In Stuart Dybek’s “Flu” he uses short descriptors separated by semicolons which manipulates the reader into producing a visual state of Faye’s experience with the flu as instantaneous. She undergoes “days of nausea, vertigo, diarrhea; a fast of toast and tea; fever.” These are familiar experiences. We’ve all had the flu at some point so there is no necessity to dwell on them, but what makes this long sentence so powerful is the way it forces the reader to experience Faye’s illness. They don’t have time to think about the information being provided, only time enough to visualize it.
Dybek’s use here isn’t limited to a complete and instantaneous visualization of Faye’s flu. His clipped remarks turn to the mention of her “sleeping spells.” Dybek then piles all this imagery into a realization by the character that she is “alone.” The reader’s visualization is transformed by this brief remark. Dybek finally ends the sentence with another clipped remark, “Faye felt better.” The suffering that Dybek describes ends with Faye understanding that she is alone, and the knowing is immediately followed by her recovery.
Dybek has inadvertently roped the reader into a love story by way of sickness. He establishes the opening of a metaphor that is later closed when the man who ends Faye’s loneliness, Aldo, states that their relationship “started with the flu.”
Sentence length is key to the way the reader experiences Faye and Aldo’s story. Dybek’s long sentence introduces us to everything that Faye suffers through. The forcing of one complete visualization of her illness ends with the idea of loneliness, which forces the reader to link these two ideas together.
The use of overlong sentences can be employed in many different ways for a number of effects. Jose Saramago uses long sentences to speak to an immediacy in thought in Blindness. The narrator notes how “The very air in the ward seemed to have become heavier, emitting strong lingering odours, with sudden wafts that were simply nauseating, what will this place be like within a week, he asked himself, and it horrified him to think that in a week’s time, they would still be confined here, assuming there won’t be any problems with food supplies, and who can be sure there isn’t already a shortage, I doubt, for example, whether those outside have any idea from one minute to the next.” Stream of consciousness shapes the character and environment at the same time. The reader experiences things live, through the narrator’s shifting focus. This allows for an embodiment within the narrator.
“My muscles flinch inadvertently and my mind opens like a catalog. The light creeping in through a crack in the ceiling, and the sweet, nauseating smell of cordite, and the dust particles weaving through the air, and my rapid heartbeat the only thing in my ears, then the electric snap before the waves rip my flesh away like tissue paper.” In this sentence I’ve used sentence length to reflect an immediacy of action. Everything within the sentence is taking place at a single moment in time.
There are many elements of craft that not every reader will catch, but the use of overlong sentences will always have an effect, especially when that length provides a contrast, as in Dybek’s “Flu.” The reader is forced to combine more and more to the point of excess. This leads to a very real change in the reading experience that can’t be overlooked.