Here is Charles Bukowski in his short story collection Hot Water Music. If you naturally skim-read, I recommend slowing down and reading the following dialogue at as close to speech-speed as you can (out loud would be even better).
Back at the Red Peacock Louie went to his favourite stool and sat down. The barkeep walked up.
“Well, Louie, how did you make out?
“With the lady.”
“With the lady?”
“You left together, man. Did you get her?”
“No, not really …”
“What went wrong?”
“What went wrong?”
“Yes, what went wrong?”
“Give me a whiskey sour, Billy.”
Did you notice a difference between how you pronounced the two versions of What went wrong?
What makes the Quote quiver?
Repetition with different emphasis and raw dialogue, unencumbered by sophisticated descriptions.
The Quote works because it fits the subject matter—you could hardly further a philosophical discussion that way—but it’s also a stylistic choice that trusts the reader to imbue the words with meaning based on cultural context and the context of the story (which lends something, but not so much you can’t do without it for the purposes of today’s post). In fact, more so than other styles, it encourages the reader to “hear” both voices, and to play them out, pronouncing them differently, alternating between inhabiting the two characters, especially since it’s a third-person narrative. Another way to see it, is that the reader is given an explicit eavesdropping role, and left to fill in the details: provide the setting, the body language, the verbal tics.
In certain situations, it is harder to write convincing dialogue without adverbial struts. Moreover, less experienced readers, non-native speakers, skim-readers, or those with other tastes, may find such repetitive, bare dialogue jarring and uninteresting.
Now, a brief jaunt to one of the other extremes.
Bukowski: you may not have even heard of him, let alone of his 1983 Hot Water Music. However, you’ve most probably read excerpts from The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 classical masterpiece on American life in the Jazz Age. How do you remember it? Did the dialogue strike you as stunningly vivid? Was it ornate?
The following snippets are a random sampling from the first page I happen to open (pp 50–51 of my copy).
‘Who is he?’ I demanded.
‘I don’t know,’ she insisted, …
‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ he cried.
‘The piece is known,’ he concluded lustily, …
‘Miss Baker?’ he inquired …
‘With me?’ she exclaimed in surprise.
Oh how it must be to conclude lustily!
After Bukowski, all those adverbs and specific speech words in Gatsby sound contrived and as if Fitzgerald is working hard to force a precise, unalterable image upon the reader. This says nothing about the quality of Fitzgerald’s prose measured against the standards of his own era, or of the historical and literary value of his writing in general. It’s merely that the times have changed. All modern how-to writing books are vehemently on the side of Bukowski, advocating the use of the verb to say in dialogue, with occasional variations if pressed and omissions of attribution whenever possible. Bukowski is certainly closer to how we perceive literary communication today.
If you end up watching the clip below, you’ll hear more from the man himself. Be prepared, this is how he speaks:
Yeah, they say I’m good with dialogue. I’ve lived a life, I’ve heard enough [insert choice expletive] conversations, I ought to be.
What is at the core of the Quote?
Epizeuxis, asteismus, rhetorical question.
Epizeuxis is the repetition without interruption, as in Walt Whitman’s O Captain! My Captain! that I discussed last week. There, words are repeated, here whole phrases are thrown back and forth for effect.
Asteismus is the misunderstanding between friends that comes from deliberately misinterpreting what is being said. Mark Medoff uses it in Children of a Lesser God, James Bond does it all the time, and now we have Louie misunderstanding the barkeep. Perhaps there’s a touch of sarcasm in there too.
Rhetorical question: question asked, answer not expected but implied. The difference in intonation between the two instances of What went wrong? is the difference between a question and a rhetorical question.
In the video below, you can listen to the “laureate of American lowlife” sharing his thoughts on life and writing, set to animation. Three minutes twenty seconds. He swears occasionally, but he makes some good points, with style.
Description and credits from below the YouTube video:
“I’m such a spoiled old toad … I was blessed with a crappy life” – Charles Bukowski in 1993
One afternoon, Bukowski sat down to record the audio version of his classic, Run With the Hunted. The session took place in his home with his wife by his side. These are the outtakes.
- Hot Water Music, Charles Bukowski. Because all his stories are well-written (if brash and cynical). It’s a skill.
- 52 Pickup, Elmore Leonard. Because it’s a thriller with a twist and Elmore Leonard too writes compelling, real-life dialogue.
- Style: Quirks and Perks, QQ. Last week’s article juxtaposing E. B. White’s and Bukowski’s takes on style.