(Red Dust, 2006)
In “How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci,” a word “drawing” from Johannah Rodgers’s new book Sentences, the author speaks of “fitting one’s life to a narrative.” On a first reading, Sentences seems essentially narrative—less. It is a series of word sketches, pages intermittently filled with prose and sparse with Cummings-esque poems. And yet, for all superficial haphazardness, Rodgers has given us a work of earnest completeness.
Early in the book, in the piece “Before Afternoon,” Rodgers offers the reader a scene of a woman on a porch, alone with a drink and her thoughts. The scene seems, at the outset, a fairly typical narrative description of melancholia: the woman’s thoughts drift over the weather, the time of day, her marriage, her past sexual history. Only after several paragraphs does one recognize a pattern; the same sentences begin to repeat, over and over, in different combinations. It is a bold maneuver; once a reader has discovered the trick, will he be able to keep his eyes from glazing over? Yet Rodgers succeeds in her boldness, arranging the sentences like puzzle pieces, each configuration creating new meaning, a different paragraph, pushing the story forward. By the end of the three-page riff, the reader does not feel manipulated, but exhilarated.
Rodgers packs a great deal into this slim volume: stories, poems, quotations from other writers. The book opens with a quotation from Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations as a sort of warning:
[I]n fact we do the most various things with our sentences. Think of the exclamation alone, with their completely different functions:
Philosophical Investigations, # 27
The philosopher’s playful words serve as a generous way to usher us into a book that’s both daring and gentle. Unlike much experimental prose, Sentences is not out to prove the reader wrong, and Rodgers does not approach her text with any belligerence. Rather, she treats the book as a sort of journal, a conduit for her thoughts and her glorious imagination. She intersperses dense sections of text with pages empty but for 50-odd words, handwritten sentences, and messages to friends. The blank space gives the reader room to breathe, but it also keeps us on our toes, as we wait for the next page to hand us something completely different. Rodgers expects a great deal from her readers, but always rewards them for their efforts. In “And/Or: A Novel,” she creates a chart of actions and consequences, and includes a demanding footnote, instructing her audience to read both horizontally and vertically to reach a number of different resolutions. Though initially daunting, her hard work makes it easy on us, and we’re left giggling.
Though the text is often disjointed, Rodgers remains true to a few themes throughout her work: love, the complexity of living, and wordplay. In “On Writing (1998-2005),” the author claims “writing is a fetish,” and that “writing is the process of bringing things into focus while using a very dirty lens, i.e. language…” Certainly, Rodgers fetishizes narrative in her work. The words she uses at times seem not as important as the order in which they are placed, the space on the page which they occupy. And yet the space between the words themselves also cleanses the text and treats language not as a dirty lens, but one of crystalline clarity. By the use of repetition in “Before Afternoon,” perhaps Rodgers is able to offer a more pristine view of her character than she could were she using a traditional narrative structure. Words certainly run disjointedly through the mind. Why not over the page?
Anna Wainwright is a Brooklyn-based writer and editor.