Posted on 12th September 2014

Posted by Sophie

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The Language of Fiction

My first Fiction Uncovered column was about how I have found myself changing as a reader; this last one focuses more specifically on one of the ways of reading that I’ve become drawn to. For a while now, I’ve been taking more notice of the ways in which the tone and style of a piece of fiction can interact with, and add nuance to, its other aspects. To an extent, this is an artificial divide: books are, after all, made of words; you can’t really separate fiction from the way it’s written. In practice, however, it can be easy to take the language of fiction for granted – and to risk overlooking whole layers in the process.

Ray Robinson, selected for Fiction Uncovered 2011, uses style to represent one of the key dynamics in his latest novel, Jawbone Lake. The book concerns Joe Arms, who investigates why his father CJ might have driven himself into a lake; the CJ he discovers through that process is very different from the man Joe thought he knew. The tone of Jawbone Lake is generally quite reflective; but there’s also a character named Grogan, who watches the other protagonists, and whose sections are written in a much terser style:

Grogan watched the estate. Drumming his fingers on the steering wheel, he closed his eyes to recall her better. Five feet five inches tall. Chequered trapper hat. Green or bluish coat with a furry hood. Wisps of blonde hair. But her face remained a blank disc.

Grogan feels out of place in Jawbone Lake; he’s the sort of character who belongs more in a gangster thriller. But that’s the point: Grogan represents the disruption that enters the Arms family’s lives; the jarring changes in prose style underline that sense of disruption.

In Jawbone Lake, one distinctive style intrudes occasionally into a more ‘neutral’ one; but there are also novels where a single idiosyncratic style embodies an entire viewpoint. Take, for example, the way in which A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride depicts its (unnamed) narrator’s childhood and adolescence:

I see the water. Look upon the lake I’ve been in. I’ve been known of. Come to know. Well. Touched and loved and ripped here all by the same hands teeth and claws and waded in. Swim. See my scrawl there. Under my feet. Mud and weeds where I was, my blood split on. Running in running in among the reeds where the ripple fish go. And vomit and some half drunk can, some things, some paper bags some cigarette rolled and stuffed and smoked. Ground to the heel. This home I know.

Fragmented though it may be, there’s a purpose and rhythm to McBride’s prose: the rhythm of the narrator’s thoughts. This is a style that collapses the boundary between interior and exterior life; the effect of the passage I’ve quoted above is to merge the idea of a place with what the narrator did there. McBride uses the structures of language to represent how her narrator relates to the world around her: where there are more coherent sentences in the novel, they tend to be literal voices of authority – adult authority, religious authority – which, crucially, the narrator ultimately finds lacking. The disjointed style is what’s true to McBride’s protagonist.

Nat Segnit’s Pub Walks in Underhill Country purports to be a rambling guide written by one Graham Underhill, who lets his personal life intrude on the text rather more than might be expected. For example:

Still, the Rotunda Tavern on Montpellier Street is a fine place to ‘kick back and relax’, even if your wife has forcibly excluded you from the house, you’ve lost £25 on the horses, and your ‘friends’ seem to derive inexhaustible amusement from likening you to a lecherous Edwardian cad! Cheltonians will protest the abundance of fine pubs nearer the racecourse, but Alan knows the landlord at the Rotunda, and the pub’s situation near the famous Gordon Lamp gives easy access to the glories of Suffolk Square, with its intricate ironwork balconies…

At first, the juxtaposition of different styles is simply amusing; but as the novel goes on, we see there’s more to it than that. The walking-guide style comes to represent Graham’s hold on the world: this is his territory, how he organises experience. The more Graham’s personal life falls apart, the more he lapses into a novelistic voice; by the novel’s end, there’s a weight of resignation (or desperation) behind his simple walking directions – and it’s largely unspoken, achieved through Segnit’s shifts in register.

Lightning Rods by Helen DeWitt is another novel with an all-consuming viewpoint, but in this case it’s one whose hold only grows stronger as the pages turn. DeWitt’s protagonist is Joe, a salesman who comes up with a particularly grotesque method of meeting the ‘needs’ of high-flying (male) executives. The prose represents Joe’s sales-speak: deceptively bland, eminently reasonable whatever objection one might raise:

What Joe would explain, when later confronted with this kind of criticism, was that at the outset the success of the facility was by no means the foregone conclusion it might with hindsight appear. In an ideal world he would obviously have wanted to spend more time making sure no one was doing anything she didn’t feel comfortable with. Unfortunately our world is very far from ideal, sustainable client development was absolutely vital to the success of the business, and it was up to him to singlehandedly pursue that goal for all their sakes.

DeWitt’s style traps her readers in a maze of rhetoric, just as Joe traps his readers. Only at the end, when DeWitt steps outside the protagonist’s viewpoint to look back on his work, does the book permit any questioning of Joe’s ideas and practices. The sense of escape at this point is remarkable, and shows just how powerful a hold the language of fiction can have.

David Hebblethwaite is a book blogger and reviewer. He has written about books for venues including the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered PrizeWe Love This BookStrange Horizons; and Shiny New Books. He blogs at Follow the Thread. You can also find David on Facebook and as @David_Heb on Twitter.

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[…] different from our own, and makes us confront that difference. It’s a fine  example of what I wrote about for Fiction Uncovered the other day, of language shaping the world of the […]

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