f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: Day 3 of Tone: In Which We Continue to Talk About Voice, Rather Than Tone

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

Thursday, May 27, 2004

Day 3 of Tone: In Which We Continue to Talk About Voice, Rather Than Tone

Today we’ll look at voice as it emerges in the transcendence of genre. Both books are considered classics, but both fall solidly into genre categories.

1. Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett — If Raymond Chandler turned language into a machine-gun, firing away with what sometimes seemed like wild-abandon, Dashiell Hammett turned his into a scalpel, honing it until it cut.

The problem with reading this book, of course, is one that isn’t Hammet’s fault. No matter how many times I look to the book, I can’t get Humphrey Bogart’s voice out of my head. Such is the danger of a film interpretation. But, nonetheless, let’s look at some of Hammett’s exposition as Spade is confronted by Iva Archer, the widow of his partner, a woman with whom he was having an affair.

She was a blond woman of a few more years than thiry. Her facial prettiness was perhaps five years past its best moment. Her body in all its sturdiness was finely modeled and exquisite. She wore black clothes from hat to shoes. They had as mourning an impromptu air. Having spoken, she stepped back from the door and stood waiting for Spade.

He took his hand from Effie Perine’s head and entered the inner office, shutting the door. Iva came quickly to him, raising her sad face for his kiss. Her arms were around him before his held her. When they had kissed he made a little movement as it to release her, but she pressed her face to his chest and began sobbing.

He stroked her round back saying,
“Poor darling.” His voice was tender. Hi eyes, squinting at the desk that had been his partner’s across the room from his own, were angry. He drew his lips back over his teeth in an impatient grimace….
The book is third-person omniscient. It also rarely strays from that terse, declarative prose. The authorial voice you get is clipped and unobtrusive, the better to let the real glory of the book shine, namely, Hammett’s patter, his dialogue. If you’ve seen the movie, you know of which I speak. And let me assure that much of the screenplay was lifted, in whole, from the book. Just some wonderful lines.

Compare that with our second genre—horror.

2. The Turn of the Screw by Henry James — A classic ghost story that gets creepier the more one reads it, this is not Stephen King or Peter Straub. It was published just one the far side of the 19th-century (1898) and so it reads, let’s be mature, and say, “differently” than most books today.

It’s a pretty good example of a book in which the tone changes. It is after all a book about people going more than slightly mad. And yet, it’s not like it goes from Mary Poppins to Sixth Sense. No, things start off creepy. We’re given the tone right away, we back off, and then we rediscover it. The beginning:

The story had held us, round the fire, sufficiently breathless, but, except the obvious remark that it was gruesome, as, on Christmas eve in an old house, a strange tale should essentially be, I remember no comment uttered till somebody happened to say that it was the only case he had met in which such a visitation had fallen on a child. The case, I may mention, was that of an apparition in just such an old house as had gathered us for the occasion—an appearance, of a dreadful kind to a little boy sleeping in the room with his mother and waking her up in the terror of it; waking her not to dissipate his dread and soothe him to sleep again, but to encounter also, herself, before she had succeeded in doing so, the same sigh that had shaken him.
First off, check out that closed-grammar in the first sentence. Lots of commas. Lots of control. Second, what’s up with telling ghost stories on Christmas eve? It’s in “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year” too—“There’ll be scary ghost stories, and tales of old glories…”—I’ve never understood that.

Anyway, James begins with a placid retelling of hearing a creepy story. It’s not intended to put us on edge, but it sets the stage for the fairly swift descent from placidity to insanity. Otherwise, it’s that dense 19th century writing to which we’ve become unaccustomed. Our thoughts have become simpler in recent years and in doing so, what we’re able to express in a single thought has been limited in turn. Next week we’re going to have a guest speaker talking about a new novel that’s out and one of the points he brings up is on this very subject.

Anyway, we could do this with every book in the universe. Nonfiction, youth, smut, basketball memoirs—it all gives you voice and in the end the cumulative effect of a book is named it’s tone. We’ll try to get to the bottom of how that works tomorrow.