Vanishing - Dialogue That Kills The Joy

Vanishing: a novel


written by gregor woodward

As immortalized in the movie the end of the tour, david foster wallace once gave his creative writing students some snarky advice---if you want your narrator to seem funny and clever, have him say funny, clever things sometimes.  Dialogue is notoriously tricky for authors. How do people really speak? What’s the difference, exactly, between rural tennessee and south boston slang? Done well, dialogue runs ahead of a character, introducing them to the reader and dropping hints on hidden thoughts, unconscious biases, concealed passions.  Skilled subtext keeps expository paragraphs from invading the story and mucking it up with endless rehashings of ‘he was sad, he was angry, he felt a surge of joy, he grew bitter as a jilted lover.’ No need to actually spell out your character’s inner conviction in black and white when you have him say, ‘I’m your huckleberry.’  Clunky dialogue, on the other hand, poisons all the relationships among characters. Sincerity is drowned out by everyone wincing anytime there’s a quotation mark. ‘Boy, I really quite believe in you,’ says sam, and suddenly what do we care if he and frodo make it to mordor together?

Fantasy books are especially finicky.  Should the characters talk like regular people or not?  A forest elf on a quest to reunite the magic sword and the rightful king probably should sound different from the college grad at your local starbucks somehow.  Stray too far into fantasy lingo and pretty soon the reader’s hurled the book across the room, shouting, ‘no one says camoufleur! He’s a spy, goddammit, a spy!’   

Vanishing, a novel by gregor woodward, is a story about Idon’tknowwhat because I didn’t get past page 7.  It opens with the narrator, our aforementioned camoufleur, waking up in a cell as a guard enters to do something or other.  It’s probably irresponsible to review this having only read a couple pages. But so anyway we’re concerned just with a few exchanges that lurch along on square wheels.  For instance,

‘By the way,’ I said, ‘I think it’s quite ridiculous that you should think it necessary to have an armed escort when you come to my cell.  What sort of person do you think I am?’

Davies smiled again.  ‘That is precisely what I’m here to find out.  In the meantime, you musn’t mind the guards. This is a high-security establishment.  Armed guards are the norm.’

So our narrator sees himself as an honorable man who would never do something as base as escaping his cell.  There’s a victorian england flair to him (makes sense, woodward’s english), a clumsy evocation of austen or bronte.  Most of the genre labors under tolkien’s long, undying shadow, including a certain oldfashioned english sensibility in the dialogue.  It’s quagmire, though, unless you really have an ear for it. From jonathan strange and mr norrell, by susanna clarke,

There was a short silence during which time Mr Norrell found it impossible to meet Strange’s eye.  ‘What do you want from me?’ he asked in a low voice.

‘Only what I have always wanted --- your help.’

‘To break the enchantments?’


Mr Norrell considered this for a moment.  ‘The hundredth anniversary of an enchantment is often most auspicious,’ he said.  ‘There are several rites and passages…’

‘Thank you,’ said Strange, with more than a tinge of his old sarcastic manner, ‘but I believe I was hoping for something a little more immediate in its effect.’

The currents of the magicians’ friendship show up easily between the lines.  Strange is the bolder, but still solicitous of his former master’s advice; Norrell has trouble being practical, often lost in rhetorical details, but bounds of skill.  Clearly there has been some terrible wrong between them Norrell is afraid to confront, that Strange waves away. There’s a deep connection hiding under whatever current confusion they have.  Estranged friends and partners now collaborating again. And it’s fun to read.

You might define a book’s difficulty by how much digging the reader has to do by design.  The language might be dense or open or fancy or plain, but if it intentionally makes the reader work, it’s a hard book.  E.g. the sound and the fury’s opening paragraph,

Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting.  They were coming toward where the flag was and I went along the fence. Luster was hunting in the grass by the flower tree.  They took the flag out, and they were hitting. Then they put the flag back and they went to the table, and he hit and the other hit.  Then they went on, and I went along the fence. Luster came away from the flower tree and we went along the fence and they stopped and we stopped and I looked through the fence while Luster was hunting in the grass.

Nothing’s more than two syllables, there aren’t any wacky/bizarre/alien words, and yet it’s clear as mud.  I made it about a dozen pages, hypothesizing furiously until steam poured out my ears----who’s Luster? what are they hitting? okay so the narrator’s a toddler no wait adult with developmental troubles, and he’s white no black no definitely white maybe----before tossing it aside in defeat.  It’s frustrating to read a book that’s smarter than you, but the striving and the tears can sometimes stoke some buried ambitions, pull you up to new heights of readership and accomplishment. Aha, you say, I read that.  But opacity-by-clumsiness is something else.  It’s infuriating to play detective because the author dressed their characters in garish, makebelieve discourse.  Reading

‘Lieutenant Brill,’ he said, in quietly amused officer tones, making it obvious he recognized my fakery, ‘your snoring is most convincing, but I could see your eye was open as I entered the room.’

is a constant reminder that you’re reading fantasy characters.  Who can melt away into the story when everyone’s talking like 7th-graders trying to be prude victorians in the school play?  You want characters to talk like themselves (jk rowling is as good as it gets here: harry talks like harry, dumbledore talks like dumbledore, snape talks like snape, and each person feels true and individual and believable).

And that’s the one sin that most good writers commit but great writers never do.  A great writer makes you forget you’re reading a book. It’s just the story rolling off the pages and straight into your imagination like a beautifully rich, detailed, guided daydream.  There’s no awareness of consuming words, of the endless swiveling of your eyes, just a story unfolding itself for you. In real life, we constantly read facial cues and body language and all the delicious subtext that makes interaction exciting.  Give a character just the right words, just the right description, and they can live for us. Easier said than done.

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