“She brought the coffee, in delicate white china cups, on a black lacquered tray, which she set on the table before the couch. They sipped the coffee and talked strainedly for a few moments. Then Stoner spoke of the part of the manuscript he had read, and the excitement he had felt earlier, in the library, came over him; he leaned forward, speaking intensely.
For many minutes the two of them were able to talk together unselfconsciously, hiding themselves under the cover of their discourse.” —from Stoner, by John Williams (NYRB)
The first two sentences in this passage (from a 1965 novel long out of print, and just reissued) enhance the sense of unease between the characters—especially the first sentence, chopped as it is into four distinct phrases, each of about equal weight. The vivid detail of the delicate white china and the black lacquer draw attention to each separate description, emphasizing the stiltedness. The second sentence flows smoothly but contains the wonderfully effortful word strainedly. The structure of the last two sentences suggests the characters’ connection and the beginnings of some complications they then experience. As Stoner’s excitement builds, his actions are linked with a semicolon rather than cut apart with a period. Here are participles—speaking and hiding—rather than the simple past tense of these verbs, which, to remain consistent with the overall style, would have had to be set apart with an and (“he leaned forward and spoke intensely”). There is a suggestion here of forces beyond the characters’ control: Stoner doesn’t get excited; the excitement “came over him.” And the two don’t just talk; they are “able to talk—a reminder that something had to be overcome first. Williams, whose writing style is strikingly plain, finally employs a rare and lovely metaphor—“hiding themselves under the cover of their discourse”—precisely when it’s most necessary: to communicate a sensation that might shrivel in the light of straightforward expression.