Books Magazine

Here’s An Example of Commas Gone Wild

By Robert Bruce @robertbruce76

Y’all know I’m big on opening sentences. The first page, the first chapter, of a novel really sets the tone.

So, when I came across this doozy at the beginning of Housekeeping, I must admit that my eyes started to cross.

My name is Ruth. I grew up with my younger sister, Lucille, under the care of my grandmother, Mrs. Sylvia Foster, and when she died, of her sisters-in-law, Misses Lily and Nona Foster, and when they fled, of her daughter, Mrs. Sylvia Fisher. Through all these generations of elders we lived in one house, my grandmother’s house, built for her by her husband, Edmund Foster, an employee of the railroad, who escaped this world years before I entered it.

And a couple of sentences later…

He had grown up in the Middle West, in a house dug out of the ground, with windows just at earth level and just at eye level, so that from without, the house was a mere mound, no more a human stronghold than a grave, and from within, the perfect horizontality of the world in that place foreshortened the view so severely that the horizon seemed to circumscribe the sod house and nothing more.

What are your first thoughts on those sentences?

I’ll tell you mine: Choppy. Choppy. Choppy.

I probably spent 5 minutes on the opening page. While, sure, the sentence is grammatically correct, it’s almost painful to read. Hemingway would’ve had a stroke reading that. Some might see a rhythm in that passage, but I can’t.

The way I see it, overusing the parenthetical comma is an addiction. The writer sees no problem with their use. It all makes sense.

It’s the reader, with fresh eyes from the outside, who looks at a sentence like that and goes, “Wha…?” I feel like I’m on a sailboat in a storm while reading that passage.

In Marilynne Robinson’s defense, the opening page is quite extreme. The rest of the novel, to this point, isn’t quite so choppy, but why would she choose to open a story with that punctuation explosion?

Maybe it’s just me. I’ll admit I have an adverse reaction to comma overuse.

What do you think?

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