f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: Day 2 of Tone: The Sound of One Man Arguing With Himself

f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n

Wednesday, May 26, 2004

Day 2 of Tone: The Sound of One Man Arguing With Himself

Rereading my last post, I’m not sure whether I’ve adequately captured tone. I’ve spent a few days thinking about it and my thoughts have led me to this.

Syntax + Diction + Punctuation = STYLE. The words you choose, the order you put them, and how you control the flow actually equals your style. Sure there’s lots of writing hoo-ha’s we normally think of in terms of style but aren’t they all simply a product of which words and their order?

So, in my revised algebra of writing, TONE = STYLE / Context. The words, their order don’t mean much if we don’t understand the reason the author puts them there. That reason I’ll call CONTEXT. It goes back to our discussion of a teenager saying, “Sure, Mom.” How that sounds depends largely on context of the situation, right?

Okay, so we’re squared away on STYLE and TONE and POV and VOICE. I want to repeat again that the four things are highly linked. Or should be. It becomes rather obvious when your voice doesn’t match your point-of-view or your style seems out of place for the voice. There needs to be a correspondence between all these things.

Anyway, let’s talk today about VOICE. I went to my bookshelves and pulled four novels that I’ve read and that I think have fairly distinctive voices.

1. Operation Wandering Soul by Richard Powers — Powers is what is normally called a stylist. That means his writing often seems to be raised above the need for characterization or even plot. OWS is perhaps the ripest example of that. It’s a contemporary tale of Richard Kraft, a pediatric surgeon whose ward is suddenly filled with the wrecked lives of orphans. Interspersed with this are retellings of classic fairy tales or historic facts involving large groups of children. It comes at you from a lot of angles but demands a lot of work. Here’s a passage about a removing a tumor from an infant:

Together, the team extracts the mass they were after, clamps it off, and hacks it out at its insidious roots. In admiring tones as the gourd is lifted out and laid in a waiting pan, the Millstone marvels, “Hang that on the top of your Christmas tree.”

Kraft briefly considers trying to get someone to close for him, but elects against putting his limited seniority to the test. After all, as his mother used to tell him when he went fishing with a low trump, one must never send a boy to do a man’s job. He’s carried the ball this far. Might as well finish, although it must be obvious to everyone on the team that he’s about to go narcoleptic.

He sews like the zigzag accessory on a Singer. His sheep shanks run as erratically as a tricky halfback, say Sayers or Sweetness. This girl will grow up with Wellington’s Victory stenciled across her belly—a thin red line dominating the front. However sultry and beautiful, however high her features, there will be this mark, and her every lover to a boy-man will wonder:
What happened to you?
This is one of the less dense passages in the book. The prose is crammed with allusions and flights of fancy and looks into the future and glimpses backward. It’s the kind of writing that would make the Reader’s Manifesto-guy go bonkers. He’d say it was purposeless—drivel for the sake of drivel.

I am not quite on that side. I’ve read Powers. He certainly walks the line of pretension, but to accuse him of doing it without purpose is ludicrous. So the next question is why this voice?

Myself, I think he wants to take us a step from reality. The fairy tale passages are actually told in more straight-forward narrative. It’s the contemporary stuff, the narrative happening now that he writes in a vernacular that makes it seem otherworldly. L.A. and Bangkok become echoes of each other. Strange stuff happens. And to pull it off, we need a voice that won’t quite less us feel comfortable.

2. Straight Man by Richard Russo — Russo on the other hand, wants us in the real world. But one that has just been knocked a little out of joint. This book is one of the treasures of the last few years. It’s laugh-out-loud funny and yet poignant and meaningful. I’ve not said it in a while, so I’ll say it now—Richard Russo is an amazing writer.

The book starts with a wonderfully deadpan prologue and then launches us into the unhinging of one William Henry Devereaux. To wit:

When my nose finally stops bleeding and I’ve disposed of the bloody paper towels, Teddy Barnes insists on driving me home in his ancient Honda Civic, a car that refuses to die and that Teddy, cheap as he is, refuses to trade in. June, his wife, whose sense of self-worth is not easily tilted, drives a new Saab. “That seat goes back,” Teddy says, observing that my knees are practically under my chin.

When we stop at an intersection for oncoming traffic, I run my fingers along the side of the seat, looking for the release. “It does, huh?”

“It’s supposed to,” he says, sounding academic, hopeless.

I know it’s supposed to, but I give up trying to make it, preferring the illusion of suffering.
As I mentioned, this is reality. The diction is crisp and clean, but the syntax is complex. Check out that first sentence. It’s a well-organized, intelligent mind thinking such thoughts.

As I also mentioned, it’s reality askew. Can you sense the humor in the book? This isn’t supposed to be a hilarious passage but there are little hints at the voice. The use of the word “academic” paired with “hopeless.” Devereaux, in whose voice the entire story is told, keeps most of the book light and acerbic and off-kilter.

Tomorrow we’ll look at two other books. Then on Friday we’ll talk about the other definition of TONE in a book. In preparation for that one, I’d love for you all to think of maybe two or three of your favorite novels of recent years and try to boil their tones down to a word or a phrase. You can email me them and I’ll put together a list for Friday. Or you can post them on Friday.