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Pigeons rustled

Like painting — but with words?

In the New Yorker, one of the most amazing first sentences I have read this year:

Pigeons rustled in the beams of the Staten Island Ferry terminal as Rebecca Miller, the writer and director, ordered a soft pretzel.

I have no idea what the rest of the article says, because every time my eyes attempted to scan further down the page they were wrenched back by this prosaic sorcery, whose surely unprecedented arrangement of English words had me mesmerized for what seemed like hours, but might in reality have been seconds?

There is so much going on in this sentence that I can only scrape the surface of its eldritch machinery in a kind of ape-like wonder. The bookending pseudo-chiasmus — pigeons rustledsoft pretzel! The devastating bathos of that foodstuff! The vivid contrast between the peremptory harshness of ordered and the doughy vulnerability of the soft pretzel! The haughty vagueness of the job description! (“Rebecca Miller, the writer and director” — oh yes, the writer of what again? The director of what? In what forms does she practise? I don’t know and maybe I never will!)

Perhaps most hauntingly: the implication that it was our heroine’s ordering of the bathetic foodstuff that actually caused the pigeons to rustle — as though Miller is some kind of pigeon whisperer.

I feel like quoting the whole thing again, just to bask in it:

Pigeons rustled in the beams of the Staten Island Ferry terminal as Rebecca Miller, the writer and director, ordered a soft pretzel.

This sentence might actually be inexhaustible in its delicately bonkers kitsch poetry. Once one has succeeded in composing such a marvel, one must be sorely tempted to retire?

  1. 1  shadowfirebird  November 19, 2009, 10:29 am 

    And what, exactly, were the pigeons rustling?

    I have this image of pigeons frantically pushing sheep into a trailer as the searchlights of the ferry terminal finally focus on them.

    But then, perhaps I have an overly perverse mind.

    (Incidentally, if your point was that purple prose feels jarring in a news article, you’re not the only one; I’ve been similarly struck.)

  2. 2  Bob Hale  November 19, 2009, 1:41 pm 

    I like the next sentence – “This was a Tuesday afternoon, hazy, gray, quiet.” which seems to me to be suggesting that these are the defining characteristcs of a Tuesday afternoon.

  3. 3  roger migently  November 19, 2009, 1:45 pm 

    Sounds like an entry in the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, doesn’t it.

    This, which is real, is strangely similar:

    With listeners leaning over the velvet restraining ropes and angling for pictures, John Glenn urged them to remember Shepard’s 1961 Redstone flight in its political context, when the Soviet Union was seducing world opinion with the lingerie of Earth-orbiting technology.

    She was a naughty, starkers mite, that USSR, eh?.

  4. 4  Dave Weeden  November 19, 2009, 5:04 pm 

    Surely, lingerie is supposed to recall Puck’s “I’ll put a girdle round about the earth/In forty minutes..” I’m pretty sure Craig Raine described pigeons in flight as a ‘ravel’ and I’ve always wanted to steal that, but the opportunity hasn’t arisen.

    Pretzels are hard aren’t they? Or did they become soft by law after Bush nearly choked on one?

  5. 5  Steven  November 19, 2009, 5:19 pm 

    I have this image of pigeons frantically pushing sheep into a trailer as the searchlights of the ferry terminal finally focus on them.

    So do I now, thanks!

  6. 6  sw  November 19, 2009, 11:15 pm 

    If I’m not mistaken, the “soft pretzels” are the enormous, doughy ones studded with little salty diamonds; they are sold by vendors who rustle in the shade of their massive umbrellas and who will squirt neon-yellow strips of mustard onto these soft pretzels to make them even more unpalatable.

    But maybe we’re coming closer to the hidden poetry here: birds (fowl-like) to soft pretzels (foul salt-licks)?

  7. 7  Tawfiq Chahboune  November 19, 2009, 11:18 pm 

    Many thanks go to roger migently for highlighting the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest. To my shame, I’d never even heard of it. But it’s absolutely hilarious. It’s the best thing I’ve come across all year. Again, thanks to roger migently. The following offering is sublime:

    “She walked into my office on legs as long as one of those long-legged birds that you see in Florida – the pink ones, not the white ones – except that she was standing on both of them, not just one of them, like those birds, the pink ones, and she wasn’t wearing pink, but I knew right away that she was trouble, which those birds usually aren’t.”

    Eric Rice
    Sun Prairie, WI

  8. 8  Tawfiq Chahboune  November 19, 2009, 11:45 pm 

    PS. Amazingly, Bulwer-Lytton is also the father of the line “the pen is mightier than the sword”!

  9. 9  Robert Hanks  November 20, 2009, 11:44 am 

    I read that sentence and immediately turned the page in case my eye strayed over it again. Dismal. And, in fact, a pretty dismal issue all round – did you make any headway with the piece about cooking Thanksgiving dinner around the world? This gist of it seemed to be “I am not only an excellent cook, and wealthy, but I have led a life of quite extraordinary interest. La di da!” But to be fair, I was too busy puking to get to the end of it.

  10. 10  sw  November 20, 2009, 1:55 pm 

    Robert – that piece about Thanksgiving dinner was ghastly, wasn’t it? I kept waiting for the twist, for the hint of self-parody – did it ever come? I too couldn’t finish. It was truly a disappointing issue: Nancy Franklin is a brilliant television critic with a light touch, but she was unable to do anything with Glenn Beck other than repeat the usual criticisms; Gopnik had strikingly little to say about cookbooks; Lane was Lane; and my second least favourite critic in the New Yorker stable gushed over the flavour of the month, Dirty Projectors. Meh. But Schjeldahl is rarely off form.

  11. 11  roger migently  November 20, 2009, 2:11 pm 

    TC@8 – Some students at the university I attended, once, during their kind of “rag day”, paraded through the town centre carrying an enormous rolled-up carpet with a cardboard cone covering its leading end. Leading the priapic procession were several students carrying large cards reading, “THE SWORD IS MIGHTIER THAN THE PEN IS”. Ah, undergrad humour. Where is it now? Oh, that’s right – over in the Igon thread!

  12. 12  richard  November 20, 2009, 5:56 pm 

    Staunch defense of Bulwer-Lytton here:

    I don’t have a dog in this fight – I’ve never read the man, and although I like the bad writing thing I’d be just as happy to see it called the Ayn Rand, Dan Brown or Michael Moorcock contest. I would like a special category for unconscious parodists of Poe, though.

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