The Parenthetical Style

Review by Rea Keech

In an interview, Perrotta says that structure comes easy to him. He says, “I generally try to write brisk narratives and keep pushing forward all the time, and stop at strategic moments to give a glimpse into a character’s history and move around in time.” This seems to account for what I would call his parenthetical style. Passages in the present are interrupted, sometimes briefly and sometimes at length, by passages describing the past. A scene in the present often begins but then is stopped by an account that goes back and fills in what led up to it. When the scene in the present is continued, it might be interrupted again by a scene from the past that helps to explain it. The past, in a way, is included parenthetically in the present. This jumping back and forth in time creates suspense about what is going to happen in the scene that has been broken off, as well as surprise at what happened back then that we, and often the point-of-view character, didn’t know about.

The dialogue is also parenthetical. A character’s first sentence is often followed by a long analysis before we get his next sentence or before we get the response from the person being addressed. Sometimes several other characters say things or a whole paragraph of description takes place before we get the continuation of the dialogue. As with the parenthetical narration, this dialogue device increases suspense, in this case about what the next comment or answer will be.

It is the same with the sentences. Parenthetical dashes are Perrotta’s favorite syntactical device. An example: “The teakettle whistled meekly—there was something wrong with the hinged cap on the spout—as if reluctant to interrupt the conversation.” Inserting a parenthetical explanation gives the prose a conversational style. (By the way—my own parenthetical comment—this example also includes Perrotta’s favorite expression as if, which occurs hundreds of times throughout the novel.)

When young Ruth is about to kiss a classmate, “His voice trembled slightly, as if she were about to burn him with a cigarette.” A school principal approaches “hunched in his usual bowlegged wrestler’s crouch, as if he were looking for someone to take down.” Perrotta delights in comical comparisons. A poker player is described as “a scrawny, jittery guy in a dark suit, with such pronounced jaw muscles it looked like he was chewing gum even when he wasn’t.” Tim’s ex-wife’s new husband has “an old, clunky-looking PC hulking on a beige metal desk suitable for crawling under during a nuclear war.”

The parenthetical style mimics the way we tell stories to each other, and the witty, often derogatory or grotesque comparisons give Perrotta’s writing the cynical, hyperbolic voice that I find so amusing.

As for the plot, the suggestion that liberal Ruth falls in love with evangelist Tim, there’s not enough to make this convincing.