Basil Bebbington from Bakersfield isn't good at basketball, wood-shop, or talking to girls, but he's fair at physics, and guts his way through technical college, and lands a job grinding lenses for Bakersfield Optometry, and his parents move to Tampa, and Hurricane Andrew floods their basement, and by age twenty-two Basil begins to worry that he's missing out on things — women, joy, et cetera — so on a whim he applies for a job as an optics technician at an observatory on the summit of Mauna Kea on the island of Hawaii.
“The Master’s Castle,” by Anthony Doerr
Doerr’s sentence sweeps through time, from high school to Basil landing a job. The magic is done by using coordinating conjunctions to link six independent clauses.
Broken down, the independent clauses are:
1. Basil Bebbington from Bakersfield isn’t good at basketball, wood-shop, or talking to girls
2. He’s fair at physics and guts his way through technical college, and lands a job grinding lenses for Bakersfield Optometry
3. His parents move to Tampa
4. Hurricane Andrew floods their basement
5. Basil begins to worry that he’s missing out on things—women, joy, et cetera—
6. He applies for a job as an optics technician at an observatory on the summit of Mauna Kea on the island of Hawaii.
Each of these clauses can stand alone, but by connecting them, Doerr not only compresses time but shepherds in a load of style.
The sentence rings with alliteration, in particular the repetition of “b”: Basil, Bebbington, Bakersfield, basketball, but, basement, begins. The beginning of the sentence is almost comical, sounding like a tongue-twister, “Basil Bebbington from Bakersfield.” (Say that five times fast). By the end of the sentence, the “b” sound is nearly silent, as if the humor has vanished and Basil has grown up and found adulthood, or something. The final independent clause sings with the assonance of soft “o” with job, optics, observatory, on, of, Mauna, Hawaii.
Doerr uses series (the listing of three), “basketball, wood-shop, or talking to girls.” He forgoes parallelism, which would have created a smooth rhythm, and makes a jagged rhythm with the last item, “or talking to girls.” The faulty parallelism is mimetic of this awkward time in Basil’s life. Moreover, his relationship with women is a central theme in the story, and the lack of parallelism draws attention to this final element of the series.
By linking these independent clauses together, Doerr also embeds what I call a reader question: why are these clauses linked together? A conjunction provides cohesion and an implied logical relationship. So the sentence has propulsion because the reader wonders what is the connection between Basil, his failures, his parent’s move, and the flooded basement.
There is great specificity of detail in this sentence which summarizes time. The details help to mask the summary and make it feel like a scene.
Write six independent clauses. If you’d like, have each of these clauses capture a different point in time. Connect the clauses with coordinating conjunctions (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so).
Now go back and add alliteration and assonance. Can you convey a change via the sounds?
Do you have a series? If so, decide whether to create faulty parallelism for a more jarring emotion.
Let me know how it goes!
I’ve taught “Style in Fiction,” “Word for Word” and “Cultivating Your Prose” at the University of San Francisco and Stanford Continuing Studies since 2007. In each of these classes, we spend 10 to 15 weeks drenched in the beauty of sentences, reading them and writing them. It’s such a pleasure! I’ve watched my writing and my students’ writing blossom with this practice of paying close attention to the sentence.
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Loved this one! I use plenty of alliteration in my writing so I thoroughly enjoyed the opening clause. I also like your astute observation of the "b" sound disappearing by the end of the long, sweeping sentence, demonstrating a change in tone.
Unrelated: I lived through Hurricane Andrew myself. Wild times.
Love it, Nina! Here’s my attempt:
Hannah grew up stuck like chewing gum to her cello, bowed to it, wrapped around it like cellophane until the day she plunged into aquatic biology, cultivating cuisine for curvaceous mollusks, but then veered into restaurant work, the business of encouraging delight in patrons even if the one doing the joy coaching wouldn’t be able to recognize happiness in herself if she spotted it in the mirror on her ceiling, so she broke up with her boyfriend and his dog and her job and her life all at once and stepped sideways out of her life onto the Pacific Crest Trail where she immediately discovered she’d so far barely known her inner and outer world at all.