The Art of The Parenthetical

J.D. Nasaw '08, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2005

Bruce Chatwin's literary tool belt rivals any author's in sheer number of poetic and technical devices. Breaking In Patagonia into short sections has made him the master of creating opening grabbers, quickly switching tone, and transitioning effortlessly from short, simple sentences to long, lyrical descriptions. One technique that distinguishes Chatwin from other travel writers, and writers in all genres, is his consistent and various use of the parenthetical.

There were porcupines, ant-eaters, and armadillos; liptoterns, astrapotheriums, and the macrauchenia (like a camel with a trunk). Then the land-bridge of Panama resurfaced and a host of more efficient, North American mammals, such as the puma and sabre-tooth tiger, rushed south and wiped out many indigenous species. Dr Ameghino did not like this zoological version of the Monroe Doctrine. A few southerners, it was true, did push against the Yanqui invasion. Small sloths got to Central America, the armadillo to Texas, and the porcupine to Canada (which shows there is no invasion without a counter-invasion). But this didn't satisfy Amerghino. [p. 7]

Bob Parker too the name Cassidy and rode into a new life of wide horizons and the scent of horse leather. (Butch was the name of a borrowed gun.) His apprentice years, the 1880s, were years of the Beef Bonanza . . . [p. 45]


What purpose do the parentheticals serve in the first passage? Would it be different if Chatwin and written it without them?

What other purposes are there in using parentheticals? What do they allow the author to do and how do they affect the tone of the book?

Why does Chatwin include that Butch was the name of a borrowed gun as a parenthetical afterthought rather than using it poetically? Is the lyrical flow of the preceding sentence broken by the interjected comment?

Are there other authors that use parentheticals like Chatwin? If not, what literary techniques serve a similar purpose for authors like Wolfe and Didion?


Chatwin, Bruce. In Patagonia. New York: Penguin Books, 1988.

United Kingdom In Patagonia Reading and Discussion Questions

Last modified 21 April 2005