Book Review: Suppose a Sentence

by Kit Maude

It’s an experience that will be familiar to avid readers everywhere: you’re making smooth progress through a book, until suddenly a passage or sentence stops you in your tracks. Whether the sensation is more like that of a blown tire or a beautiful landscape that deserves more than glancing appreciation, very much depends on the work in question. Often, one is moved to  share it with others only to find that people don’t necessarily like having a book thrust under their noses and being told to read something entirely out of context. However, this is exactly the premise that the critic and professor Brian Dillon has chosen for his deeply engaging critical work Suppose a Sentence. Taking as his starting point twenty-eight sentences chosen from works of the western canon, a selection that spans several centuries beginning with Shakespeare and ending with the contemporary poet Anne Boyer, Dillon veers between close reading and more expansive reflections on his subjects in a series of brief essays that rarely exceed five or six pages and are sometimes much shorter. 

It’s an approach to which Dillon is very suited. A member of what one would probably call the neo-Barthesian school if Barthes had ever really gone out of fashion, Dillon is eminently comfortable with the idea that a fragment can be as significant as an entire novel, that a sentence can encompass a universe and, perhaps more importantly, for his book at least, he knows how to convey that conviction to the reader in an entertaining and insightful fashion.

After this encomium to brevity, however, it’s worth pointing out that very few of the sentences Dillon chooses can be described as succinct in and of themselves.  The sentence written by John Donne, taken from one of his final sermons, for instance, is seventy-three words long and thus has enough meat on it to allow for an overview of the final months of the poet’s life.  A persuasive argument follows that, in the sentence and the sermon overall (Dillon quite rightly doesn’t see any need to limit himself to a restrictive view of his concept), Donne was anticipating his imminent demise with a set of breathtakingly morbid but powerful metaphors: “But ‘Deaths Duell’ is also a cabinet of baroque horrors, a repository of gruesome images cast in sentences that are in themselves errant or deformed.” The sentence he selects by Charlotte Brontë, from her novella Villete, in contrast, is just three words: “The drug wrought,”  but it packs a similarly graphic punch leading to what Dillon sees as a opiate hallucination experienced by the heroine Lucy Snowe. Moving into the 20th century, we come to what is essentially the engine room of the book: the high modernists Gertrude Stein (who lends the book its title, although not from the chosen sentence), Virginia Woolf, and Samuel Beckett, followed a few chapters later by Barthes himself—significantly the only translated sentence analyzed. Where in the chapters concerning the writers from earlier periods the emphasis tends to be on their imagery and biographies, modernity brings in a little more literary theory before, in the absence of the context granted by hindsight, contemporary writers such as Claire Louise Bennet and Anne Carson are subjected to the closest readings yet. 

There’s a lot to love about Suppose a Sentence. Obviously an exercise like this requires a great deal of erudition; while there may not be many great surprises among the writers chosen (one exception is the jazz writer Whitney Balliet), in no case is the sentence from one of the author’s major works, and the danger is that the author will get lost in the minutiae of sentence composition or, conversely, begin to condescend to the reader. Dillon avoids both of these pitfalls. In fact, the overriding sensation one derives from these essays is the enthusiasm with which he goes about his work—wow, he seems to be saying to us, over and over again—listen to this. He often gets so carried away that one begins to notice him actually beginning to mimic the style of the phrase under examination; some of this is clearly intentional, but sometimes, one suspects, it isn’t, at least not consciously. This is very much in keeping with the overall tone of the book, which to a degree is structured as a literary conversation across the centuries; many of the featured writers “interact” with one another. Woolf (whose sentence is 181 words long) especially keeps popping up to comment on the work of the others, although the discussion is necessarily one way.

The conversational style also allows room for a little friction; the chapter on James Baldwin is, like the sentence analyzed (“They thought he was a real sweet ofay cat, but a little frantic”) also a slap down of the unfortunate posturing of Norman Mailer, while the one on Susan Sontag is hardly a clear-cut appreciation—the horror with which Dillon greets Sontag’s rather pompous declaration in her diary that she has “written a better story than [Donald] Barthelme” (she hadn’t) is palpable. 

Having read the book chronologically, from beginning to end—hardly the only, and perhaps not even the most advisable way to read it given that each essay is a joy in itself that could easily be spread between other reads—one feels that Dillon’s great achievement has been to gather the voices of his subjects into a single room, succinctly and effectively portraying the echo chamber in which all literary creation takes place.     


Kit Maude is a translator based in Buenos Aires. He has translated dozens of Latin American writers for a wide array of publications and in addition to The Coachella Review writes book reviews for ÑOtra Parte, the Times Literary Supplement, and World Literature Today.