Mess things up, mess things up, mess things up
Standing there, Miles was pre-mortified, certain he would mess things up, and everyone would laugh because Miles was ten years old and was meant to mess things up, was practically designed to mess things up—he could puke or piss himself, could scream and curse and strip naked and go running into the woods and they’d all fondly remember how precious Miles lost his mind.
“Come Softly to Me,” by David Gilbert (The New Yorker, October 17, 2022)
This sentence is bursting with style, moving it from a pedestrian, ho-hum read to something that stands bright on the page. What stands out, and what’s intended by the author to stand out are the three words, “mess things up.” This is the brilliance of epistrophe, the repetition of word(s) at the end of phrases, clauses, or sentences. The technique draws attention to whatever is being repeated by the very act of repetition. It also creates heightened emotion. Gilbert adds even more emphasis because the three words are all hard stressed: MESS THINGS UP. Spoken loudly, with emphasis.
We are told Miles is “pre-mortified.” Is it a word? No, but thank you, David Gilbert, for your creative invention because it feels like it should be a word. Mortified is the feeling of shame or embarrassment or humiliation in the moment or after. But there is a state of anticipation, a feeling of soon-to-be-humiliated by someone. (Here‘s permission to make up words. Take it and run!) The repetition of “mess things up” captures this emotional state prior to the embarrassment and we feel what Miles is feeling. The sentence is not dead but alive and breathing and making the reader feel.
Gilbert’s sentence is built using four independent clauses:
1. Miles was pre-mortified
2. Everyone would laugh
3. He could puke or piss himself…
4. They’d all fondly remember how precious Miles lost his mind
The sentence grows by conjunctions and subordinate clauses.
The second base clause does heavy lifting for the sentence because it holds two of the “mess things up.” Gilbert grows this base clause with a subordinate clause (with the subordinate conjunction “because”) that is stated and then restated:
Everyone would laugh because Miles was ten years old and meant to mess things up, was practically designed to mess things up.
Because Miles is thinking about a future event—when he’ll mess things up--and because the sentence uses past tense, the verb changes to “would.”
After the em-dash, Gilbert introduces the third base clause and more rhythm and sound through the use of balance (the pairing of twos) with “puke or piss,” inviting alliteration into the sentence. There’s also the technique of “four or more,” which creates more emotion: scream and curse and strip naked and go running..” The use of polysyndeton (the overuse of conjunctions) emphasizes each of these actions and creates a rhythm and distinct pace.
Start with your first independent clause and add a modifier that introduces the first use of epistrophe—whatever word or words will be repeated in your sentence. What do you want to draw attention to?
Add a conjunction. Here comes your second base clause and a subordinate clause which will hold the two repetitions.
Now use an em dash and add a third base clause. Can you use balance? And alliteration? Can you add a four or more series? Use polysyndeton and connect the series via conjunctions.
Add a conjunction and your final base clause.
Tell me how it goes!
What else do you like about this sentence? What do you see?