The American writer and translator Lydia Davis wrote a short and what I can only describe as haunting little story called “Television,” and in it she composed a sentence worth our examining for its style and structure (Davis’s tale appears in The Ecco Anthology of Contemporary American Short Fiction, selected by Joyce Carol Oates and Christopher R. Beha. Harper, 2008). The anonymous narrator has for a few pages been describing her family’s evening television-watching routine, and in a summary moment of self-awareness says, It’s partly my isolation at night, the darkness outside, the silence outside, the increasing lateness of the hour, that makes the story on television seem so interesting.
There is energy in that sentence, more precisely, an accumulating energy that finds its target in so deliberately lifeless an adjective as the final word interesting. The sentence gathers its force in its long subject-phrase, if phrase we can call it, because the words from It’s to hour constitute grammatically a clause but logically a phrase which stands as the single idea to which the verb makes points. The rhetorical effect of the sentence, its style, is not complicated; we often speak like this. But structurally as a composition, its syntax is complex, and it involves a construction called, somewhat loftily, the anticipatory it.
If we begin to analyze this sentence by resolving the opening contraction, we can see clearly enough why we must grammatically name the first eighteen words a clause: It’s means It is, and there we have a subject and verb, the two essential elements of a clause. But what kind of subject is it? A pronoun, certainly, but a pronoun whose antecedent, the word to which it refers, lies not before, but after the pronoun. It, that is to say, is anticipating its referent, and in Davis’s sentence, there is not one referent, but four: isolation, darkness, silence, and lateness. Those four nouns, together with all the other words that comprise their respective phrases, constitute four predicate noun phrases, each an antecedent (or what is more exactly termed a postcedent) for the subject pronoun it.
But why do we say, then, that this long clause is itself the logical, not grammatical, subject of the verb makes? Because the verb makes is singular, and we have just identified a plurality of subjects, the four predicate noun phrases. The grammatical subject of makes is the singular relative pronoun that, and the antecedent of that is the singular pronoun it—hence the singular verb makes. But as we’ve just seen, the pronoun it refers to, or anticipates, not one idea but four; since verbs, however, are to agree with their subjects, not their predicates, we can see here how grammar and logic stride together to deliver a weighty thought. What it is that makes the story on television so interesting to the narrator is not one thing, but many. But do not isolation and darkness and silence and lateness constitute in this scene one thing, one force, one haunting unseen menace? We could not put each by itself in a corner of the room because they cannot in reality, but merely in logic, be separated one from another. Hence, the singular pronoun it to name the indivisible entirety that makes the story on television seem so interesting.
The anticipatory it construction sets up the singular pronoun as a provisional subject, thereby creating a degree of uncertainty that is clarified as the clause unfolds. Energy gathers as we become surer of the meaning—four times surer until we are startled to realize that the isolation and darkness and silence and lateness have so closely pressed around the narrator as some one thing, that she can find life’s very interest now in only its electronic representation.