The West in Pieces: On the Reimagined Grammar(s) of C. Pam Zhang

Christian Kiefer on a Debut Novel That Rewrites the Hills of California

In previous essays on the grammars of contemporary American fiction, I have explored the various ways in which authors use grammar as a specific tool of meaning-making. This has appeared, for example, in the deft use of the semicolon in the work of Garth Greenwell, and in the textual balancing of syntax and rhythm in the sentences of Lauren Groff. In this piece, I will be turning toward a writer whose grammar is used to inform and reimagine the entire body of her text.

The sentences of C. Pam Zhang’s debut, How Much of These Hills Is Gold, use the techniques of grammatical erasure to present a West both familiar and idiosyncratic, thus bringing the reader into a text of desiccated fracture, which is ultimately reflective of both the immigrant experience and the colloquial poetic voice of much of the literature of the American West.

Zhang’s debut novel is, according to its jacket copy, set “during the Gold Rush in a reimagined American West.” In it, tiger paw prints appear in the sand and buffalo bones bleach in the Western sunlight. While there is gold to be found, rare though it is, most of the characters make their living mining not for gold but for coal, as if some West Virginia geology has been magically transported to the oaks and pines and scrub of the West.

Into this landscape are deposited Lucy and Sam, orphaned and on the run through a topography that is both familiar and alien and in which they can find no safe harbor. It is a country rendered, under Zhang’s careful pen, wonderfully incomplete, sometimes in glaring light that manages to half-blind the reader so that we are afforded brief glimpses, sometimes in utterly dazzling clarity, but in miniature, as if we are peeking through to the past’s gone world through a pinhole camera.

By way of introducing the reader to the variety of grammars Zhang employs, here are the novel’s opening paragraphs:

Ba dies in the night, prompting them to seek two silver dollars.

Sam’s tapping an angry beat come morning, but Lucy, before they go, feels a need to speak. Silence weighs harder on her, pushes till she gives way.

“Sorry,” she says to Ba in his bed. The sheet that tucks him is the only clean stretch in this dim and dusty shack, every surface black with coal. Ba didn’t heed the mess while living and in death his mean squint goes right past it. Past Lucy. Straight to Sam. Sam the favorite, round bundle of impatience circling the doorway in too-big boots. Sam clung to Ba’s every word while living and now won’t meet the man’s gaze. That’s when it hits Lucy: Ba is really gone.

In a previous essay on the work of Lauren Groff, I underscored that author’s use of verbless sentences which nonetheless contain movement and action. Zhang’s work here is similar, although her erasures are in many ways more radical—and perhaps more colloquial—than Groff’s. The first sentence above is grammatically ordinary, introducing us to a character the death of whom will drive much of the novel’s action. The reader does not yet understand this sentence—who Ba is, nor who “them” refers to, nor the function of the two silver dollars—but as a first sentence we have come to expect such unknowns. What strikes me as interesting is Zhang’s immediate contraction at the start of the next sentence: Sam’s. The effect of this choice on the reader is to temporarily confuse the function and meaning of the apostrophe. Does the tapping belong to Sam (the apostrophe as possessive) or is it a contraction of Sam is? It is, of course, the latter, but that tiny moment of unseating the reader’s expectations for clarity is telling of Zhang’s entire project in regards to its grammar.

One is struck by the power of this language and its differences from another inscribing of a girl’s voice upon (or in or through) the topography of the American West.

Note the other elisions in this passage: The sheet that tucks him rather than “tucks him in,” as a more prosaic writer might have it; every surface black with coal rather than “every surface is black with coal”; the sentence fragments Past Lucy and Straight to Sam; the subsequent sentence which contains all the necessary material of sentence-making and yet, through a manipulation of verb tenses, is made to feel as if it does not. That latter sentence is, I think, the most important grammatical marker here:

Sam the favorite, round bundle of impatience circling the doorway in too-big boots.

Zhang offers the reader several possible nouns and noun phrases: Sam the favorite and round bundle are both placed in positions that might cause the reader to choose them as subjects for this sentence. And indeed they are doing that work, but the verb form, circling, removes us from what has been a present tense passage and into something without a clear marker of time. The verbs in this passage have been, up to this point, standard present tense, but with circling, Zhang offers readers a present participle.

Let me pause for a moment before going on about the verb forms here. What I respond to in this passage—and indeed in the whole of this debut novel—is the sense of Westerness present in its style and grammar. This whole passage, to me, sounds like some old storyteller, eliding from idea to idea with much poetry and without much care for grammatical exactitude or correctness. One is reminded, for example, of Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang, a novel which also creates an idiosyncratic grammar, although one that moves in an almost opposite direction from that of Zhang. Furthermore, Zhang’s grammar is one that reflects the unsurety of her Chinese immigrant characters and their specific relationship to the English language. This is a novel largely about the human heart separated from familiar geographies, as reflected in both the novel’s plot and its grammar. (I’d like to put the caveat here that I am unqualified to address the specific linguistic issues between Chinese and English, and so, apart from this mention, I will necessarily be focusing elsewhere.)

Let us now return to that opening passage and, in particular, the use of the present participle. Here is that sentence once more and in isolation:

Sam the favorite, round bundle of impatience circling the doorway in too-big boots.

Note that there are really only three grammatically “correct” ways of employing a present participle in a sentence: first, after an auxiliary (to be) verb, as in Sam is circling the doorway; second, as a gerund, a verbal clause following the sentence’s main verb (an example of which would require a complete rewrite of Zhang’s sentence); lastly, as a participial adjective, a gerund form which modifies a noun in the sentence.

This latter is most aligned with what Zhang is doing here, for circling does, in a way, modify Sam; nonetheless, this sentence actually has no verb form to stand as the sentence’s lexical (or main) verb. What this means is that the closest we have to a lexical verb here is doing the work of both verb and adjective, a deft trick that compresses the sentence’s rhythm, gives it a sense of movement and poetry, and cements that kind of voice Zhang cultivates throughout this book. The elements of “correct” English grammar are both present in this text and radically absent.

Lucy is effectively the novel’s protagonist, the point of view a tight third person, so tight, in fact that Lucy’s voice informs much of the book’s tone and grammar. The narrative tension is largely generated via her relationship with her sibling, Sam, and indeed our first clear look at him—slightly later in the same chapter—is grammatically filtered through a third person voice that is nonetheless reflective of Lucy’s point of view:

Small, Sam is. But capable of a man’s strides in those calfskin boots. Sam’s shadow licks back at Lucy’s toes; in Sam’s mind the shadow is the true height, the body of a temporary inconvenience. When I’m a cowboy, Sam says. When I’m an adventurer. More recently: When I’m a famous outlaw. When I’m grown. Young enough to think desire alone shapes the world.

“Small, Sam is,” a grammar that reminds of the late David Markson’s This Is Not a Novel, a reversing of verb and object that makes primary not the sentence’s subject, but its ultimate arrival: small, as if Sam’s size is what makes Sam manifest at all. A sentence writer more interested in additive grammar (someone like Alexander Chee or Michael Ondaatje), might be tempted to continue this same sentence, using the coordinating conjunction, but, as a way to tether the material on Sam’s “man’s strides in those calfskin boots” to the independent clause “Small, Sam is.” In doing so, Zhang might have chosen to make of these two pieces a single unified sentence; however, were she to do so, it would change the relative importance of this information.

What I mean to imply by this is that in combining these two pieces into one sentence, Zhang would necessarily be subordinating one piece of information to the other. “Small, Sam is” acts as an independent clause, complete with subject, verb, and object (although not offered in quite that order). In contrast, “But capable of a man’s strides in those calfskin boots” is not an independent clause. In Zhang’s use here, it is technically a fragment, and yet one which implies connection to the independent clause which precedes it, which is to say that Zhang might have given us this: “Small, Sam is, but capable of a man’s strides in those calfskin boots.” Had she done so, the smallness of Sam would have become grammatically more important than the sentence’s second (subordinate) part, “but capable….” This is because in order for the sentence to make grammatical sense, the reader must necessarily give primacy to the main subject/verb pairing (Sam is small). Splitting this into two pieces negates this need so that “Small, Sam is” and “But capable of man’s strides in those calfskin boots” have equal weight in the description. One is not necessarily more (or less) important than the other, an essential consideration as Lucy’s relationship with and understanding of Sam deepens over the course of the novel.

The grass is gold, so much so that I when think of the “gold country” (where I grew up and still live), it is the grasses of which I think, not the rare mineral wealth.

Note that Zhang does something very similar with the subsequent sentence, split as it is by a semi-colon, thus indicating that both pieces are of related but equal significance: “Sam’s shadow licks back at Lucy’s toes; in Sam’s mind the shadow is the true height, the body of a temporary inconvenience.” In a previous essay, I noted how Garth Greenwell uses the semicolon as a kind of poetic volta, tilting the meaning of the sentence upon its axis. Zhang’s use here is not quite so dramatic, but she does utilize the semicolon to shift meaning in the sentence, from the external (the physicality of Sam’s shadow) to the internal (what Sam thinks). Allowing for a semicolon to link these two states of being also serves to give them equal weight, itself a kind of statement of what the book will encompass, namely Lucy’s story with Sam’s shadow riding through it all the while.

This reading is further deepened by attention to the rhythmic differences between these two halves, the way in which Zhang gives immediacy to the hard stresses of softer sounds—Sam’s shadow licks and Lucy’s—and then to the harder sounds of back and toes so that nearly every syllable of the first part of the sentence is stressed with a hard beat. The sentence’s second part, that after the semicolon, is much more languid in rhythm and thus acts in contrast to the opening, although I might also note here that “Sam’s shadow licks back at Lucy’s toes” and “in Sam’s mind the shadow is the true height” both contain five stressed syllables (at least as I hear them), the first five in a kind of rush, the second at a lower, slower gear, and the final three beats—“the body of a temporary inconvenience”—even slower. (Am I reading the rhythm of inconvenience correctly here? How do you read it, reader?) The implication here, at least to my reading, is to emphasize the concrete physicality of Sam’s presence with the softer imagination of Sam’s mind.

For the rest of this paragraph about Sam, Zhang dispenses entirely with the notion of independence clauses, and yet she does so in such a way as to offer a sense of completeness of thought and expression. Here’s the end of the paragraph again:

When I’m a cowboy, Sam says. When I’m an adventurer. More recently: When I’m a famous outlaw. When I’m grown. Young enough to think desire alone shapes the world.

The reader can easily complete each of Sam’s fragments for the response is always the same: at some point Sam will be bigger, better, stronger, older than he is now. What is grammatically important here, though, is not the statements themselves but which part of speech they represent and how that reflects a particular point of view, for while the statements may come directly from Sam, their nature as fragments is decidedly from Lucy’s point of view. It is she who is truncates them to floating subordinate clauses, thus erasing the imagined independent clause required to make them into complete sentences.

I have discussed the function of subordinate clauses in previous essays on contemporary grammars; for now, remember that a subordinate clause is, by dint of its grammar, less syntactically important than the sentence’s independent clause, the latter of which forms the kernel of the sentence, the part that gives it completeness of expression. In erasing the independent clauses from these statements of Sam’s, Zhang makes his desire subordinate, and lest we conclude that this desire is subordinate to Lucy’s, Zhang offers us this final fragment to attach that subordination to something greater even than his older sister, namely the world itself: “Young enough to think desire alone shapes the world.” Zhang has pointed to Sam as the speaker earlier but now she leaves his name off so that we are witness to the partial erasure of his desire. This is significant in the text because Sam is, as we will discover, a boy by choice rather than biology. And yet it is Lucy’s understanding of him that is limited, she who is critical of his youth and his desire, for we will come to understand that Sam’s desire does, in a sense, shape the world of the narrative.

This attention to fragments, particularly to subordinate clauses hewn free of reliance on any correlating independent clause, is one indicator of Zhang’s style in this novel. Another is her interest in breaking away from grammar altogether, in stringing words together almost as breath, not end-stopped but exhaling back into silence. There is a repeated example of this later in the novel when Sam steals a pair of horses named Sister and Brother which he then sells at a trading post.

They’ve ridden half a day before Lucy sees the weight of Sam’s wallet: as plump as before.

“They’re ours,” Sam calls back through the wind of their passage. “We’ve paid our dues.”

Lucy lets loose a string of cusses. The grass swallows them, nodding assent. She knows what Sam means. How can they be beholden? How can they be any more outside the law? That law a treacherous thing, twisting to sink fangs into them however it can. Better to make their own rules, as Sam always has. Anyhow, they’re leaving.

Gold grass gold grass gold grass gold grass gold

There are several features of Zhang’s style working at once here. The declarative sentences that start this passage are followed by the personification of the grasses swallowing Lucy’s “cusses.” Questions are a favorite of Zhang’s, used often to underscore Lucy’s unsettled place amidst her surroundings (as they are here). This is followed by a sentence that technically lacks its verb, “That law [is] a treacherous thing…,” although here Zhang’s use is to achieve a kind of Western colloquialism, the verb implied rather than stated, the kind of maxim some old timer might mumble around a campfire.

All of this is indicative of Zhang’s genius, lulling the reader into a sense of the familiar even as she defamiliarizes the tropes and clichés of the American West.

What feels more remarkable to me in this passage is that line of nine words, nine syllables, each of which is stressed, which ends in no punctuation at all. Over the course of this very short chapter, Zhang will repeat that list of words, appearing every paragraph or two and each time shortened by one syllable from “Gold grass gold grass gold grass gold grass” to “Gold grass gold grass gold grass gold” and ending, after five more iterations, with “Gold.” At no point is there an endstop or even a comma to indicate this is anything that might be considered a grammatical unit. Instead, Zhang imbues it with something much more like an exhaled breath or a prayer.

It might also be noted that this passage comes, as does much of the novel, while traveling through Zhang’s reimagined Western landscapes:

West for the last time. The same mountains, the same pass.

And then the hills, the hills.

In reverse they chart their own course. The prospecting sites, the coal mines. Same and yet changed, as they are same and yet changed.

The Gold Rush country is grassland and oak forest shading into pines and cedars. The grass is gold, so much so that I when think of the “gold country” (where I grew up and still live), it is the grasses of which I think, not the rare mineral wealth. And yet Zhang shifts us between the grasses and the minerals here. “Gold grass gold” runs the third to last instance. It is the grass that is gold but also gold itself. And then the penultimate, “Gold grass,” just the grass this time, but then leaving us, in the end, with just “Gold,” the thing itself, not an emblem but the Kantian Ding an sich.

One is struck by the power of this language and its differences from another inscribing of a girl’s voice upon (or in or through) the topography of the American West, that of narrator Mattie Ross in Charles Portis’ True Grit. But while Zhang breaks her narrative voice into idea and piece and fragment and subordination without connection, Portis carefully inscribes Ross’s grammar on every sentence, making sure, with the care of a young person who is desperate to be clear and understood, that each utterance contains a subject, a verb, an object. Of course, Portis’ Ross is a first-person narrator while Zhang’s is close third, but her close third is so close as to be nearly indistinguishable from first. The narrative voice shades into Lucy’s voice at every turn and it is sometimes colloquial (in a sense) as we saw in earlier passages that used both missing words (or the implication of their absence) and contractions to achieve the sense of the spoken: “That law a treacherous thing, twisting to sink fangs into them however it can. Better to make their own rules, as Sam always has. Anyhow, they’re leaving.”

In comparison, Portis begins thus, establishing a tone and voice that will carry throughout his narrative:

People do not give it credence that a fourteen-year-old girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father’s blood but it did not seem so strange then, although I will say it did not happen every day.

This is not quite the same occasionally colloquial tone as we find in Zhang’s debut, but there are, I think, mirrors or reflections of it in Lucy’s voice, an earnestness of diction as we saw before in that moment when Lucy “lets forth a string of cusses… She knows what Sam means. How can they be beholden? How can they be any more outside the law?”

But were we to look hard for influences, I think Zhang’s sentences tilt closer to that of late period Cormac McCarthy than Portis. This, from the end of McCarthy’s The Road:

Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional. On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.

Like Zhang, McCarthy is writing about a broken world. McCarthy’s The Road is an extreme case—the world broken for everyone and everything. Zhang’s world is more complex and problematic. There are characters who are able to find a place in her topography but Lucy is not one of them. To what home can she aspire?

In the above example from McCarthy, one might link most of the fragmented material exactly where it appears, via commas, hence reining it into recognizably grammatical shapes. In this way, McCarthy’s method is to chop otherwise grammatically correct sentences into smaller syntactical units. Zhang’s use of fragments is more sparing and most often is accomplished via an erasure of verbs (especially helping verbs). By way of illustration, compare the above to this brief passage from Zhang:

Summer comes, bringing rumors of a tiger.

The air is close and sticky as sweat. Cicadas, crickets, sighs, a dark ratcheting. A time for lingering after lamps are lit, for windows swung wide—a languorous heat in ordinary times, a loosening.

But this year the tiger presses its claw against the vein of the town, and all Sweetwater shivers. A few chickens went missing three days back, and a side of beef. A guard dog was found with its throat slashed. Yesterday a woman fainted while hanging laundry and woke gibbering about a creature behind her sheets. A print left in the mud. Fear is this summer’s excitement, as hoops were last summer’s, and syrup over crushed ice the summer before’s.

Here we have a prime example of Zhang’s grammar, her balancing of syntactically complete and fragmentary (verbless) material. Notice, in particular, that second paragraph:

The air is close and sticky as sweat. Cicadas, crickets, sighs, a dark ratcheting. A time for lingering after lamps are lit, for windows swung wide—a languorous heat in ordinary times, a loosening.

We have an almost perfect balancing between ideas and rhythms here, although the halves are punctuated differently, perhaps as to not draw too much attention to their parallel rhythmic structure. We end the first part of the paragraph at a gerund, the verb “ratcheting,” here used as a noun. The second part of the paragraph ends similarly with “a loosening.” The rhythms are different across both halves but what Zhang gives us here is almost Dickensian in its flow, especially when the early stresses break into iambs. Feel how the sentences start to roll with “A time for lingering after lamps are lit, for windows swung wide,” how the reader is buoyed along by a pattern which is, I think, the very beat of the human heart.

All of this is indicative of Zhang’s genius, lulling the reader into a sense of the familiar even as she defamiliarizes the tropes and clichés of the American West. (The next sentence is, after, all, “But this year the tiger presses its claw against the vein of the town, and all Sweetwater shivers.” In case anyone’s unclear, tigers range from India through Southeast Asia and into the Russian far east. They are not native to the American West.) What is familiar becomes unfamiliar and her ability to shift modes—from straightforward sentences, to colloquial language, to verbless fragments, to poetic turns devoid of punctuation—is what makes her work so fascinating as a text and a grammar.

She is interested in many modes and many voices, but instead of separating them she has weaved them into a single tapestry that is representative of the novel’s topography, both physical and emotional. If agency is called into question, how can one not erase the verbs? If the immigrant’s voice is inscribed upon such a landscape, how can its grammar be anything but incomplete? If there are more questions than answers, how do questions not enter the text as active inquiries? If we are rendered homeless, unseated, unfound, then why not a grammar that renders its sentences thus? This is not McCarthy’s American West, nor is it Portis’s. It is, instead, a reinscription, not only of landscape or story but of grammar itself, a world wrought of breath and blood and imagination.

Christian Kiefer
Christian Kiefer
Christian Kiefer is the director of the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at Ashland University and is the author of The Infinite Tides (Bloomsbury), The Animals (W.W. Norton), One Day Soon Time Will Have No Place Left to Hide (Nouvella Books), and Phantoms.(Liveright/W.W. Norton).





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