Deception and Evasion

For some strange reason we often associate creative literature with truth, yet novels and plays are full of characters who fail to tell it, deliberately avoid it, prefer to tell what they wish was the case rather than what actually is. Plays by Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, like those by Chekhov and Ibsen, typify what we might call the literature of evasion. The truth, of course, finally gets spoken, but not until a voice for it can be found. In terms of structure their plays are about discovering that voice, but sometimes the reverse happens, and we hear an especially courageous voice begin to founder and almost silence itself. The voices in Beckett's plays seem to prefer silence. Another voice known for its bleakness and humour is that of Holden Caulfield in Salinger's novel The Catcher In The Rye:

I thought what I'd do was, I'd pretend I was one of those deaf mutes. That way I wouldn't have to have any goddam stupid useless conversation with anybody. If anybody wanted to tell me something, they'd have to write it on a piece of paper and shove it over to me. They'd get bored as hell doing that after a while, and then I'd be through with having conversations for the rest of my life. Everybody'd think I was just a poor deaf-mute bastard and they'd leave me alone.

(Salinger, 1995:178-9)

Holden's ideal world is without voices—even without his own. Even so, we can hear his voice speaking. His bond with the reader overrides his desire to stop communicating. It goes on despite his urge to escape to a permanent deaf-mute state. The voice we recognise—slangy, immediate, often perverse—speaks to us even when he explains he'd rather not. To neutralise one's voice, as here, could be a form of cancelling out one's story. Holden hasn't committed vocal suicide, even though the story he tells contains moments when he's seriously tempted.

In the following extract from a novel by Tim O'Brien, In The Lake of the Woods, again the setting is the United States, and the voices project an imagined alternative space, an ideal:

As a kind of game they would sometimes make up lists of romantic places to travel.

'Verona,' Kathy would say, 'I'd love to spend a few days in Verona.' And then for a long while they would talk about Verona, the things they would see and do, trying to make it real in their minds. All around them the fog moved in low and fat off the lake, and their voices would seem to flow away for a time and then return to them from somewhere in the woods beyond the porch...

They would go on talking about the fine old churches of Verona, the museums and outdoor cafes where they would drink strong coffee and eat pastries. They invented happy stories for each other A late-night train-ride to Florence, or maybe north into the mountains, or maybe Venice, and then back to Verona, where there was no defeat and nothing in real life ever ended badly. For both of them it was a wishing game. They envisioned happiness as a physical place on the earth, a secret country, perhaps, or an exotic foreign capital with bizarre customs and a different new language. To live there would require practice and many changes, but they were willing to learn.

These two characters create a world—they call it 'Verona'—simply by talking about it. It becomes their own 'secret country' an 'envisioned happiness'. It's important, of course, that they don't actually go to the real place, don't make actual, practical plans. Would they agree with the author's explanation—that their talk hardly amounts to more than 'a wishing game'? They probably would. His voice overlaps with theirs. They half-know, half-suspect this Verona is an evasion, an easy escape-route. From what? They probably wouldn't be willing or ready to say. Voices can be used to show concealment; sometimes this is precisely what speech is about.

This merging of the writer's voice with the voices of characters in fiction is known as free indirect speech, a valuable device in third person narrative, as shown above. As readers it keeps our attention where it should be, not on the writer's views and opinions, but on the characters in the story. We listen to them, engage with what is happening in their minds below the level of conscious, articulate speech. The writer enables us to see, hear and feel their hidden sensations, first intimations (for example) of doubt or of desire, before these become conscious or can be spoken about directly.

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  • piotr
    Can anyone explain tim obriens writing style from in the lake in the woods?
    8 years ago

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