Ebb and flow, emotional highs and lows, focus and implication, dialogue and gesture, a drawn-out event, the management of multiple characters, viewpoints and a plurality of names and faces: these are the elements that challenge. And this is the season for them: parties, dinners, and gatherings of friends and family in parks for music and fireworks, at Christmas and the cusp of the old and the new year.
Some years’ back, Amanda Lohrey, the Australian novelist and essayist and 2012 winner of the Patrick White Literary Award, said that writing a party was a challenge to the writer. By which I understood her to mean social events in which the writer has to manage the talk and movement and desires of multiple characters, minor and major in the same rooms at the same time. I was in my first year of the brand new MA in writing at University of Technology, Sydney, when Lohrey, Stephen Muecke and the late Glenda Adams were the lecturers. Amanda was talking to the seminar of about twenty students from scant notes, in her husky, melodious voice. It was the early ‘90s and Lohrey was then the author of just two works of fiction, The Morality of Gentlemen and The Reading Group. Her publisher Pan Picador had settled out of court over a supposedly libelous representation in The Reading Group of a Tasmanian MP. Copies of the novel had been pulped and reissued. While she seemed profoundly wise about writing to me, in hindsight I can see that as an emerging novelist, she was probably struggling with all the usual technical and aesthetic challenges that practice doesn’t make perfect, but can make better. Both these novels are works of social and political commentary, and the group referred to in TRG is a political reading group, not a Tuesday night style of book club. I don’t recall her saying what the solution to writing party or dinner scenes was; her point was to have us think about ways to approach writing them.
In Lohrey’s 1996 novel Camille’s Bread (Harper Collins 2005), one of the two protagonists, Stephen, is described going about his public service work in the vaguely identified office of ‘Internal Check’. Stephen is on a macrobiotic diet and spiritual path, and there’s implicit humour created in how he negotiates this in his un-attuned workplace. In the short extract that follows, the scene of the union meeting shows Stephen’s internalised radically different belief systems at play. Stephen has clocked on at ‘8.49’ and said hello to his co-worker Sanjay, who was ‘already nursing his polystyrene cup of caffeine poisoning.’ Now, at,
‘…9.01 I take the lift to the twenty-third floor for the monthly meeting of union delegates. I sit next to Frank, who’s already coughing with the chain-smoker’s cough; the attacking buzzsaw. He’s the most senior officer amongst us and unlike most senior officers is still very pro-union. He tells us there is a recruitment day coming up at the Parramatta branch and asks for volunteers. The idea is to cruise around the offices in pairs, speaking to clerks and persuading them of the righteousness of joining the union. I put my name down. Wednesday the nineteenth. I plan my strategy in the lift on the way down to the ninth floor. I’ll take a soft line, soft because everything must be consonant with my spiritual path. This is the Chinese way: unleash the forces and let them take their own own path. Never raise the voice. Never push. Not that I don’t appreciate a good lair. Danny, for instance, the delegate from Tax. He strolls into management in his striped red shorts and gym boots and when they patiently explain about government cutbacks he explodes…’ (pp10-11)
Lohrey summarises the meeting rather than show it replete with all its participants, focusing on the element that’s dominant for Stephen, that is, the senior officer Frank’s call for volunteers. The ‘free indirect discourse’ incorporated into the narrative conveys Frank’s words, and then the ‘indirect discourse’ conveys Stephen’s interpretation of Franks’ words: ‘He tells us there is a recruitment day coming up at the Parramatta branch.’ That’s Frank speaking. Then we’re given Stephen’s ironic revoicing of Frank’s directives: ‘The idea is to cruise around the offices in pairs, speaking to clerks and persuading them of the righteousness of joining the union.’ The reader knows this to be Stephen’s paraphrasing of Frank’s words. We have already been introduced to his perspectives and voice, and briefly introduced to Frank as remaining very ‘pro-union’ and thus unlikely to take an ironic tone. In this way, free indirect speech and interior monologue work together to create the texture of the event through Stephen’s eyes (i.e. ‘focalisation’).
The setting of the meeting has been conveyed briefly through details of the lift up to the twenty-third floor and the regularity of the meeting (monthly), and the lift back down to the ninth floor. The setting is the anonymous, slow office block. Throughout the chapter, Lohrey has been visualising the workplace using Stephen’s movements through the building (his desk, the lifts, the toilet, in the staff kitchen etc) as cues for description.
Carol Shields’ (sadly, my second late author in this blog) named her book Larry’s Party (4th Estate, 1998) after its penultimate chapter ‘Larry’s Party 1997’. There’s much fun to be had reading this chapter (and much to learn), which begins, ‘Unless your life is going well you don’t dream of giving a party. Unless you can look in the mirror and see a benign and generous and healthy human being, you shrink from acts of hospitality. Which is why Larry Weller has not given a party in some time.’
Reading this chapter can teach us that for a complex event such as a party (or gathering, meeting, etc), a range of narrative strategies can be used by the writer to evoke the emotional fluctuations and rhythms of discourse, the movment of bodies, the slow or quick passing of time, and characters at emotional or ideological variance with each other. In this way, the underlying and important themes that the writer might be striving for can be conveyed in ways that are not didactic or predictable.
Larry’s party is going to challenge him in a number of ways. Logistically, he knows it will be a feat for him to serve dinner for nine people when he is used to cooking for two, but there’s also the wives worrying him: ‘Two ex-wives in Toronto on the same weekend.’ His girlfriend, Charlotte Angus, promises to ‘pitch in and help’, ‘if you’d like me to that is.’ So, the preparation for the party becomes a joint effort, though it remains Larry’s party. The chapter ambles towards the actual event, luxuriating as it can and should in being the last chapter and in no hurry to reach its dénouement. Larry and Charlotte prepare for the night with discussions about who to invite and what food to serve, and there’s time for Larry’s reflections on his past and what has come before in the tale, Larry’s Party.
The chapter includes Larry’s hand-written trial menu and his uncertain question marks; a few pages later there is a map to Larry’s place (presumably for Beth who is arriving from England), and a few pages further again, a seating plan which Larry has sweated over. The seating plan also helps the reader navigate the dialogue, for once the guests arrive the chapter increasingly relies on what is said, with fluid streams of dialogue (‘direct discourse’) between the guests. The absence of dialogue tags (which identify the speaker) enhances the pace and the sense of immediacy. The short lines and absent dialogue tags are also an aid to the representation of quick repartee and the interrupted, digressive conversation typical of a scene where guest are arriving. Clues are given, however, with speakers mentioning each others’ names for instance, when the two ex-wives meet (308):
‘Well, well. So you’re Dorrie.’
‘So you’re Beth.’
‘This is it – I don’t know what to say – it’s incredible.’
And, with further guests arriving, we realise that it is Charlotte addressing Larry, and we can also guess that Larry is too late in answering the door (309):
‘Was that the doorbell, Larry? Why don’t you let me get it this time?’
‘Midge! [Larry’s sister] Ian!’ You’re just in time.’
‘We let ourselves in.’
‘Larry was about to propose a toast.’ [Charlotte to Midge and Ian]
‘You look stunning, Charlotte.’ [Midge to Charlotte]
‘Take a glass. And one for you, Ian.’ [Charlotte? Larry?]
Through this stream of speech, the reader is shown the physical gestures and movements of people in the scene, without narrative explanation (such as, ‘Midge and Ian entered room.’) and without dialogue tags.
Elsewhere, Larry takes stock of his party and his feelings. The narrative focalisation is intensely Larry’s (which it was not in the dialogues between guests). Larry’s ideas and feelings are the focus here, conveyed through description, and his particular metaphoric language (e.g. ‘collapsing, turning rigid’, ‘membrane’).
‘But, of course, it isn’t simple at all – and he realises this now looking around the softly lit table, his friends, this gathering of strangers and kin – and three women he has know so well, known – and feeling the party, his first and only party, slipping sideways, collapsing, turning rigid. Shouldn’t a party loosen ordinary human bonds? Good question.
At this moment Larry is feeling the opposite, that the membrane between people is tougher than he’d imagined…’ (316)
David Lodge in The Art of Fiction, has a useful paragraph on this technique (43): There are two staple techniques for representing consciousness in prose fiction. One is interior monologue, in which the grammatical subject of the discourse is an “I”, and we, as it were, overhear the character verbalising his or her thoughts as they occur […] The other method, called free indirect style […] renders though as reported speech (in third person, past tense) but keeps to the kind of vocabulary that is appropriate to the character, and deletes some of the tags, like ‘she thought’, ‘she wondered’, ‘she asked herself’ etc that a more formal narrative would require. This gives the illusion of intimate access to a character’s mind, but without totally surrendering authorial participation in the discourse.’
The guests’ talk loosens, characterised by drifts of absurdist conversational riffs. Interruption, incompletion, things implied and left unsaid are the characteristics of these dinner party speech scenes. Much of the talk at Larry’s party is about the relationship between men and women (it is 1997 after all). In places we know who is speaking, other times we must guess, or just let the words and ideas wash over us (323-324):
‘What resentment is this?’
‘The natural hatred men feel for women once the women have done their reproductive duty. It’s Darwinian.’
‘I love women.’
‘So do I. Marcia and I –‘
‘So that’s why we’re in therapy as I speak.’
‘Marcia, for God’s sake –‘
‘I can’t seem to stop embarrassing him. It’s like an addiction. Something I’ve got to do.’
‘We all have some form of addiction. Where I work we –‘
‘But you haven’t heard the worst part…’
Shields also uses narrative summary and ‘indirect discourse’, to paraphrase the conversations. For instance here we have Larry’s reflecting on the womens’ conversation. Two things are happening here, we both learn what the women are speaking about but also and more importantly, we are being given the sense of Larry’s response. Their ease produces in him a feeling of loss and unease (330):
‘the voices of these women form a cloud of lightness over the table. Now they’re talking about the importing of unpasteurized cheese. Now they’ve switched to the benefits of train travel over air, to the national breast cancer movement, to David Cronenberg movies, to Karen Kain’s retirement. This is a kind of intricate dance they’re conducting, or else it’s a spider’s web. Where would his life be without women? A stone guest at his own party. That’s the truth of the matter. Filling a slot.’
As the chapter continues the membrane between these people turns out to be more fragile or elastic than Larry has imagined in his gloomy, anxious earlier moment. The relationships between the guests realign considerably. The god of writing has taken Larry’s seating plan, and moved the guests into surprising, new and yet entirely plausible intimacies by the end of the night.
In my next Writerly Reader post, I will be looking at this same (deliciously inexhaustable) topic in another couple of novels, including The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. In the meantime, if you enjoy a writing challenge take a look at my writing exercise and outline of kinds of speech: How many ways can you write, looking at me punk? Exercise.