The American novelist Tim O’Brien wrote a short story entitled “On the Rainy River,” a poignant tale of a young man (the narrator is O’Brien himself) who receives a draft notice shortly after graduating high school during the Vietnam War. I would like to look at two of O’Brien’s sentences in that story (I read it in The Ecco Anthology of Contemporary American Short Fiction, Harper, 2008), one to see a sophisticated figure of speech at work, and the other to demonstrate how we can use the fine writing we read to improve our own composition.
Here is the first example, and what concerns us is the use of the verb spilled out in the middle of the sentence: America was divided on these and a thousand other issues, and the debate had spilled out across the floor of the United States Senate and into the streets, and smart men in pinstripes could not agree on even the most fundamental matters of public policy. The subject of that second clause is the noun debate, and the two prepositional phrases that build out the predicate of its phrasal verb had spilled out twist our mind a little, because, though both are figurative, each uses the same verb in a slightly different way. Something spilling out across a floor works up the image of a mishap in the kitchen, or something of the sort, something isolated, definable, manageable. But something spilling out into the streets is an established idiom that suggests not a containable event, but just the opposite: something sporadic, ill defined, and potentially violent.
This tying together of two differing images with a single verb is a figure of speech called zeugma. The Greek rhetorical term means yoke, the device to harness animals, and in composition, what is being harnessed is two ideas just slightly incongruous logically. Another example might be, He left in anger and his old Chevy, where the preposition in has two objects, one to express manner and the other to express means. Likewise, in O’Brien’s passage, to spill out across the floor is a different kind of spilling than one which spills into the streets, and right there, in that gap between the images and logic, a peculiar light can shine through to us and help us see, if we wish, the author’s idea in an unexpectedly bright way.
The second example from O’Brien’s story does not so much illustrate a figure of speech as give us a chance to examine the construction of a passage and consider another choice the author did not make—not to better it, but to keep our mental tools at the ready for our own writing. Here, the narrator is describing an old man he has met, an elder of wisdom perhaps, who seems to understand the plight the younger man is suffering: Simple politeness was part of it. But even more than that, I think, the man understood that words were insufficient. The problem had gone beyond discussion. This passage comprises five clauses across three sentences. Statements that abut one another like this must have some logical relationship one to the next, and here the author has left the connection of ideas to be understood by a simple side-by-side arrangement, or juxtaposition.
The comparison that begins the second sentence (but even more than that) suggests a logical connection to the sentence before it (comparison is the fundamental work of our logical frame of mind), but the connection between the second half of that second sentence and the sentence that follows it is not even implicit: the author has left it to the reader to see that the third sentence is the cause of the second half of the previous one. Another choice, less subtle and more heavy handed, would have been to connect these two sections together with the subordinating conjunction because: But even more than that, I think, the man understood that words were insufficient because the problem had gone beyond discussion. In such a version, the logic might have been made more obvious, but at the price of tone and effect. Simple juxtaposition preserves the emotional poignancy that underlies the logical explication.
O’Brien’s two passages can serve to remind us that authors of such caliber have much to teach us, both in how they compose their sentences and how they choose not to—and this in addition to the real reason they’re writing: to embody ideas that enlighten us in some important measure.