Who’s Afraid of the Cumulative Sentence? On Janice Lee’s Imagine a Death: A Novel
Janice Lee. Imagine a Death. Huntsville: Texas Review Press, 2021.
In the fall of 2018, I stumbled into a reading with Janice Lee. It was black and cold outside. I associated Lee mostly with Entropy, the online magazine she edited. In its composition and its editorial choices, Entropy seemed at once friendly and subtly subversive. It seemed to be doing something many people I knew had been thinking and talking about: imagining a writing, reading, and publishing community guided more by assumptions of abundance and community than familiar notions of scarcity and hierarchy.
I didn’t know that Lee was reading from what would become Imagine a Death. As my hands and cheeks warmed, I heard a chain of clauses following each other according to a compelling associative logic. It was a deep spoken simultaneity. It was the past and future in an intensely multivalent present. It was trees in a mind. It was a self arising from the perception of a self. Lee was speaking in the recognizeable manner of consciousness rather than the ostensibly literary manner of consciousness, and the part of me that narrates both the world and myself to myself, responded in kind.
In 2019, Lee published a much forwarded and re-tweeted essay in Volume 1 Brooklyn, “Books Are Not Commodities, They Are Bridges: Challenging Ideas of Linear Success in Literary Publishing.” The essay tells the story of her attempts to publish Imagine a Death with a major house or larger independent press. It was “too philosophical, too lyrical,” Lee was told; it was “unmarketable.” With this essay, the question of the book’s permissibility in the landscape of mainstream publishing came into focus—and for me, heightened my interest. Knowing Imagine a Death was that book, upon its release I entertained the thought that it might be too difficult—beyond me, or even possibly over-indulgent in its style. I am a selfish reader and not particularly invested in experimentation for its own sake. But Imagine a Death is none of these things.Imagine a Death is rigorous and concerned with ideas. The chapters on the more-than-human characters should—and I hope, will—become classics of environmental literature, especially for readers of Robin Wall Kimmerer. The notion of this book’s supposed unmarketability indicts the system that deems it so. Imagine a Death makes a strong argument that if books are indeed bridges, it matters not just whose stories are told, but at the sentence and paragraph-level, how they take shape.
In extended passages, the characters of Imagine a Death emerge: a writer, a photographer, and an old man who are neighbors in an urban setting. They exist in what we might think of as the middle-times: a long, unfolding apocalypse whose atrocities the characters note only in passing. There are more-than-human characters too: birds, trees, pea plants, a dog, a bear, a dream, among others, each with a particular awareness that draws on older, or more sensitive, or more interdependent kinds of knowledge than the humans can access. The characters all come from the same kind of breathless cascade, the same forest-like paragraphs that hold us in recognizeable, difficult moments, asking us to stay and keep breathing.
Lee’s website bio mentions her interest in “the filmic long take.” The vehicle of Lee’s own version of the long take is the cumulative sentence, in which an independent clause—the basic subject-verb-object unit of meaning in English—is followed by one or more modifying clauses. The first time we hear from—or about—The Writer, it looks like this:
Imagine a death, which really occurs—that is, not the death which devastates inside a dream as you sleep, the kind of dream from which you wake up sweating, the gray sheets dampened and the room suddenly filled with the cold sweat of someone who has been asleep for an intolerable amount of time, alone in the dark, the kind of dream in which you wake up and want to call your brother to see if he is still breathing, Are you alive? You want to ask, knowing that the answer is yes and knowing he is home in his bed dreaming his own dream of wanting to occupy another body that is not his own, dreaming of his mother, of when she was alive [...] (1)
The sentence is a long refusal to finish making a single or too-simple meaning; before it ends, the sentence will accumulate The Writer’s dreams of her mother, the imagined death of a loved one in general, the way deaths look in movies, the actual noises outside the window, the silence that might mean an actual death and more—for nearly three pages. In Lee’s cumulative sentence, the first item or action invoked may be specified and re-specified, allowing the facts, relationships, imaginings, and immediate perceptions that constitute a moment to lie side by side in a paratactic structure: The Writer, we learn, has “only dreamed of death, which perhaps is still more of a relief than to dream of sitting at home in front of a fire that warms and gives the false picture of an elusive peace and the ghastly kind of contentment that terrifies husbands into running away from their wives, that asks children to forgive the repeated abuses of parents, that convinces fish that the borders of their tanks are the borders of the world and the edges of their universe…” (2). Even this small piece of the sentence encompasses a simple observation, a speculative fear, a reference to a general phenomenon that may also be a piece of The Writer’s personal story, and an image that contains a philosophical point. Lee tugs on a small thread that unravels something much larger.
From within this structure, the story surfaces: characters each have in their past general and specific trauma; each is caught in a protective self formed around past harm; each is, in some way, in flight from the realization of pain and loss. Some will be more able to move than others, but all are thinking, in their own ways, about what can or might be next. My students, when given free rein to experiment with the cumulative sentence, often love the way it can travel, beginning in one place and ending in another. Lee’s cumulative sentences travel and, more importantly, circle. They enact a thick, layered version of existence while also carrying out the motions of becoming.
Lee’s particular cumulative sentences allow a strangely interstitial narrative position, a gaze that feels both interior and exterior to each character. It is hard to know when the characters are perceiving their interiority and when it is being perceived by a larger consciousness in which they and all the other characters are taking part. It’s hard to say, at times, whether they’re speaking or being spoken of. It feels organic, as if both gazes might be operating.
From this narrative position, experiential and ontological boundaries come into question: past, present, and future; human and more-than-human; self and other. Though the characters don’t always perceive it, Lee’s narration, by means of the cumulative sentence linking senses and sensing together, shows their interdependence, inter-existence, and inter-emergence. For example, the Old Man, a character with “the mentality of an archivist,” (35) is visited by the phrase “When I was a bird [...]” (72). The birds, in turn, wonder if they are gods. And it is a particular archivist bird—or the voice that is at once a bird and not a bird—who articulates the way the book’s own language works against systems of domination:
[...] the diagrammed language is also capable of forging a threshold between this world and the dream world, and so that in betweenness might be labeled as a concrete space and there might be new language manifested to articulate all that does not yet fit into the confines of current restrictions, that is, there are so many different types of knowing, and we have so many ways to describe all those forms of knowing that privilege certainty and fact and truth, and yet everything else becomes relegated to feeling or intuition, as if there is a hierarchy that is predicated on certainty, and we know of course that certainty is an illusion and a framework for control [...] (151-152)
The archivist bird is a documenter “who sees value in concretizing memory to outlast one’s own life and trajectory,” recording in language that is not a diagram, but that is “diagrammed” (151). This language itself is not a map, not a tool “for cutting down trees, for carving out swaths of land to be territorialized on maps as evidence, for allowing some categories of living beings to have hope and for others to never glimpse the possibility of future beyond tomorrow” (152). But this language has a shape. Like the “new language” described in this passage, Lee’s sentences make an interstitial space concrete, thereby speaking relationships unseen and unspoken by a dominant, commodifying perspective.
Imagine a Death refuses foreshortened units of meaning and in doing so can dwell in a disruptive in-betweenness. Both the story and the manner of the story undermine individual and collective perceptions of certainty and separation. As character, story, and image grow from Lee’s cumulative sentences, a strange kind of possibility develops within the book’s lowkey catastrophic atmosphere of smoke-filled skies, failing systems, and ambient cruelty.
Imagine a Death ends in a long moment: a character descends from the sky and reaches into it at once, a position of falling, standing, and rising foretold by an oracle bird a few chapters earlier. In recent years, the skies above me have been smokier than ever; the middle-times continue as an iterative coming apart that reveals the world’s profound interdependence and asks for ways of knowing beyond and besides the ones that got us here. Lee’s prose is not too difficult; it is a necessary accumulation.