“Sometimes I’m not sure if I’ve overheard a story in conversation, read it in a book, or if I’m the person to whom it happened; whose adventures, besides my own, are wedged in my memory?”
– Bernard Cooper, “Labyrinthine” (1996)
God help Bernard Cooper if this is how he felt at 45. In the last paragraph of Labyrinthine—a shortish essay in which Cooper examines the continually accumulating and confounding corridors of human life—he confesses to being “lost in the folds and bones of [his] body.” Cooper is 65 now, and given the ways he found his mind failing him during the days of the Clinton administration, it seems like no small feat that twenty years later he still knows his own name, let alone continues to craft sentences on par with this beaut.
A quick survey reveals the sentence to have two main sections, separated from each other by a semicolon. The first section, which operates in assertions, is roughly three times the length of the second, which is concerned with unanswerable questions. In this way, the sentence mimics the essay as a whole, which also has two main sections (divided by white space), the first of which deals in assertions—nary a ‘?’ to be found therein—and is roughly three times the length of the second, which deals in unanswerable questions. The sentence is a microcosm of its home.
Lets work our way through it, starting with that first, longer, assertive section—the one before the semicolon. At its root is an equative: “I’m not sure.” To the left of this root, the equative is modified by the adverb sometimes, which adds a layer of qualification to it. To the equative’s right is the conjunction if, which links together the independent and dependent clauses of the section.
Post if, Cooper lists just what it is he’s sometimes not sure of. The list contains three phrases. The initial phrase establishes “a story” as the list’s subject matter, and each phrase suggests a particular way in which the author might be related to that “a story.” The first two phrases (“if I’ve overheard a story in conversation1, read it in a book2”) are close siblings. They are of the same structure: a root of “I have,” followed by a verb, then the subject, then a prepositional phrase beginning with “in.” The structure that is explicit in the first phrase is implicit in the second, so that “read it in a book,” operates without scaffolding. There is a silent framework within that phrase, which, when unmuted, reads as: “if I’ve read that story in a book.” Clearly, then, the two phrases are of the same grammatical DNA.
The third phrase in the list is related to these two as well, but in more of a cousinly way. It does not share the immediate familial similarities. The parent—the root—of phrases one and two is “if I’ve.” The parent of the third phrase is “if I’m.” But this phrase does use the pronoun “it,” illustrating that it shares the subject matter of “a story” with the other two phrases. And, just one generation back, all three share the same ancestor: “Sometimes I’m not sure.”
You can practically visualize the family tree:
I’m not sure
if I’ve if I’m
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overheard it in conversation read it in a book the person to whom it happened
If I’ve taken this metaphor too far, I apologize. But I’m afraid we’re now committed.
Just look at if I’ve’s children. They are of such simple disposition and sweet demeanor. They are well-adjusted phrases. Their cousin, on the other hand, seems to have a bit of a personality disorder. Rhetoricians and therapists alike have diagnosed him as “clunky” and “awk.” Whereas his cousins are active go-getters, he is of a more passive structure. He is soft and allows himself to be imposed upon.
But perhaps he was designed that way for a reason.
Again, this is an essay about the continually accumulating and confounding corridors of human life. It is about the inability to actively navigate its labyrinth once aware that the labyrinth exists. It is about the sheer and ever-increasing volume and impossible intricacies of its corridors. “Everywhere I looked, a labyrinth meandered,” Cooper writes. Everywhere.
Logically, then, this seemingly maladjusted phrase must be of passive structure. Sure, it could instead read, “or if I’m the person in it.” Or maybe Cooper could’ve written it as, “or if it’s about me.” Grammatically, these work just fine. But if switched out of the passive structure, this phrase puts the focus on Cooper. Doing so robs the phrase of its essence, though, because Labyrinthine isn’t about the writer. It’s about life imposing itself on the writer. That is precisely what is happening in this phrase—life is happening to Cooper. He is passive, almost a victim of it. So sure, the phrase could be adjusted to fit in. It could be counseled to better adhere to the straight-laced, tidy structure of its cousins. But if it lost the awkwardness and clunkiness of its composition, it would also lose the essence of its identity.
After the semicolon, the sentence shifts focus. And what do we make of it? The verb, wedged, immediately jumps out. It is clearly the spunkiest word in the entire sentence. Because it is the verb (ACTION!), and because its sentencemates are so comparatively pedestrian (“sometimes I’m not sure,” and, “the person to whom it happened,” and, “book”), wedged distinguishes itself as the post-semicolon focal point. It illustrates the possibility that Cooper has made into memories stories that are not his. In wedge-like fashion, they are outside sources lodged into the greater whole. The word carries connotations of force and imposition, suggesting another way in which the writer is a victim of external powers.
The concept that others’ pasts have found their ways into Cooper’s own strikes an obvious tone of uncertainty. It is fitting, then, that this section proposes that concept as a question: “Whose adventures, besides my own, are wedged in my memory?” It is an explicit question. But there also seems to be another question implied here, one that the writer does not pose to himself but rather to the essay’s audience: “Can you, the reader, trust me, Bernard Cooper?” The entire essay is built on the foundation of Cooper’s recollections. He spends the majority of it recounting particular scenes: his childhood affinity for mazes, memories of his parents, remembrances of the types of paper he’d use to construct his own labyrinths. Cooper, therefore, employs this sentence to call into question the validity of all of that. The sentence implores us to consider the possibility that the narrator is unreliable.
It could seem that Cooper is undermining his authorial integrity by suggesting that we cannot trust him. But the point of this sentence is to express that he doesn’t even trust himself. By suggesting that maybe we cannot trust him, Cooper is actually being incredibly fair to his reader. “I don’t trust me,” he seems to say, “so you should consider if you trust me.” Cooper, then, is not undermining his authorial integrity, but rather reinforcing his points that, as we age, “the days encase us, loopy and confusing,” and “recollecting the past becomes as unreliable as forecasting the future.”
As Cooper notes earlier in the essay, the best mazes contain “layers of complication.” In suggesting that the memories he expresses to us may be faulty—may not even be his at all—he adds layers of complication to the piece, turns it into a maze in its own right. How are we to navigate the essay, now that we know the memories it’s built on may not be accurate? What are we supposed to believe? It becomes a challenge to know whether anything in this essay is for certain, which then verifies its entire premise—that the ever-growing complications of life only lead to feeling increasingly lost and less assured. As readers, unable to make sense of what is even real in the essay, this sentence invites us to experience the piece completely confounded, which is the very way its author experiences life.
Max Rubin is the winner of the 2017 Essay Review Prize.