In defence of the comma splice: Katie Kitamura’s A Separation


I’d been planning to write about the comma splice for a while. Reading Katie Kitamura’s novel A Separation (Clerkenwell Press), I made a note that it would be a useful book to quote from, as it uses the device a lot. Then I read, yesterday, that Lionel Shriver had picked up on the same thing in her review of the novel in the FT, in order to criticise it. She writes:

Kitamura’s relentless joining of complete sentences with commas is grating, giving the text the look of weak secondary-school essays. One example of hundreds: “This was hardly surprising, the bar did not seem to be set especially high, Stefano, for all his merits, did not seem like an intellectual force.” What do those errant commas achieve? For this reader, irritation, distraction and impatience. Liberal deployment of full stops would have left the prose cleaner, clearer and crisper, while sharpening the voice.

Shriver does acknowledge that this is a genuine stylistic choice on the part of Kitamura, and that the first-person voice she chooses for her (unnamed) narrator is “otherwise strong”.

I think the use of the comma splice is highly effective, and key to the success of the novel. Before I say why, a general remark about writing and grammar.

Insofar as there are grammatical rules, the comma splice is an error, a joining together of syntactic units that would be better served as being treated as full sentences, i.e. separated by full stops. As I tell my students – as teachers everywhere tell their students – rules are there to be broken, but I want to know that you know you’re breaking the rule, and ideally I want to know why. That is, I want to be confident that your comma splices are there for a clear and definite stylistic reason, and not because you think what you’re writing is ‘correct’ English, or never knew that it wasn’t. (All comments about the validity of such a concept as ‘correct English’ should be saved for the end of this post, by which time hopefully they will be forgotten.)

In Kitamura, then, the comma splices are there for a definite reason, which is to do with the presentation of the narrator’s state of mind. A Separation is a first person narrative, that starts in the past tense:

It began with a telephone call from Isabella. She wanted to know where Christopher was, and I was put in the awkward position of having to tell her that I didn’t know.

Christopher is the narrator’s husband. They have separated, but chosen not to tell anyone, including Christopher’s parents. Now he has flown to Greece, apparently to research a book, and disappeared. Not wanting to confess to her parents-in-law the truth about her marriage, the narrator feels impelled to fly out and look for him – but only, she tells herself, in order to definitively ask him for a divorce when she finds him.

The ontological status of this narration (there is probably a more precise theoretical term, which I probably should know, but there you go: I don’t) is uncertain. That is, it’s unclear how the story is being narrated, whether these are thoughts or memories occurring ‘naturally’ in the mind of the protagonist, or words she is putting down on paper. That “began” does show that it is being narrated from a point in the future, a vantage point in a hypothetical present in which the narrator can look back. But are they narrating it consciously? Are they addressing their narration to someone? As I say, it is unclear. (And, as I say, this question of aware vs unaware narration is a fascinating one, and one I need to read more up on.)

On rereading the final chapter, I find that it the narration does land up in that future present:

That is why, late at night, other scenarios occur to me…

Also, there is a single, simple sentence (“There would not be this, nor the many e-mails and telephone calls relating to this.”) that seems to suggest that what we are reading is in fact a written document, that the narrator is writing their memories, rather than unconsciously presenting them, or ‘having’ them. It is ambiguous – on first reading I took the “this” to refer to the whole set of life events that the novel encompasses – and I like it like that, because much of what I like about the use of the comma splice in the book relates to the idea of the private or unconscious narrator, who is not aware that their thoughts have taken the form of words, that their vague, cloudy remembering has condensed into narrative – a narrative by which they might betray themselves.

Here are a couple more examples of comma splices, taken at random from the book:

I rose several moments later, as I stood in the darkness, the glass door on a small balcony on the third floor of the hotel opened.

For all these reasons, it was difficult to contemplate the pronouncement of the word that would destroy all that optimism, however outdated – and so although I remained at the hotel in order to ask Christopher for a divorce, I found that I was in no hurry to confront him, I had made a decision which I believed to be absolute, and yet I could have sat in the sun for days, for weeks, without moving, without doing anything, without speaking a word.

The point of punctuation is to apply relational logic to a sequence of statements. Full stops separate; semi-colons separate and conjoin (they coordinate, in the word of David Crystal, whose book on punctuation Making a Point I actually happened to be reading when I first saw mention of Shriver’s review on Twitter); colons imply inference. What the comma splice does, by contrast, is elide the sense of logical progression between thoughts, or even interrelation. It rejects the idea that the character’s individual thoughts exist in a solid and stable relation to each other; that they can be taken as a whole to be a comprehensive picture of her state of mind. The comma splice, in Kitamura, doesn’t so much join the adjacent sentences together, as slide them over each other; her thoughts overlap, like wavelets on a beach, and, in doing so, they lose their integrity. (“I found that I was in no hurry to confront him, I had made a decision which I believed to be absolute”)

The narrator of A Separation is not an “unreliable narrator” in the usual sense of the term: she does not withhold significant information from the reader, either consciously or unconsciously, in order to give a false impression of herself. However, she is what you might call a repressed narrator, in that she never quite joins the dots of the information that she does give in order to come to judgment as to herself – a judgement that the reader is in a position to make. (And what is punctuation other than a joining of the dots of individual statements?)

What is so fascinating about Kitamura’s  novel is that the narrator is psychologically incisive, and in many ways very aware of her own nature, yet she refuses to face up to the truth. It is a novel permanently on the edge of an epiphany that never materialises. (Reading it, I was reminded often of Javier Marías, for the elegance of the unfolding thoughts. The difference is that Marías’s narrators are, I think, always in control of their narration. It is the closeness to that perfection, but the falling short, that makes Kitamura’s narrator so compelling.)

The comma splice is lazy, it is slipshod, it is imprecise. (‘Slipshod’: literally, wearing slippers: picture someone moving forward not by lifting each foot from the ground and putting it back down, but by sliding themselves forwards, neither foot ever really getting a full foot’s length ahead of the other.) That’s what rattles Shriver, and in nine cases out of ten I would agree with her. Here, though, it is that imprecision, that unconscious lack of care, allied with the narrator’s natural incisiveness, that makes the book such an elegant portrait of a fine mind lying to itself.

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11 comments

  1. Tredynas Days

    Interesting that you should single out this particular stylistic feature; it’s becoming quite fashionable, but has been around a long time. It’s there in Marías (although his meandering sentences often have a logical progression of their own), but also in some women writers of the less recent past who I’ve been reading: Barbara Comyns, who uses it for the disingenuous, naive voices of her narrators, whose thoughts spill into each other even more chaotically than those you quote from Kitamura; and, a less predictable author, Rebecca West, in her Aubrey trilogy – The Fountain Overflows, This Real Night, and Cousin Rosamund. West’s narrator, Rose Aubrey, is a bit like the ones in Comyns, in that she’s very young in the first volume, and has similarly untethered thought processes; the loose punctuation represents her mind’s elisions. As Rose matures in the later volumes the style has become established, it has her tone, her freedom of spirit. It takes a particularly gifted writer to get away with this device. As a teacher of English I’m required to ‘correct’ such ‘errors’ in my students, but I also agree that these ‘rules’ of correctness in language are there to be broken…with care.

      • Tredynas Days

        My recollection is that it’s frequent in the Your Face Tomorrow trilogy. I open vol. 1, Fever and Spear, and here’s the second sentence: ‘Telling is almost always done as a gift, even when the story contains and injects some poison, it is also a bond, a granting of trust…’ [etc.] Not a great example, arguably not a splice. As I read on I realise it’s more of a paratactic style rather than the loosely spliced one you refer to – that is, he tacks phrases and clauses together with minimal use of conjunctions, additive or otherwise; sort of a looping, loping style, cumulative, building and accreting as the sentences grow. The penultimate sentence of pt. 1, ‘Fever’, is typical JM, and runs like the river it cites for 10 lines (p. 176 in the Vintage pb).

  2. Tredynas Days

    Just checked Wikipedia, which cites Fowler (1996 edition) who gives several modern writers as exponents, and the over-prescriptive Lynn Truss who adds several more, saying effectively you get away with it if you’re famous…

  3. Max Cairnduff

    Marias though wasn’t writing in English. It’s a fault in English, but not elsewhere. In French it’s a perfectly acceptable usage – Proust for example or Enard is sentence after sentence of multiple comma splices. English writers who model themselves after French are I think more prone to using it for that reason.

    I thought this example interesting:

    “I rose several moments later, as I stood in the darkness, the glass door on a small balcony on the third floor of the hotel opened.”

    If it were instead:

    “I rose several moments later. As I stood in the darkness the glass door on a small balcony on the third floor of the hotel opened.”

    It would be cleanly factual. There would be a clear break between rising and standing hearing the door open. As it is it creates a sense of semi-waking uncertainty. The rising slips (as you say) into the standing which slips into the door opening. The borders of experience are blurred.

    • Tredynas Days

      Good point, Max. I don’t feel well versed enough to comment on French & Spanish prose style, though it’s my perception that the kinds of ‘slippery’ stylists you mention aren’t exactly typical- I still think it’s a deviation from general practice in those languages, but maybe more latitude is common in them? Dickens is capable of this kind of elision/slipping, for example, but maybe not G Eliot.

      • Max Cairnduff

        Possibly, that I can’t say. Proust uses it heavily, so does Enard, but whether say a thriller writer would I have no idea. I just get the impression it’s more common and that English writers influenced by French writers sometimes therefore pick up the habit.

        Jonathan’s still right of course that it should still be knowing and intentional, but then in terms of writing that’s probably generally good advice.

  4. Stan Carey

    A fine and measured defence of the splice as a legitimate stylistic device, though I would not consider it necessarily lazy, slipshod, or imprecise. In writing about (and defending) its literary use some years go, I included examples from dozens of authors; since then I’ve recorded examples I’ve come across in my reading (typically limiting it to 2–3 per book) and the file now has about 17,000 words. I suspect the splice’s critics greatly underestimate just how prevalent it is – not only in fiction but nonfiction too.

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