Hesitation Marks

Critical Praise

"Every epigram in HESITATION MARKS is a surprise, a little jolt, a stab of wit. Farber exposes truths behind human behavior by playing with language, daringly juggling such themes as aging, hypocrisy, betrayal, envy. These epigrams offer little comfort, except in their originality and skillful compression they almost transcend themselves."


Thomas Farber has a weird and wonderful mind. He sees everything we see but more. Because he sees more and is so good at saying less, his epigrams translate human experience into playful gems of meaning. The art of the epigram is not only alive and well but thrives under Farber's thoughtful observations.

--Leonard Pitt, author of Walks Through Lost Paris

Tom Farber casts an incisive eye on a potent range of subjects that touch our lives: sexuality, intimacy, marriage, divorce, old age, money, class, justice. In these pithy statements, far more complex than they appear, he marries psychological insight with word play and wit with gravity to give us a spare and beautiful mirror in which to retrieve a large part of our souls.

--Susan Griffin. Author, Wrestling with the Angel of Democracy

In Farber's book, sense is sharply halted, turned upside down, then sent weaving off in a giddy new direction. It's a master act of crazy balance and performative wit, every thought "riddled with perfection." Amazing!

--Cathy Luchetti, author of Women of the West

Check out this little book by Berkeley writer Thomas Farber. Hesitation Marks is a collection of epigrams, which, if it weren’t for Woody Allen, might be a lost literary art in America today. But for Farber’s combative, acerbic wit the epigram is the only thinkable form. The real pressure and meaning of his utterance, time and again, is shaped by the epigram, which, Samuel Taylor Coleridge tells us, is

                  a dwarfish whole;
                  its body brevity, and wit its soul.

Satiric, witty, sarcastic, laconic, Farber’s epigrams poke fun at himself, old age, hypocrisy, envy, masturbation, trust funds, hypochondria, support groups, obesity, misanthropy, George W. Bush, pornography, monogamy, poets, suicide, pedophilia, misers, writers, love, and other things I haven’t mentioned.

                  Skilled writer, vivid imagination, but, still, unable
                  to conceive there’s a writer as good as himself.

         In some cultures, the ability spontaneously to produce aphoristic sayings at exactly the right moment in a social context is a mark of social status. By this standard, Farber maintains his social status as an educated Brahmin, the son of Sidney Farber, world famous medical pioneer and co-founder of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, and the Boston poet Norma Farber. Epigrams, it bares noting, were elegiac couplets in ancient Greece —that is, a poetic form. Farber may not have his father’s knack for curing disease, but he certainly inherited her mother’s preoccupation with and love for word play and language:

         Silent about inherited wealth, this capitalist.
         Much gain, little venture.

His sensitivity to contradiction and paradox, together with his absolute economy and coherence, engaged this reader’s wits repeatedly, beginning with his double definition of “hesitation mark.” In its first sense, a hesitation mark is punctuation of the kind used frequently by Emily Dickinson—a dash “used to denote a sudden change in the construction, a suspension of sense, an unexpected transition in the sentiment, a sudden interruption, or hesitation.” In its second and less well-known sense, a hesitation mark is, Farber tells us, “any cut or wound that is self-inflicted after a decision is made not to commit suicide, or . . . before the final cut that causes death.”

Farber’s earlier short story collections and novels include The Beholder, A Lover’s Question: Selected Stories, and Who Wrote the Book of Love? He began writing in the late 1960s, just when the American art and literary scene began to burst at the seams with the sheer quantity of work produced and published. Hesitation Marks is his third book of epigrams, the first two being: Truth Be Told and The Twoness of Oneness. The epigram is a good antidote to exponential reproduction. As Nabokov quipped, “A good laugh is the best pesticide.” And to begin with, Farber’s stories and novels shunned the confessional mode of Philip Roth. In Compared to What? On Writing and the Writer’s Life, published in 1988, Farber used “the writer,” instead of the first person, thus giving himself a proper distance from both his subject and his readers, and refusing to “implicate others.” (Howard Nemerov’s conceives the writer as perhaps no more than “the weak criminal whose confession implicates the others.”) Epigrams are expressive yet intrinsically reserved, although Farber, in Compared to What? was well aware of the irony inherent in the notion of privacy, when so much of our lives—where we shop, what we eat and how much, our aesthetic ideas and tastes—is an open book. “Too clever by half,” Farber says in Hesitation Marks, “his essays revealed character flaws his poems managed to obscure.”

Early on, Farber had no truck with half truths, exaggeration, hyperbole. In Hesitation Marks, he quips,

         Only the dead can be sure their love will never die.

He’s a realist, he’s curmudgeonly: he can be as nasty as he wants to be without fear of litigation. These are reasons enough to whittle his word count from the 150,000 of a novel to the five or ten of an epigram. Giving almost every epigram its own page, Farber writes:

         Misanthropy: overexposure.

 It may be, too, as he suggests in Compared to What? On Writing and the Writer’s Life, the sheer, relentless, unyielding work involved in planning and writing a novel finally wore him down. Perhaps in epigrams he is able to close the distance between idea and story. If, as Farber says elsewhere, the story is only in the telling, the epigram is mainly in the idea.

Some items in Hesitation Marks are more properly aphorisms, written in the laconic, memorable form used on occasion by Woody Allen, George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, Dorothy Parker, and I’m told, Yogi Berra. In Compared to What? Farber quotes his poet-mother: a writer writes because he must. How much Farber is driven to write is not clear, given his half dozen novels and short story collections. Nonetheless, he does seem as driven to write these witty, argumentative, and engaging epigrams as the reader is to read them. There’s no hesitation here.

Zara Raab, author of The Book of Gretel , from the Redwood Coast Review

Thomas Farber returns with a new collection of epigrams, Hesitation Marks, from Andrea Young Arts. Farber also returns in excellent aphoristic form, with more mordant and amusing musings on sex, death, and ... well, that just about covers it, sex and death being two inexhaustible subjects about which to commit "epigrammatics," as Farber describes his excursions into the short form. And he also delivers a thoughtful epilogue to the book, in which he responds to readers who ask the inevitable, Why epigrams? "Well ... occasionally, they ensue from hearing a word or phrase as if for the first time, awakening to sound, layered meaning," Farber writes. "Revealing or explicating latent or forgotten life in language ... Sometimes, however, the impulse is a hunger to get at what's going on in our behavior, conviction it must be got at."

He also includes a nice citation from William Matthews: "The best epigrams, like the endings of great poems, shimmer and twist. Little is ended. There's much to think and feel. The rhetorical pleasure of an epigram may be its conclusiveness and concision, but the soul of its brevity is a long thoughtfulness."

But, of course, every aphorist will recognize and agree with Farber's formulation of the true and real motivation for our obsession with the form. "Finally," he writes, "there's thrill in working so unmarketable a form. Think of, say, how skateboarding used to be, endless repetitions to achieve proficiency lacking dollar value in a culture that's all about dollars."

James Geary, author of Geary's Guide to the World's Great Aphorists