[an analysis by Sam Bilheimer]
Jo Ann Beard’s story, “The Fourth State of Matter,” is a terrifying account of the shooting at the University of Iowa in November of 1991. Surrounding the intense passage depicting the moment Gang Lu opens fire on several faculty members, Beard juxtaposes her daily troubles, work experiences, friendships, and her sickly collie.
Magnificently, Beard manages to depict the most unsettling scene that I have ever had the pleasure of reading. When Gang Lu begins his shooting spree, the prose becomes disjointed yet somehow flows much more smoothly than many properly-structured sentences ever have.
The sentences become fragmented: “The third bullet in the right hand, the fourth in the chest.” The sentences go off, structurally and succinctly, like Gang’s bullets. “Smoke,” is its own complete sentence, and so is “Reload.” This systematic and fast prose moves this piece along at just the right pace.
While reading this story, I began to change the sentences around in my head, “correcting” them. It’s probably unnecessary to state this, because it will be clear once you read my “corrections,” but what I did made the sentences so much worse. When grammatically correct, the sentence, “Reload. Two more for Chris, one for Shan. Exit the building, cross two streets, run across the green, into building number two and upstairs,” would become the significantly less poetic, “He reloads and shoots two more at Chris and one at Shan. He exits the building, crosses two streets, runs across the green, and goes upstairs into building number two.” Those extra words kill the prose. Beard’s original syntax is like a camera tracking Gang Lu’s movements perfectly. As he moves from the first building to the next, we move with him. Urgency. Nothing more. Nothing less.
But why is the “correct” way working so poorly? As a newly appointed assistant copy-editor for an independent fiction magazine, this bothered me. Isn’t proper grammar the right way to go forever and always? Perhaps not. “Correctness” must sometimes be thrown to the side when it gets in the way of the readability and artful essence of a piece. If Beard had a stricter editor who was less than pleased with the frequent use of sometimes clunky, but always cinematic, sentences, this story may not have been called one of the “Best American Essays” in 1997.