Tuesday, September 29, 2009

One reading suggestion

No news today on my own book. Just know that I'm still working on it, everday. Thought I would share a word about a historical novel I'm reading at the moment. Peter Carey's True Hisrtory of the Kelly Gang. Mr. Carey will be a visiting writer at my university next month, so I'm catching up on his work. And I'm happy to read any well-written historical novel while I'm busy on a historical novel of my own. If you don't know Carey's work, you should. He's won the Booker Prize--twice (!).

What I'm finding especially interesting about Kelly Gang is Carey's approach to the narrator's voice. How to capture historical speech is a question every writer of historical fiction has to struggle with, and I've sat in on more than one AWP session in which this exact question comes up. There are different schools of thought. Some think you need to imitate as best you can how people actually spoke during the period depicted. Others ask: Yes, but how can you know? We don't have voice recordings from Elizabethan England, for instance. We only have written documents. And as we all know, written documents--especially from an age in which most people did not write--are hardly a reliable indicator of how the general public spoke. Finally, I think, it's just got to feel right to the reader. If your best attempt at earlier speech patterns comes across as a forced or clownishly bad imitation, the reader could dump the whole novel for no other reason. In my book, I'm avoiding modern slang but I'm more or less making the speech patterns sound like our own. Why? Because in conversations I'm trying to transmit the emotional nature of those conversations: relaxed, angry, whimsical, questioning, etc. For a modern reader to hear a conversation as relaxed the diction and sentence structure must sound relaxed in his/her ear. Using outworn constructions won't come across as relaxed.

But here's the thing. In Kelly Gang, Carey is imitating past written speech. (19th c.) More than that, it's the written speech of a only barely literate, if intelligent, person. He gives himself an extra hard chore. Not only does it have to sound like believable 19th c. writing but the 19th c. writing of a near-illiterate. (And it is meant to be read as writing--something expressly put down on paper--not simply the narrator's consciousness. The premise of the novel is that these writings were found bound in packets and are being presented to the reader.) It's a pleasure to watch on the page as paragraph after paragraph Carey confronts this challenge. He employs an interesting and nearly convincing combination of atrocious grammar, almost non-existent punctuation, and the occasionally archaic or ornate sounding word (e.g., "adjectival"). The point of that latter, I'm assuming, is to remind the reader what century the book is set in. But, too, it feels intuitively right. How many people with poor writing skills can at the same time demonstrate ornate, even flowery speaking styles? There's some of that in this narrator, who is of course not speaking but writing. But he writes in a verbal style, his narrative directed at a specific listener inside the world of the story, not at a general reader. Check this one out, especially if you like novels with unique narrative voices.


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