The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon is a curious book indeed. It is written from the point of view of fifteen-year-old Christopher who is good at mathematics, likes red things, but not brown, and has a photographic memory. However, he does not understand human emotions and can relate to other people only intellectually.
Christopher has Asperger Syndrome.
The book is insightful and well-written. I spent most of the time marvelling at a mind that could function just so.
Today’s Quote from The Curious Incident illustrates how an important and basic figure of speech can be employed to achieve a flow-of-experience impression.
(Ready Brek, Coco-Pops, and Shreddies are cereals, Dr Pepper is a carbonated soft drink—that’s for all of you, who like me, need to look up these things.)
Quote: For example, this morning for breakfast I had Ready Brek and some hot raspberry milkshake. But if I say that I actually had Shreddies and a mug of tea I start thinking about Coco-Pops and lemonade and porridge and Dr Pepper and how I wasn’t eating my breakfast in Egypt and there wasn’t a rhinoceros in the room and Father wasn’t wearing a diving suit and so and even writing this makes me feel shaky and scared, like I do when I’m standing on the top of a very tall building and there are thousands of houses and cars and people below me and my head is so full of all the things that I’m afraid that I’m going to forget to stand up straight and hang onto the rail and I’m going to fall over and be killed.
Did you spot any metaphors? No? That’s because Christopher struggles with metaphors and hypotheticals and lies in general (although he did manage a simile). A little way down from the Quote he says as much.
This is another reason why I don’t like proper novels, because they are lies about things which didn’t happen and they make me feel shaky and scared.
And this is why everything I have written here is true.
Of course, the irony is that The Curious Incident is fiction, and not the diary of a real person. (But given that Christopher’s character is build around his inability to lie, it feels sneaky realising his statement can’t be true. Then you get into whether fiction is real, and if it is, in which way, and … you might get a headache thinking about it and hit a few paradoxes.)
What makes the Quote quiver?
Narrating unconnected thoughts and experiences sequentially without pause and punctuation, thereby creating the illusion of connectedness.
I call it an illusion because after a while the torrent of words becomes just that: a torrent, and the reader starts only half-believing what’s on the page. The hammering out of phrases becomes a breathless run, a stylistic device for conveying the state of a juvenile or panicked mind.
A less extreme example would be the following quote from Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes.
The thick soles of his own high shoes are crusted with white and there is white in the stitching and lace-eyes and under his nails and in the cracked chapped skin of his hands.
Flower for Algernon is narrated by a severely mentally handicapped young man who becomes a genius as the novel progresses.
Back to analysing our Quote.
What is at the core of the Quote?
Polysyndeton comes from the Greek, and means to have many cases. It employs a quick succession of multiple conjunctions that could be omitted. The other extreme is asyndeton, which omits conjunctions.
The second sentence of the Quote is 125 words long and has 17 instances of and. Replacing any of those with a comma would have reduced the “hypnotic power” of the polysyndeton, and broken our perception of Christopher’s flow of fears.
Polysyndeton can also be used in ordinary situations to describe the fluidity of movement (my example):
The wolf ran and skipped and jumped and finally fell, exhausted.
Or it can take on a completely different role. This example is from the Prologue to Keri Hulme’s The Bone People. (The emphasis is mine.)
But all together, they have become the heart and muscles and mind of something perilous and new, something strange and growing and great.
That’s 6 conjunctions out of 23 words, so more than a quarter (compared to not even 15% in Christopher’s case). However, Hulme achieves a very different effect: that of gravity and dignity. She chooses wisely what to group together (similar concepts), and how to punctuate her sentence.
Which brings us to the Bible and its use of polysyndeton. Here is what the short, example-filled book by Arthur Quinn called Figures of Speech: 60 Ways to Turn a Phrase has to say.
It has been often noted that the indefiniteness of “and” envelopes biblical narratives, such as the story of Abraham and Isaac, in mystery. Occasionally, in the Bible and elsewhere, repeated polysyndetons have an almost hypnotic power.
I haven’t studied the Bible with a view towards figures of speech, but here is an example that Quinn quotes and that illustrates his point.
And Joshua, and all Israel with him, took Achan the son of Zerah, and the silver, and the garment, and the wedge of gold, and his sons, and his daughters, and his oxen, and his asses, and his sheep, and his tent, and all that he had: and they brought them unto the valley of Achor. (Joshua 7:24)
Definitely dignified, not breathless—the commas help with that.
Polysyndeton can be used to achieve two diametrically opposite effects:
- Breathlessness and continuity and informality.
- Gravity and dignity and formality.
The number and placement of conjunctions, in combination with words choice, sentence structure, and punctuation, determines the effect achieved. Here’s Quinn again.
Although most writers will tend to prefer either asyndeton or polysyndeton in their figurative play with conjunction—Shakespeare prefers asyndeton, the Bible poly—there is no reason that both cannot be employed, even in the same sentence.
As always, your imagination is the limit.
Reading Recommendations: Unusual Voices
- The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, Mark Haddon. The version for children and for adults is the same apart from the cover art, so it doesn’t matter which you read.
- Flowers for Algernon, Daniel Keyes. Narrated by a severely mentally handicapped young man who becomes a genius as the novel progresses; it’s interesting to note how the language reflects his change.
- The Bone People, Keri Hulme. Another unexpected voice that likes using polysyndeton. Or my post featuring her quirky prose and meldwords.