Thursday, July 9, 2015

Viva Voce

Man enters a restaurant, chooses a seat, then summons the waitress.  "Let's do something exciting today," he says.  "I'll have half a grapefruit, two three-and-a-half-minute eggs, a croissant, and strawberry jam.  Start the whole thing off with a non-fat latte."

"But, sir,"  the waitress says, "that's what you have every day."

"Because,"  the man replies, "it's still exciting."

In the same spirit of demonstrating by event rather than a mere description of intent, you find yourself coming back, time after time, to the notion that the story element of most significance for you remains the same:  voice.  

Subjective and notional as that assessment may be, you're beginning to see quantifiable proof for your conviction.  Time after time, as you revisit and take up the effects of the hundred most significant and formative novels in your experience, those with strong narrative voice persist.

This does not mean you cannot read Conrad--Joseph, not your late pal Barnaby--with anything but due respect and focus.  Rather it means that such authors as Conrad and yes, even his friend and one-time collaborator, Ford Maddox Ford, have a more restrained narrative presence, almost as though their stories are being whispered in some sepulchral setting and must be kept modulated lest they resonate into echo.

Somewhere early on in the short story, "The Mexican Plug Horse," by arguably your favorite of all voices, Mark Twain, where the narrator, a relative newcomer to the American West, recognizes the need to own a horse, the following activity begins.  The narrator visits a livery stable, approaching the fenced-in area where a number of horses are at graze.  Fancy and whim rather than any familiarity with horses directs the man's attention to one well-worn roan, moodily chomping at a tuft of grass.

In a matter of moments, the narrator is aware of a presence next to him, exuding friendliness and cordiality.  "I see,"  the newcomer says, "you are a connoisseur of horse flesh."  And so the cavalcade of human behavior is reenacted in a remote corner of a Carson City livery stable before Nevada was admitted to Statehood.  The archetype we'd now recognize as the used car salesman is represented in the person of the newcomer, his every word a measured dose of confidence as in con game, and swagger, as in cool restraint.

This archetype is no more nor less archetypal than the magnificent palette of colors presented to us going on seven hundred years ago by one G. Chaucer,in his remarkable Canterbury Tales, wherein each of his pilgrims speaks in his or her own voice, demonstrating and betraying agenda and intent, as indeed you have done with the incident at the front of this mini-essay.

You were caught in the immediacy and deft implications of backstory resident in the opening line of James M. Cain's masterful The Postman Always Rings Twice.  You had no choice but to keep reading to see what happened to Frank Chambers after "They threw me off the hay truck about noon."  This, too, is voice, a young, essentially good man, hardened by life on the streets during the time of the Great Depression of the 1930s.  

Had there been no Depression, Frank might well have owned one or more gas stations or repair garages, enjoyed to some significant degree the perks of middle-class, working class life.  But there's have been no story for him, at least not this one, where his path crosses Cora Papadopolous, whose own experiences as a waitress causes her to marry the older, kind, but in other ways unsuitable Nick Papodopolous.  

Although your parents were of mild affluence, by the time you appeared on the scene, that affluence had begun to wane then all but vanish to the point where nickels, dimes, and quarters were of increasing consequence.  

Two blocks from where you lived, the important Los Angeles real estate of the northeast corner of Fairfax Avenue and Wilshire Boulevard awaited its manifest destiny, a large, six-storey department store, The May Company.  At the moment, it was a large field that had become, in the no-nonsense slang of the time, a Hooverville, an encampment for homeless families.  

Even as your parents' fortunes declined, you were sent to this encampment, week after week with canned goods, loaves of bread, bottles of milk.  "Make sure,"  your mother ordered you, "that you are polite.  Maintain eye contact.  Tell them you and your parents want to share.  Make sure you understand and they understand.  This is not charity.  This is sharing."    (No wonder your politics are what they have become.)

Voice is the narrative tone and crackling energy that comes out of such circumstances or of a thirteen-year-old boy, running away from an abusive father, discovering he now has as a traveling mate a runaway slave.  Voice takes the politeness but not the humanity from the narrative language.  Voice seasons its diction with urges, desires, appetites.  Voice becomes the stop-the-small-talk politeness of conversation, moving into the here-I-am appetites and affirmations of Augie March, narrator of Saul Bellow's eponymous The Adventures of Augie March.  

You have one generation on Augie; your parents were born here, your grandparents arriving here earlier in their lives rather than middle age.  Once again, Augie's opening declaration grabbed you with the notion that you needed a few more years to grasp.  Augie was not going to go meekly into assimilation; he was going to shove his tray past every entree in the cafeteria; he was going to experience.

In the most profound way, Augie was you; he was the Jewish Stephen Dedalus who so intrigued you in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.  Stephen's goal was to go forth, encounter reality, then forge in the smithy of his soul the uncreated conscience of his race.  As much as Stephen spoke to you, Augie alternately dared you to take risks and jeered at you for not being able to keep up with him.

Until you read The Adventures of Augie March,  you never had a glimpse of what it meant to be fucked in the existential sense, and how survival depends so much on what you do, what you say, and the voice in which you say it when the realization of how badly fucked you are takes hold.

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