From Certain American States
The opening sentence in Catherine Lacey’s story “Violations” contains 538 words and runs over one and a half pages.
It was a long sentence – really, way too long and for no apparent reason – and he remembered she’d once confessed to him that even though these long sentences came naturally to her, and even though they’d been approved by her agent and other writers and editors and critics, she sometimes wondered if they weren’t a crutch or a limitation, though they did create a sort of momentum that she liked and perhaps there was something pleasantly flamboyant about how sprawling and nearly baroque they could become …
No, that quote isn’t lifted from the opener, but from a shorter sentence – this one a svelte 169 words – that appears some six pages into the narrative. That sentence is itself referencing a third sentence, clocking in at 315 words, immediately preceding it.
In case it’s not yet clear, what we are dealing with in “Violations” is metafiction – that is, fiction that aggressively comments on itself and highlights its own fictive properties. The “she” in the excerpt above is a writer and the “he” is her ex-husband, who has just stumbled upon a magazine story she published called “It Wasn’t” – “a title that, he smirked to himself, wasn’t very good.” The story-within-a-story opens with a series of clauses that each begin with the two words “it wasn’t” and focus on the fallout from a romantic breakup. This hearkens back to the beginning of the story proper – that 538-word behemoth, which kicks off, “He had wanted to make sure she wouldn’t write about him.”
In both its form and its subject, “Violations” is explicitly about how fiction gets made, both in terms of how it is put together on the page and how writers mine their own experiences for material. The story is told in the close third person from the man’s point of view as he worries over the possibility of his ex-wife exploiting their “complicated years together and their not exactly undramatic ending” in her fiction. By employing this mode of narration, Lacey puts sufficient daylight between herself and her male protagonist to allow the story’s many ironies to seep through the cracks. So, for example, the man frets that should he request his ex-wife refrain from putting him in her fiction, she might “tease him for being narcissistic enough to believe that she was planning to write about him.” He goes on to posit that his ex-wife “was well aware that he’d often feared his friends and acquaintances might have been, all along, privately” accusing him of narcissism – something only a closet narcissist would worry about.
All of this detail is contained in that opening sentence, a bravura, stylistic ouroboros that curves and loops around itself, now elucidating itself, now contradicting itself, and eventually swallowing itself whole. The man assumes his ex-wife would find it “ridiculous and childish of him to accuse her of writing autobiography,” notwithstanding the fact that her “last two books had contained many arguably autobiographical details.” (The “arguably” does a lot of work here.) The man assures himself his ex has no interest in memoir and that previous attempts at folding autobiography into her fiction had resulted in “much trouble.” (Note what is not stated here. Much trouble from whom? From “her agent and other writers and editors and critics”? Or from him?) Even if she were to write something “that contained some or many details that echoed her life (as every writer did or had done at some point or sometimes constantly),” he is convinced that “she could never really write about him, the truest and realest him.”
The mere fact that he spends so much time obsessing over the possibility of his wife using him as fodder for her fiction, devoting 538 cascading words to the subject, indicates that his concern is deep seated, verging on pathological. In his prolixity he is constantly revising himself – all writers employ details from their own lives “at some point or sometimes constantly.” His protestations – “of course he didn’t think that she wrote autobiography” – wring increasingly hollow.
Lacey also underscores the effect her free-flowing prose has on a reader: “no matter how many times he would try to interrupt this tirade (which would have, all the while, been increasing in speed and volume) he would not be able to speak loudly or forcefully enough to correct her original misunderstanding of what he had said …” The parenthetical interpolation indicates how a reader might be expected to react to the pace of the sentence, which seems to increase in volume even as it barrels forward on its own unstoppable, ever-increasing momentum.
This is, of course, the same momentum referred to in the passage above, along with the “sprawling and nearly baroque” air the prose offers. The man recalls his ex-wife citing Ursula K. LeGuin, who “once wrote that Ernest Hemingway would have rather died than have syntax, and she liked that, and she liked her syntax, but she liked Hemingway too.” The reversals here are so abrupt as to give the reader whiplash. The man follows up by thinking, “though she was confident in her work she also doubted she had the nerve or ability to write those sorts of bullet sentences.” Lest one presume this is an example of Lacey confessing to her own fears or limitations, at the top of the next page a reader is greeted with this: “A little dramatic, he thought. Hyperbolic. Whiny. Certainly no Hemingway. He put the magazine down. At least it wasn’t directly or clearly about him.”
The staccato sentences are in the ex-husband’s POV. So to is a prior observation: “But perhaps all this sprawling was, she’d told him, the living heart of her work and she shouldn’t question it, as it seemed to be serving her just fine now, but she did still wonder if it was a limitation, a gimmick, and now here it was, her first story in this magazine she’d always wanted to be in and perhaps he was the only one who knew that she may have suspected herself to be leaning on a crutch.” The reader can almost feel the self-satisfaction here, which is immediately undercut by the second, third, and fourth sentences of “It Wasn’t”: “Even that wasn’t the most painful moment. No. The most painful thing in this series of painful things would come later, long after she’d stopped bracing.”
“[S]houldn’t a decent writer be able to choose a technique,” Lacey writes, ”rather than have a predetermined technique that pushed her around?” I ascribe this query to the author because it feels in the context of the story as though for a moment she is pulling back the curtain and speaking directly to the reader. Her slippery prose, with its constant backtracking, revision, and reconsideration calls attention to the very nature of the fiction the reader is engaged in reading, which is one level removed from the fiction the ex-husband is engaged in reading. The man is wrong quite a lot in this story, not least in his assessment that “It Wasn’t” is a bad title. In fact, it might serve as a reasonable alternate title for “Violations” itself (on which subject, pay close attention to the plural).
The plot of Lacey’s story, such as it is, is almost incidental. Who cheated on whom, to what extent the ex-wife (identified in a note from an admirer by the initial “M”) transgresses her ex-husband’s wishes by including their lives in her fiction – the different types of violation at the centre of the story (and not counting, for comic effect, M’s multiple traffic violations) – are elusive and open to interpretation. What is not open to interpretation is the stylistic legerdemain with which Lacey unfolds her self-reflexive narrative, baking the story’s meaning into its technical presentation. (Consider, for example, the etymological argument over the gendered nature of the word “hysteria” in an excerpt from “It Wasn’t,” then consider that the parts of M’s story that get reproduced in the narrative can in no way be incidental to the overall import.) “Violations” is a story that instructs its reader how to read it even as it is unfolding on the page.