In the alternative (or secret) history of China Mieville’s The Last Day’s of New Paris, art is power, literally. Living surrealist artworks roam over post-WWII Parisian cobble, with the Eiffel tower hovering in the distance, its lower-half non-existent. Here, Nazi occult rituals and La Résistance collide in a manner reminiscent of Indiana Jones or Hell Boy.
It’s a short novella replete with punchy diction, radical prose, and all the unique monstrosities and historical nerdery Mieville could muster. I think it’s my favorite of his.
Anyway, this post is about the way Mieville uses sentence fragments in the book.
It should come as no surprise that a book about surrealism employs experimental prose. The sentence fragments certainly reflect the fragmented forms appearing in surrealist work, the irrational juxtapositions of ideas and shapes.
The first surrealist work of literature, Les Champ magnétiques, dismantled the war-inciting rationalism of Europe with nonsensical semantics and broken syntax. The whole book is like reading variations on the Noam Chomsky sentence, “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously,” composed to demonstrate a distinction between meaning and form.
“It was the end of sorrow lies. The rail stations were dead, flowing like bees stung from honeysuckle. The people hung back and watched the ocean, animals flew in and out of focus.” Les Champ magnétiques
But Mieville, under all the non-sequiturs and irrationalism, still aims to tell a story. So we get sentences like this: “Leaping and whipping with its trunk, rage withering the Nazi stone.”
It refers to Max Ernst’s The Elephant Celebes. This passage, despite being a fragment, offers a clear line of movement. Now, I wonder if this kind of syntax has any use outside of propping up the surrealist themes.
As per most matters, Noam Chomsky has the answer.
In Aspects of the Theory of Syntax, Chomsky proposed that all sentences have two levels of representation: surface structure and deep structure. Surface structures refer to the grammar we normally use to describe sentences. Deep structures represent the core meaning or propositions of the sentence, sometimes hidden beneath grammatical forms.
In other words, these propositions are often implied, not necessarily visible or written out.
The aforementioned, “colorless green ideas sleep furiously,” has a logical surface structure, but an illogical deep structure.
Let’s return to the elephant fragment.
Leaping and whipping with its trunk, rage withering the Nazi.
Surface structure: Two participle phrases joined with a comma. In a complete sentence, these phrases would essentially function as adjectives, adding more descriptive detail to a base clause. But there’s no base clause.
Deep structure: Now, if we think about the deeper structure, our elephant fragment actually contains a complete sentence. In Chomskian terms, the deep structure of the above sentence has three actions, an implied subject (the elephant), an object (the stone), and multiple verbs (leap, whip, wither). Subject, Verb, Object. These are all the necessary elements of a complete sentence.
So what’s the motivation to advancing such a form, as opposed to advancing the same propositions with normal grammar, like this:
“Leaping and whipping with its trunk, the elephant’s rage withered the Nazi stones.”
In what context are fragments acceptable?
Mieville’s original elephant fragment is 10 words. My rewrite, which is grammatically correct, is 13 words. The original sentence employs a parallel form with the repetition of gerunds, provoking a sense of movement, and satisfying readers with the rule of three. My rewrite is clunky and long in comparison. Therefore, the original fragment is more concise and elegant than the grammatically correct rewrite.
Here is another attempt: Its trunk leaping and whipping, rage withered Nazi stone. ( words 9) This is now a run on (rage can’t leap and whip, unless we’re personifying it).
So, beyond the thematic purpose of fragments in The Last Days of New Paris, these forms have rhetorical or literary application.
Writing Exercise: create a grammatically-correct sentence more effective than Mieville’s fragment.
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