Human Music

There’s an interesting piece on the Guardian books blog about the gap between the dialogue of literature and the dialogue of life. Evan Maloney makes all the right points. People talk for all kinds of reasons but writers create dialogue to move the story along. Many acclaimed writers hardly ever use dialogue. Human speech is so shot through with repetitions, hesitations, stammerings and elipses that it can’t be rendered realistically on the page. Maloney provides a verbatim transcription of some speech from Tim Winton, relating a near-drowning experience:

And because my uncle wasn’t a surfer he just sort of didn’t get it with waves. So he tried to outrun the wave. And, um, yeah, we bought it. It was, uh… It was… The last thing that was said on the boat was, ‘Hanging five,’ by my cousin. And then I was under the boat, trapped. Had fishing line and rope and stuff around my leg and I was kind of drowning. I was sort of in that last moment before, you know… I’m just seeing bubbles, thinking, ‘Oh, this is beautiful. This is nice.’

Another barrier to realism is that the listener, in real life, filters out all the secondary waste and remembers the conversation as a clear exchange of points. That’s if they remember at all. As Terry Pratchett said, listening is rare. Most people use the other side of a conversation as a breathing space to figure out what they are going to say next. And everyone has an agenda. Speech in books drives a story. Speech in life drives our own stories: the narrative we want to impose upon the world.

A factor that Maloney doesn’t mention is that so much conversation is reference. People litter their dialogue with quotes from films, dramas, sitcoms, cartoons, public awareness campaigns, internet virals and advertising jingles. Like memory, voice has been colonised by media. BBC sitcom The Office featured a manager who punctuated his conversation with references to Harry Enfield, Fawlty Towers, Monty Python and Eastenders among countless other cultural signifiers. Ben Walters made the point in his book on the series that David Brent is an aspiring comedian who confuses reference with wit; he can transcribe but not create. He thinks that pointing at a hatstand with a Flat Eric puppet on it constitutes the zenith of humour. 

I mention The Office because visual comedy at its peak has better dialogue than most contemporary fiction. Armando Iannucci’s In the Loop opens with a characteristic verbal assault from Malcolm Tucker, the Prime Minister’s head of communications. The film begins with Tucker listening to a radio interview with Simon Foster, Minister for International Development. Tucker is calm and collected until he hears Foster deviate from the line on an upcoming Middle East invasion: ‘No, you do not think that!’

Immediately he’s racing to Foster’s department. A scene in the lift sets up two conflicting dialogues: Tucker arguing on his mobile while new advisor Chris Addison chats with his girlfriend on his own phone. Tucker’s end of his debate gets more and more frenzied until Addison realises that he can’t compete and ends his call. By now Tucker is striding into Foster’s office. He seizes on the word ‘purview,’ used by Foster’s comms director, and from that single word creates a riot of free association: ‘Within your ‘purview’? Where do you think you are, some fucking regency costume drama? This is a government department, not some fucking Jane fucking Austen novel! Allow me to pop a jaunty little bonnet on your purview and ram it up your shitter with a lubricated horse cock!’ Finally, he roars: ‘Let them eat cock!’ Iannucci calls this sequence the ‘Malcolm Overture’, and in his rage, Tucker transcends the rant and achieves a kind of violent poetry.

Someone told me once that seventy per cent of talk is gossip. Close friends subconsciously weave in-jokes and catchphrases into their conversation. You can be in hysterics around a bar table over a word or phrase that will mean absolutely nothing to people outside the ka-tet. Getting that sense of friendship and closeness is very rare in fiction. Irvine Welsh, who is mentioned in Mahoney’s piece, has always tried to do this in his books: the novel Glue sprung from a bizarre conversation the main characters have in a Munich pub. Alan Warner is another writer who understands the oral tradition. As Sophy Dale explains in her essential commentary, Warner’s Morvern Callar is driven by storytelling and anecdote. It’s this vibrant oral culture that keeps Callar’s impoverished coastal town alive. The narrator is unimpressed by two London publishing professionals because ‘they didn’t tell stories they just discussed.’

So often lazily and snobbishly parodied, the dialogue of Irvine Welsh is one of the closest fictional representations of the song of human speech. And at its best, fuelled by drink and passion, human speech is a kind of song. Walk through the city on a crowded early evening and you will hear it, all around you, like the birds in the trees, the human music that people don’t know they make. 

Maloney’s article is well written but he sets up a false dilemma between creating realistic dialogue and driving the narrative. It’s not either/or but both or neither because stories are driven by the way people interact – by the way people talk. Dialogue was one of the hardest things I learned to do as a writer, almost as hard as cutting. Nowadays, whenever and wherever I’m out, I’m always listening for the song.

Malcolm Tucker: king of dialogue.

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