From a letter by Ian Mackenzie in the latest NY Times Book Review, complaining about Liesl Schillinger’s Feb. 3 review of Charles Bock’s Beautiful Children:

Schillinger approvingly quotes a sentence of Bock’s: “Electricity lit up Ponyboy’s skeletal structure as if it were a pinball machine on a multi-ball extravaganza, and the mingling odors of brimstone and sulfur and sweat and burning skin filled Ponyboy’s nostrils.” This describes, we are told, the administration of Ponyboy’s newest tattoo. It is easy to see why, in the current literary climate, this sentence attracts admiration: it loudly conflates the human body and the book’s setting, Las Vegas; it declares the obsolescence of the comma as it pounds out a list of nouns; its zeal for gaudy metaphor nearly splits it at the seams; and it turns up the biblical volume with the sinister “brimstone.”

But the sentence suffers from several conspicuous flaws. For one, it lurks at the edge of tenability when it describes the electricity illuminating Ponyboy’s “skeletal structure.” It then attempts to shoehorn in the metaphor of a pinball machine, whose vividness further divorces the sentence’s central idea from a credible reality, and then finally, in order, I imagine, to deploy four nouns rather than three, it falls irritatingly into redundancy: brimstone and sulfur, as a quick trip to the dictionary will confirm, are synonyms.


Incidentally, brimstone, late Old English brynstán , is literally ‘burn-stone’; the OED adds “An identical formation in other Teut. langs. (MDu. and MLG. bernsteen, Du. barnsteen, Ger. bernstein) is used with the sense ‘amber’. The transposition in bern-, bren- was inherited from the vb.; the subsequent change to brim- may have been due to association with the adj. brim, BREME ‘fierce.'” (Odd that the OED writes German nouns lowercase.)


  1. Not that I’m defending over-elaborate descriptions, but “brimstone and sulphur” or “sulphur and brimstone” are surely by way of being “bag-and-baggage”-type collocations? Even Joseph Addison in 1712 seems to balance four items that are really three: “Most readers, I believe, are more charmed with Milton’s description of paradise, than of hell; they are both, perhaps, equally perfect in their kind, but in the one the brimstone and sulphur are not so refreshing to the imagination, as the beds of flowers and the wilderness of sweets in the other.” And surely he at least can not be accused of falling irritatingly into redundancy.

  2. Sveinungi says

    The Icelandic name for sulfur is brennisteinn. The collocation corresponding to “sulfur and brimstone” is “eldur og brennisteinn”.

  3. Sveinnungi, is there an Icelandic collocation corresponding to “what does that have to do with the price of rice in China”?

  4. “sulfur and brimstone” is “eldur og brennisteinn”
    Don’t you mean fire and brimstone?

  5. jamessal says

    Although I do think a lot of Literary prose sucks, the rants complaining about it are usually worse. Like most of them, this letter combines grand intimidating statements (“modern literary climate”) with an ostensibly rigorous sentence analysis, which actually doesn’t tell us anything at all. There is nothing inherently wrong with “loudly conflating the human body and the book’s setting” (if it’s a consistent trope, I could see it working) or not using commas for a list (which doesn’t “declares the obsolescence” of anything) or even using gaudy metaphors; the sentence does not “lurk at the edge of tenability” when it describes electricity illuminating a skeleton, it becomes wildly hyperbolic, which again isn’t necessarily problematic; and the pinball metaphor is not “shoehorned” into the sentence — it *is* the sentence, whether you like the metaphor or not — and whether it “further divorces the sentence’s central idea from a credible reality” might be entirely beside the point, if the author isn’t writing in a realist mode, which I think we can assume he isn’t.
    That said, I’m not crazy about the sentence, or the few pages I read of Brock’s novel, and my only point is that what makes literary prose work or not is too complicated a question to answer by quickly tearing into a sentence or two (unless they truly are terrible — see Dale Peck’s review of The Black Veil).

  6. Very true, but of course the NYT Book Review is better suited to the quick (often unfair) jab or the unmodulated rave than to thoughtful analysis.

  7. Sveinungi says

    Judging by your tone (dveej and MMcM) not everyone is welcome to participate in this culture elite. Do you need a Ph.D. stiff upper lip studies?
    I only ment to add another language to the list in the post. Sorry for imposing my comment on you. I will not make the same mistake again. Good buy.

  8. Sveinungi, don’t worry about it. They’re just a couple of uptight prigs.

  9. Judging by your tone (dveej and MMcM) not everyone is welcome to participate in this culture elite.
    No, no, everyone is welcome here, and your Icelandic example was relevant and welcome, brennisteinn being exactly cognate to brimstone and Bernstein—I have no idea what made dveej leave that unpleasant comment. (I think MMcM was just asking an honest question: eldr means ‘fire’ in Old Norse, so it’s natural to assume it means the same in modern Icelandic. Please don’t go away mad!

  10. MMcM was just asking an honest question: eldr means ‘fire’ in Old Norse, so it’s natural to assume it means the same in modern Icelandic.
    Exactly where I was coming from. Like OE ælan ‘burn’, surviving in the second half of anneal.
    I suppose I should have made that clearer, given the tone of the previous comment.

  11. So “Bernstein” means “sulfur / brimstone”? It would seem that anti-Semitic literature could have made more use of that.

  12. I think “brimstone and sulfur” might be a slip of the pen inspired by the phrases “fire and brimstone” and “fire and sulfur”. The latter two are clearly collocations, with 935,000 and 40,100 Google-Hits respectively, while “brimstone and sulfur” only gets 1,650 Google-Hits, hardly enough to treat it as a collocation in its own right. Incidentally, the reverse, “sulfur and brimstone”, gets more than double that number (3,650), which would make sense if these were slips of the pen, as it is closer to the dominant “fire and brimstone” (for all Google searches I excluded the search terms Mackenzie, Schillinger, Bock and “Beautiful Children” to avoid counting web pages discussing this particular instance).

  13. Oh, and my German etymological dictionary explains that the name “Bernstein” is motivated by the fact that amber actually burns quite well. So, presumably, the word was originally applied to all kinds of burning “stones” and then specialized in different ways in different languages. And while we’re etymologizing, my dictionary also mentions the Greek name for amber, élektron, which has some obvious derivates, and the Germanic name *glasaz, from which we got “glass” and its cognates.

  14. parvomagnus says

    as to the German capitalization, the online Grimm’s dictionary doesn’t capitalize nouns either. The lack of capitalization in the OED’s probably a sign of its late 19th century roots, like “Teutonic” and “Aryan”. Maybe that orthographic choice didn’t become absolutely mandatory until later.

  15. parvomagnus says

    Ah, apparently Grimm didn’t much care for capitalizing nouns himself, says the German wikipedia article on ‘Kleinschreibung’:
    den gleichverwerflichen misbrauch groszer buchstaben für das substantivum, der unserer pedantischen unart gipfel heißsen kann, habe ich […] abgeschüttelt

  16. Taking into account the sulphur/sulfur variants of course increases (if not quite doubles) the hits – Googling around 6,600 for “sulphur and brimstone”/”sulfur and brimstone”, and around 2,470 for “brimstone and sulphur”/”brimstone and sulfur”.
    All of which doesn’t make it a common collocation, but suggests that it’s common enough (and longstanding enough per Addison) not to be derided as inherently ridiculous, as the review seemed to suggest.

  17. David Marjanović says

    Let me just mention that I’ve never come across Bernstein meaning anything else than amber. Sulfur is Schwefel, whether in hell or elsewhere.
    There’s actually a good reason for capitalizing nouns in German, which Grimm seems to have completely overlooked: it often conveys the distinction between nouns and adjectives or verbs, something that is left at most to intonation when spoken (not even stress like often happens in English). Ausländer, die deutschen Boden verkaufen — foreigners who sell German soil; Ausländer, die Deutschen Boden verkaufen — foreigners who sell soil to Germans! Helft den armen Vögeln — help the poor birds; helft den Armen vögeln — help the poor (to)… shall we say… get some action.

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