Parenthesis Negative

Imagine you are out for a drive in the country. It’s a wonderful summer day. The temperature is perfect, not too hot, not too cold. The air is not too humid nor too dry. The windows are down on your car and you can hear the birds chirping as you meander along the country road. Unexpectedly, are confronted with a road closed sign. You backup and head down a different road only to find it too is closed. As is the third. And fourth. And fifth. Your peaceful country drive is not so peaceful. You frustration continues to grow. Finally you give up, retrace to the original road, and head back home.

Once back home, you sit down to relax and pick up that new book you’ve been wanting to read. The one that has been receiving lots of praise and it’s pre-release press said it was highly anticipated. You start into the first paragraph and unexpectedly meet a parenthesis. It pulls you out of the story. You read the line again and continue. Only to be met with another parenthesis. And a third. And a fourth. And a fifth. Each time, you are pulled out of the story as you try to digest what’s inside them. You scan ahead and find just about every page has the same thing. You find you can no longer follow the story so you toss the book into the donate pile and never return to it.

This is what I’ve been met with twice in the last two months. Two different books. Two different authors. Two different publishers. I’ve been contemplating why this is happening. I certainly hope it isn’t a trend as each time, I get pulled out of the story. Like the road closed sign, the parenthesis is large, annoying, noticeable, and certainly overused. The only explanation I can come up with is it is some misguided attempt to make mystery/thriller into a literary work.

Here are two examples, the first, taken at random, is from Big Sky by Kate Atkinson.

“Don’t swear,” Jackson said automatically. It was pathetic in some ways (the smallest manned navy in the world!), but that was the charm of it, surely? The boats were replicas, the longest twenty foot at most, the others considerably less. There were park employees concealed inside the boats, steering them., The audience was sitting on wooden benches on raked concrete steps. For an hour before-hand an old-fashioned king of man had played an old-fashioned kind of music on an organ in a bandstand and now the same old-fashioned man was commenting on the battle. In an old-fashioned kind of way. (“Is this ever going to end?” Nathan asked.)

Jackson had come here as a kid once himself, not with his own family (when he had family) – they never did anything together, never went anywhere, not even a day trip. That was the working class for you, too busy working to have time for pleasure, and too poor to pay for it if they managed to find the time. (“Didn’t you hear, Jackson?” Julia said. “The class war’s over. Everyone lost.”) He couldn’t remember the circumstances – perhaps he had come here on a Scouts outing, or with the Boy’s Brigade, or even the Salvation Army – the young Jackson had clung to any organization going in the hope of getting something for free. He didn’t let the fact that he was brought up as a Catholic interfere with his beliefs. He had even signed a pledge at the age of ten, promising the local Salvation Army Temperance Society his lifelong sobriety in exchange for a lemonade and a plate of cakes. (“And how did that work for you?” Julia asked.) It was a relief when he eventually discovered the real Army, where everything was free. At a price.

The second, also taken at random, is from The Plot by Jean Hanff Koelitz.

May were the dreams of young Jacob Finch Bonner when it came to the fiction he would one day write. (The “Bonner”, in point of fact, wasn’t entirely authentic–Jake’s paternal great-grandfather had substituted Bonner for Bernstein a solid century before–but neither was the “Finch,” which Jake himself had added in high school as an homage to the novel that awakened his love of fiction.) Sometimes, with books he especially loved, he imagined that he had actually written them himself, and was giving interviews about them to critics or reviewers (always humble with his deflection of the interviewer’s praise) or reading from them to large, avid audiences in a bookstore or some hall full of occupied seats. He imagined his own photograph on the back jacket flap of a hard cover (taking as his templates the already outdated writer-leaning-over-manual-typewriter or writer-with-pipe) and thought far too often about sitting at a table, signing copies for a long, coiling line of readers. Thank you, he would intone graciously to each woman or man. That’s so kind of you to say. Yes, that’s one of my favorites, too.

These are two, randomly selected excerpts. I think if you counted up the parenthesis in either book, it would come out into the hundreds. Certainly when you scan down a page and see a dozen, you know it’s over used.

In the case of Big Sky, I abandoned the book. I started The Plot last night so the jury is still out. But each time I hit a parenthesis, I come to a complete stop and have to think carefully about the story and what is inside the parenthesis. It certainly doesn’t flow well.

So, who is to blame? I start first with the author. I include the editor and publisher. Why would you write a book that is difficult for the reader to consume? Don’t we as writers, writer for the reader? We should be. And as I said earlier, I hope this is not a new trend because if it is, it will cause me to stop buying books, which only hurts the author because reading, like a country drive, should be enjoyable.

Leave a Reply