Sunday, July 25, 2010

voice uncovered

The NY Review of Books had an intriguing review by Wyatt Mason on a book written by David Lipsky,"Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip With David Foster Wallace," published by Broadway, 320 pp. $16.99. The book encompasses a collection of conversations between Lipsky and Wallace.

Although Wallace's fiction has at times been cited as "excessive—not edited—arbitrary—self indulgent—mad—gibberish—nonsense", such criticism may have owed to his being "an avant-garde writer. He believed that one of fiction's main jobs was to challenge readers, and to find new ways of doing so." All well and good, and I may read some of his work to form my own assessments, but I was especially attracted in this review to a short section that analyzed a "spoken casualness that would become a characteristic quality of Wallace's prose. An excerpt from a Wallace story includes a suicidal-depressive narrator's description of his state of mind when he witnessed the driver of his bus get seriously injured:

I felt unbelievably sorry for him and of course the Bad Thing (an euphemism for his depression) very kindly filtered this sadness for me and made it a lot worse. It was weird and irrational but all of a sudden I felt really strongly as though the bus driver were really me. I really felt that way. So I felt just like he must have felt, and it was awful. I wasn't just sorry for him, I was sorry as him, or something like that.

The reviewer suggests: "The mix of registers here is typical of Wallace: intensifiers and qualifiers that ordinarily suggest sloppy writing and thinking ("unbelievably"; "really" used three times in the space of a dozen words; "something like that") coexisting with the correct use of the subjunctive mood ("as though the driver were"). The precision of the subjunctive—which literate people bother with less and less, the simple past tense increasingly and diminishingly being used in its place—is never arbitrary, and its presence suggests that if attention is being paid to a matter of higher-order usage, similar intention lurks behind the clutter of qualifiers. For although one could edit them out of the passage above to the end of producing leaner prose—

I felt sorry for him. It was irrational, but I felt as though the driver were me. I wasn't just sorry for him, I was sorry as him.

—the edit removes more than "flab": it discards the furniture of real speech, which includes the routine repetitions and qualifications that cushion conversation."

The paragraph by Wallace stands out as a unique "voice," that thing we're always being challenged to develop in our fiction writing, while at the same time being advised to tighten-up our prose, weed out all but the necessary adverbs and adjectives, "kill the little darlings," meaning our effusive metaphors, similes, and erudite words, and more often than not the use of any constructs like subjunctive moods (I wonder if Hemingway ever used them).  Such tightening-up might not always be the best approach.

I think Mason has offered some nice insights for writers in his review. (As a postscript, I was also sad to read in the article that Wallace committed suicide in 2008.)
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