Thursday, December 13, 2007

The New Yorker Reader: "The King of Sentences," by Jonathan Lethem

Posted By on Thu, Dec 13, 2007 at 5:15 PM

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Online here.

In my Juno screed yesterday, I alluded to the practice of keeping a running list of funny or elegant lines of dialogue, for use in future writing or conversation; a sort of variation on this would be the way you pay a little more attention to the rhythm and polish and overall quotability of your own speech after seeing a movie like, for me, Kicking and Screaming or Withnail and I, where the dialogue is buffed to an idiosyncratic elegance. This story is about that, more or less. It's narrated by the male half of a couple who feel this way about particular sentences in works of literature. They especially admire one semi-forgotten writer, who they refer to by the title honorific.

Lethem basically stretches this premise out to more or less story length; it doesn't overstay its welcome, and it keeps getting more absurd until it's time for the story to end. It's a minor piece, but it's a funny and near-perfectly executed one, about a more or less recognizable phenomenon.

And, given who the narrator is, the story is both joyous and ridiculous in its celebration of the brilliance of the individual sentence:

"In the same loft where we entangled, Clea and I drove ourselves mad reading the King of Sentences' books aloud, by candlelight, when we ought to have been sleeping. We'd tear the book from each other's hands for the pleasure of running his words like gerbils in the habitrails of our own mouths."


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