Louisa and I are drinking wine while my husband Carl, who is the cook (I used to think I could cook but that’s before I met Carl, who is a much better cook, picky about his food and opinionated…
Back in May, a few writer friends and I were struggling to get writing done during the malaise of shelter-at-home quarantine with children underfoot. Michelle Ross, Yasmina Din Madden, Elizabeth Brinsfield, and I decided to jumpstart ourselves by participating in a flashathon. Starting at 6 a.m. PST, we would write for six straight hours, taking turns sending each other prompts every hour on the hour. “The Vibe Tonight” germinated from my prompt: “Write a one paragraph ‘breathless sentence’ story.” I’d recently read a story by Jen Todhunter in The Forge Literary Magazine, “The Levitation,” that unrolls as one sentence. It reminded me of a similar single sentence story in Wigleaf by Gwen Kirby. So I sent Michelle, Yasmina, and Beth links to these stories (which I urge everyone to read, they are both wonderful), reread them myself, and drafted “The Vibe Tonight.”
I love experimental forms, but there must be a good reason for the form: it can’t just be window dressing. The breathless sentence is propulsive: there’s an urgency about it, a tidal wave effect, an accumulation of data that the narrator doesn’t yet have time to process. There’s a built-in delay, that is, between observation and interpretation, since interpretation requires reflective distance. So in “The Vibe Tonight” (which is three sentences), my narrator is watching a scene unfold that makes her feel anxious and uncomfortable, but she doesn’t understand why. Her husband Carl is cooking, their recently single friend Louisa is present, and there’s a murky tension in the air (“the vibe tonight”) that the narrator can’t explain. The content of the story consists of her observing, first action (Carl cooking mushrooms) and then this opaque tension, and trying to account for it. Things have been “lopsided and awkward” with Louisa since she separated from their friend Matthew: does this account for the vibe tonight? It doesn’t. The breathless syntax pitches the narrator forward, as she keeps trying to comprehend what she’s seeing, and discards various explanations as inadequate.
I picture the breathless-sentence form as the syntactic equivalent of the sensory overload someone might experience during an acid trip. What the form captures best—what it is built for—is when our adrenalin races ahead of our brains. You can’t stop reading if there is no pause. There are famous examples of breathless sentences in essays, for instance the standout paragraph in Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” in which MLK finally takes off the gloves and chastises his intended audience of white moderates for their callous neutrality. His syntax shifts: King makes his audience feel how overwhelming, oppressive, and unending racism is, as experienced by people of color in America. The breathless sentence is a form that calls attention to its own urgency and avalanche pace; it’s emotional and unruly. By the end of my story, the narrator is just starting to understand what is generating all the tension in her kitchen. The story concludes without spelling it out: Louisa’s answer terminates in an ellipses.
KIM MAGOWAN lives in San Francisco and teaches in the Department of Literatures and Languages at Mills College. Her short story collection Undoing (2018) won the 2017 Moon City Press Fiction Award. Her novel The Light Source (2019) was published by 7.13 Books. Her fiction has been published in Atticus Review, Cleaver, The Gettysburg Review, Hobart, Smokelong Quarterly, Wigleaf, and many other journals. Her stories have been selected for Best Small Fictions and Wigleaf’s Top 50. She is the Editor-in-Chief and Fiction Editor of Pithead Chapel.