Page Seventeen IV: Fast & Furious

The management of dialogue is important. There is a certain skill in making speech lifelike without it being a mere transcription from a tape recorder. Such a transcription never reads like fictional speech, which is artful and more economical than it appears. One could forgive Denis Wheatley, who wrote well-researched novels of the occult, a good deal if only his characters sounded like people. There is too much, in the novels of Arthur Haley and Irving Wallace, of the pouring out of information cribbed directly from an encyclopedia as a substitute for real speech. The better novelists write with their ears.

“Yes, Bella is a capital girl, and one can’t help loving her. I know you’ll get on, for, really, she is the most delightful little dunce. My mother’s ill health and Bella’s devotion to her have prevented our attending to her education before. Next winter, when we go to town, she is to come out, and we must be prepared for that great event, you know,” he said, choosing a safe subject.

‘No. It is murder only when the victim is killed. When the victim is not killed, it may be attempted murder, assault occasioning grievous bodily harm, any one of a number of officially listed crimes.’

“Yes, but don’t give yourself any trouble about it. Cold anything-you’ve-got.”

A whispered question from behind me–“Do you see me, red?”–and I turned, but there was no one there, though my ears still range from the boxing they had taken. I decided then that it was a bad day and I took to the roof for some thinking. A traffic-copter buzzed me later, and I was queried as to suicidal intentions. I told the cop that I was re-fribbing shingles, though, and that seemed to satisfy him.

When the detectives took over, they found they had a prisoner but that was about all. Bashor was mild enough, but he was too conwise to talk, or at least to tell the truth. Just tell enough, but not too much, and make it sound like there isn’t any more.

The critic Hugh Kenner writes about a moment in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man when Uncle Charles ‘repairs’ to the outhouse. ‘Repairs’ is a pompous word which belongs to outmoded poetic convention. Ir is ‘bad’ writing. Joyce, with his acute eye for cliche, would only use such a word knowingly. It must be, says Kenner, Uncle Charles’s word, the word he would use about himself in his fond fantasy about his own importance (‘and so I repair to the outhouse’). Kenner names this the Uncle Charles Principle. Mystifyingly, he calls this ‘something new in fiction’. Yet we know it isn’t. The Uncle Charles Principle is just an edition of free indirect style. Joyce is a master of it. ‘The Dead’ begins like this: ‘Lily, the caretaker’s daughter, was literally run off her feet.’ But no one is literally run off her feet. What we hear is Lily saying to herself or to a friend (with great emphasis on precisely the most inaccurate word, and with a strong accent): ‘Oi was lit-er-rully ron off my feet!’

Seven passages, as usual, from seven page seventeens from seven books I vaguely intend to read. Wood’s book on the craft of fiction is excellent, I did finish that one, and I’m currently re-reading the Zelazny, which is a fun romp, nicely written (except the Star Trek: TNG type dialogue, future man having lost the ability to use contractions), but weirdly male-centric. All the professionals are men and the only woman is a near-mute wife. I don’t recall noticing this as a teenager, but it’s glaring now.

Ninety-Nine Novels by Anthony Burgess; Behind a Mask, or, A Woman’s Power by “A.M. Barnard” from Behind a Mask: The Unknown Thrillers by Louisa May Alcott; The Perfect Murder by H.R.F. Keating; The Red House Mystery by A.A. Milne; Doorways in the Sand by Roger Zelazny; The Badge by Jack Webb; How Fiction Works by James Wood

4 Responses to “Page Seventeen IV: Fast & Furious”

  1. A film Burgess disliked, adapted from his book, which he also disliked. Though I’m not sure he ever explained why. Perhaps its traumatic personal origins tainted it, or perhaps he felt he’d gone overboard entering into the anti-hero’s perspective…

  2. Kubrick is a filmmaer of awe-inspiring precision. I thinke he understood Burgess better than Burgess was willing to understand himself.

  3. Certainly cutting the book’s last chapter was a good call. Alex is a psychopath — the idea that he’ll be reformed by maturity is the most offensive thing in the novel.

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