerbach notes the Modernist style as doing just that:

It makes severe demands on the reader’s patience and learning by its dizzying whirl of motifs, wealth of words and concepts, perpetual playing upon their countless associations, and the ever rearoused but never satisfied doubt as to what order is ultimately hidden behind so much apparent arbitrariness.[9]

The ‘order’ to which he refers brings us again to the Russian Formalist premise for making something of the ‘apparent arbitrariness’ within a complex text. Auerbach, whose study is about the representation of reality, may call the mishegoss the text presents ‘apparent arbitrariness,’ but this paper sees the text as inherently imbued with constructedness. In reading the sentences’ performances, whether as representations of reality or consciousness or whatever else, the power, function, and meaning of the text may also reveal itself.

            To recapitulate before the following section on Greenwell’s novel, then, the Modernist technique is characterized by long sentences since the surface action is often interrupted by a stream of thoughts or a memory. This interruption may serve to complexify the action and/or as a representation of the subject’s own thought process, which often exists within the present action, of course, but which is also colored by the memory or opining released in the interruptive episodes. These episodes Auerbach calls excurses, a term I will also use.

Greenwell’s Sentence

            In What Belongs to You, the form emulates the Modernists’: most if not all of the dialogue is without quotation marks (something Auerbach notes of Woolf’s) and is told to the reader in past-tense as if the entirety of the text is memory; the novel is made up of three long chapters, the middle of which is itself an excursus, detailing the childhood experience and relationship between the narrator and his father and complicating the first and last chapter, which both take place in the present and are about the narrator finding out his father has died and spending time with a sex worker he meets and for whom develops affection named Mitko. In Greenwell’s novel, the sentences build on each other much the same way the Modernist sentence does: through excurses. The first clause is followed by an appositive phrase, then continued, then clarified. Take the first two sentences of the novel as a primary example:

That my first encounter with Mitko B. ended in betrayal, even a minor one, should have given me greater warning at the time, which should in turn have made my desire for him less, if not done away with completely. But warning, in places like the bathrooms at the National Palace of Culture, where we met, is like some element coterminous with the air, ubiquitous and inescapable, so that it becomes part of those who inhabit it, and thus part and parcel of the desire that draws us there.[10]

The ubiquity of words alone is at least reminiscent, at most an emulation of the Modernist style, one might say; though there are plenty of post-modernists one could point out as counterexamples. Nonetheless, the narrative’s need to clarify even the minutest of details with phrases like “even a minor one” or “part and parcel” and “if not done away with completely” looks like a formal articulation of thought, or a stream of consciousness.

Moreover, the text is plagued by the memory of the protagonist. This is not to say that narrators in other traditions are not concerned with memory because, as many others have pointed out, they very much are. However, the sentence itself becomes the vehicle of the narrator’s memorializing, the location of its dispersion. While the Modernist technique uses present action to introduce memory, though, Greenwell’s text seems to be fraught with the narrator’s personal history from the very first sentence. The narrator mentions this flood of memory after he finds out his father has died:

I must have passed the august, slightly crumbling buildings of my school, the Soviet blocks of the policy academy, the gate with its guards, the dogs curled in the shade beside it; I must have passed them though I have no memory of them now. I was seeing something else, images that burst in on me, scenes from a childhood I hadn’t thought of for years; I had worked hard to forget them but now they came all at once, too quickly to make any sense of them.[11]

After this is a catalogue of “distinct scenes of the life [he] had left behind.” Each sentence or clause of these following sentences opens up a new excurses into the familial memory he had not thought of before. There is mention of his grandparents’ farm, his parents’ disdain for their hometowns, the importance of remembering familial struggle with poverty, his father reprimanding him for using Southern American colloquial words like ‘y’all’ and ‘ain’t.’ This diatribe of memories is all opened up when the narrator is doing something Auerbach may call ‘arbitrary’ — walking through the city. Notice that the above passage is just two sentences. In the first, the landscape he operates every day: the post-Soviet landscape in Bulgaria. In the second, the introduction of the excursus.

This barrage of images or cataloguing technique is something Modernist Claude McKay uses in his first novel Home to Harlem. And just as with What Belongs to You, these devices are syntactical. Take for example this passage from McKay’s novel:

Jake felt like one passing through a dream, vivid in rich, varied colors. It was revelation beautiful in his mind. That brief account of an island of savage black people, who fought for collective liberty and was struggling to create a culture of their own. A romance of his race, just down there by Panama. How strange![12]

This passage opens up into a brief history of both the opinions of American blacks about “poor [n-word]s”[13] and the diasporization of African peoples itself, which the protagonist Jake had not thought through before: “he felt like a boy who stands with the map of the world in colors before him, and feels the wonder of the world.”[14] This nearly-didactic memory of the African diaspora in McKay’s text can help us model our thinking of Greenwell’s text in the sense that for McKay, the form of the novel is immensely heterogenous. McKay’s novel has song lyrics, poetry, and as in this example history inserted onto the line of the text. This does not necessarily serve the immediate needs of the plot, but it certainly complexifies its thematic material and its formal interplay is given to us most often and most discreetly through the sentence. McKay’s use of songs and poetry in the text are often indented as quotations and/or italicized, which is to say are easy to spot on the page because they are surrounded by blank space. However, his use of devices like cataloguing, switching perspective, direct address, and articulating thought are more discreetly presented in that they are incorporated into the sentence structure. Similarly, for Greenwell’s novel, the entirety of the dialogue, the memories, and the action are incorporated into the discreet representation: the sentence. If you look at the pages, there is very little blank space, especially in the second chapter since it is a single paragraph, not a single indentation and the rare italicization of Bulgarian words. Even the names of the characters in What Belongs to You are discreet; Mitko is the only named character, his father and others named for their relation (“father” “sister” “fellow teacher”), and his other potential beau is called K.

            Understanding the discretion of the sentences in Greenwell’s novel is not without meaning. This discretion is matched quite directly with the discretion of the relationship between the narrator and Mitko. Despite the narrator’s infatuation with him, Mitko is ultimately a financial burden on the narrator. The discretion of their meeting is itself what propels the sexual appeal of Mitko for the narrator, which he notes even at their first meeting:

There was no acknowledgement of the strange location of our encounter…I felt an anxiety made up of equal parts desire and unease at the mystery of his presence and purpose.[15]

This meeting occurs in the middle of the afternoon, the narrator noting that the city was still bustling above their subterranean location, going about their day. Later, when Mitko and the narrator meet again in the bathroom, their encounter is quick and this, too, is sexually exciting for the narrator. As their relationship develops, Mitko will disappear for many weeks but show up at the narrator’s house for money or food. The relationship between the narrator and Mitko, then, is shaped intensely by discretion. It makes sense, then, why the sentences, though careful in their length and constructed memorializing, do not announce these functions. Whether this discretion relates to the queer theme of the novel (since McKay, too, was queer, though his characters were not explicitly) will be discussed in the following section.

What most relates to Auerbach’s holistic replication of self-consciousness through the interpolation of multiple perspectives is a passage in the second chapter, when the narrator has already found out about his father’s death and is remembering the distance that plagued their relationship:

He was polite sometimes, sweet, but he could be rude, too, he was rough with some of them, it was like he was a different person with each one. It was like that for me, too, I thought as I listened to [his sister], it’s one of the things I crave in the sites I use, that I can carry on these multiple conversations, each its own window so that sometimes my screen is filled with them; and in each I have the sense of being entirely false and entirely true, like a self in a story, I suppose, or the self I inhabit when I teach, the self of authority and example. I know they’re all I have, these partial selves, true and false at once, that any ideal of wholeness I long for is a sham; but I do long for it, I think I glimpse it sometimes, I even imagine I’ve felt it. Maybe it’s an illusion but I think I did feel this wholeness in the field with my father, alone and with the night surrounding us, and my father was necessary to it even as he withdrew…[16]

This passage is extremely complex in many ways. First, its syntax seemingly has no rules since at times independent clauses will just be separated by commas rather than conjunctions or periods and at other times they are separated by semi-colons. Second, this passage offers several interpolating excurses: the surface level action, which is a discussion with the narrator’s sister; the memory of the father in the field; the chat rooms; and the discussion of the self, itself broken into different productions for the chat rooms, the classroom, and the familial space. In order to address the first of these (the syntax), we must consider the second (the excurses).

            We have here a passage which splays the self into different excurses much the same way the Modernist writer would do. Much like the Proust, the individual’s actions have lain bare the multiple narratives from memory of the narrator. These memories, interpolated and splayed across the narration are, of course, formalized within the structures of the sentences, which are themselves frayed and jagged like the edge of a broken glass bottle.


[1] See Wood 2016.

[2] Selden, 18.

[3] See Auerbach 1953, 536.

[4] See Hume 1739, VI.4.

[5] Auerbach, 538.

[6] Auerbach, 541.

[7] Auerbach, 542.

[8] Ibid., 545.

[9] Ibid., 544.

[10] See Greenwell 2016, 1.

[11] Greenwell, 62-3.

[12] See McKay1928, 134.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Greenwell, 5.

[16] Ibid., 69-70.

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